We all know that "a stitch in time saves nine" and "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure", but sometimes the opposite is true. A stitch before its time is a waste of time and thread. If you wash your car right before you go off-roading, you're basically throwing soap away.

I've heard the phrase "you ain't gonna need it" in software development circles related to this sort of situation, but I'm looking for a more mainstream idiom, proverb, or cliché, if there is one.

The situation would be someone who is expending a lot of time or resources on something that might in some situations be a good investment, or even seems like a good investment at the time, but ultimately it doesn't pay off.

8 Answers 8


In software developer circles gold plating refers to putting effort into a feature or product when it's no longer adding value. Wikipedia has a short article on this.

  • Preaching to the choir. Burning daylight. Arguing with a wooden Indian. Whistling up the wind. Hollering down a well. ...a lot of them. Best wishes. Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 23:26

"Gilding the Lily" is close - trying to improve on something already beautiful. It doesn't really address the time wasting aspect.

"Don't make a mountain out of a molehill" is a phrase for overcomplication or exaggerating is key.

"Wearing both Belt and Suspenders" is one that fits the "being too cautious"

  • IMO "belt and suspenders" describes the usual good practice for telecom providers: when you pick up the phone in an emergency you always want to hear a dial tone; so for example having two emergency generators at the network exchange.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jul 16, 2015 at 15:20

One might say “Don't overcomplicate this”, or “Don't overthink this”, where overcomplicate is a verb meaning “To make something excessively complicated” and overthink is a verb meaning “To think or analyze too much”. Wiktionary gives the following example:

Don't overthink the problem. It's not that difficult.

The phrase “A stitch before its time” in the question perhaps suggests admonishments about premature optimization. Quoting from Knuth:

The real problem is that programmers have spent far too much time worrying about efficiency in the wrong places and at the wrong times; premature optimization is the root of all evil (or at least most of it) in programming. – 1974 Turing Award Lecture, Communications of the ACM 17 (12), (December 1974), p. 671

— As seen in wikiquotes, but with emphasis added.

It also suggests a phrase (which was mentioned, but deleted, by moonstar2001): Putting the cart before the horse. Thefreedictionary.com offers the following definition and example for this phrase:

to do things in the wrong order. Deciding what to wear before you've even been invited to the party is rather putting the cart before the horse, isn't it?

Wikipedia says, inter alia, that putting the cart before the horse means doing things the wrong way round or with the wrong emphasis.


Wild goose chase

Someone going on a wild goose chase spends a lot of time on a futile pursuit.

Wiktionary also suggests merry dance.

  • A useless waste of time resulting from a deception.

The children led us on a merry dance with their stories of strangers and shadows in the night.


"overcooking" is popular in government circles. If you search the right forums for the coarser variety of "polishing" metaphor you'll probably find what you're looking for.


People can get caught up in "Analysis Paralysis" - i.e., spending an unreasonable amount of time and effort trying to perfect their approach/solution, often before taking any material action, such that (from an outsider's perspective) they are too far into the area of diminishing returns.


I think dillydally is the word you are looking for.

dillydally- means to waste time by delaying or loitering; to move or act slowly


Stop dillydallying! You need to submit those reports in the afternoon.
Sean, you're dillydallying. Focus on your assignment.


Time suck

From Dictionary.com:

something that takes up too much of one's time

It is certainly informal, but could be used as:

After two weeks and little progress, it was apparent that the project was becoming a time suck.

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