English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

What one phrase or idiom describes situations (see examples below), in which people funnel their efforts in the wrong direction?

A boy wants to have a cup of coffee, so he buys a notebook in a stationery store and starts writing 100 times on each page "A cup of coffee", hoping that he is going to get a cup of coffee in this way. However, he never bothers to go to the kitchen and see if he can simply prepare coffee for himself in the kitchen...

A band is going to have a concert tomorrow, but they are not ready yet – they still need to rehearse more. So, instead of rehearsing they simply try to re-arrange the chairs on which they are sitting, hoping that the proper arrangement of chairs will ensure their perfect performance on the next day.

A girl wants to learn how to swim. So she reads tons of books about swimming – how to build swimming pools, biographies of famous swimmers – yet she never even tries swimming by herself...

share|improve this question
Related: Is there an American English equivalent of the British idiom "carrying coals to Newcastle"? (this question addresses a futile activity or one that needn't be done, which might be different from what you're asking) – aedia λ Aug 28 '11 at 4:47
@brilliant: Do the answers in the above question help you? Or would you like something different? – simchona Aug 28 '11 at 4:54
@simchona - Wow!!! There are so many of them there! Yes, I think I've got what I want. – brilliant Aug 28 '11 at 5:01
@aedia λ - Thanks for that link. Very helpful! – brilliant Aug 28 '11 at 5:02
up vote 6 down vote accepted

An option is trying to carry water in a sieve. As this book explains, it means:

to try to achieve a goal in a manner that dooms the action to failure, using a totally inappropriate means for attaining this objective

That is, it means to do something futile. Examples of this phrase (in various wordings) in use are:

It doesn't look like I've accomplished anything today. I might as well have been carrying water in a sieve.

So, you could use this to describe the people. For example, you would say that

the band trying to make themselves ready by arranging their chairs properly are trying to carry water with a sieve


The girl is trying to swim by reading books. She may as well be carrying water in a sieve.

Another option is barking up the wrong tree, or:

Pursue the wrong thing; to take the wrong approach.

Don't ask me for a pay raise. You're barking up the wrong tree. I have no authority to give anybody a pay raise.

However, this phrase has the connotation of being a bit more aggressive than the previous one. If you are judging the people who are doing the wrong thing, then you can definitely use this phrase. But, if you want to take more of a neutral tone, I would recommend the first phrase.

share|improve this answer
Woman, you know everything! – Phonics The Hedgehog Aug 28 '11 at 4:44
Thank you!!!!!! – brilliant Aug 28 '11 at 5:02
To "carry water in a sieve" is a Russian idiom, not English. I do like "barking up the wrong tree", though. – Kyle Pearson Aug 28 '11 at 5:07
@Kyle You can use it in English, though, and it is included in dictionaries of English idioms. – simchona Aug 28 '11 at 5:09
I actually really like "barking up the wrong tree" for the situations @brilliant listed. It doesn't cover the aspect of wasting time, but it does indicate that we judge they've directed their efforts the wrong way. – aedia λ Aug 28 '11 at 5:10

If the people concerned are fussing over details while ignoring the big picture, you might say they are bikeshedding:

implies technical disputes over minor, marginal issues conducted while more serious ones are being overlooked. The implied image is of people arguing over what color to paint the bicycle shed while the house is not finished.

share|improve this answer

From the examples you give, i can think of a few:

  • misguided efforts
  • benighted attempts
  • foolish reasoning

and so on. Pretty much anything you want to come up with will do, i think.

As for idioms...perhaps

  • going about things in the wrong way
  • banging their heads against a wall",
  • flailing about in the dark
share|improve this answer

succumbing to the sunk cost dilemma. Here's the link:


share|improve this answer
I don't think it will fit in the examples in my question. – brilliant Feb 8 '12 at 13:04
True, but it fit the title to a 'T', so I thought it worth mentioning. – Hexagon Tiling Feb 9 '12 at 13:32

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.