Can anyone point to an eloquent word or term that means "will consume time and almost certainly yield nothing"?

Could be used in response to:

I'm going to have one of the developers contact Apple and ask them to add a new feature to Apple Maps.

The effort has a tiny chance of being successful, but if you knew how the sausage was made, you'd know that asking the question isn't even worth the time.

At first I thought "invading Russia" might have been apt, but that kind of implies that you're going in with a lot of firepower only to slowly lose and retreat. It's also competitive in nature. That's more more appropriate if someone said "I think we can take Amazon.com head on."

The only other thing that came to mind was "mining for unobtanium". I'm open for better, though.

  • Not terribly eloquent, but I'd say "You're spinning your wheels".
    – JeffSahol
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 19:49
  • 4
    "Waste of time" is a very literal phrase that came to mind. Your question seems to be looking for a phrase which indicates it will consume a significant amount of time, although your first example does not - an apple maps feature request is probably just a short email that will probably never get a response.
    – Patrick M
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 21:22
  • Calling Apple to ask for a new feature for Apple Maps would be folly?
    – mkoistinen
    Commented Aug 10, 2013 at 9:22
  • 2
    Is tvtropes.org a valid answer? Commented Aug 12, 2013 at 7:23

18 Answers 18


"Exercise in futility" is an idiomatic term that describes that scenario.

Definition: a useless action that cannot succeed

Response to: "I'm going to have one of the developers contact Apple and ask them to add a new feature to Apple Maps."

"That would be an exercise in futility!"

  • I think this all of these are good answers, but this is the one I could most likely see myself saying. Thank you!
    – Anthony
    Commented Aug 15, 2013 at 14:07
  • @Anthony, Thanks! BTW, I love your "mining for unobtanium". I can't wait to use that! :-) Commented Aug 15, 2013 at 14:53

You could perhaps call it a wild goose chase:-

a worthless hunt or chase; a futile pursuit.

  • While the other ones seem correct, I agree with this one more. While some may actually say "exercise in futility", how often do you hear that over "wild goose chase"?
    – yuritsuki
    Commented Aug 10, 2013 at 1:51
  • @Retrosaur: I think both suggestions are good, and both are heard often enough. The Ngram is mighty interesting.
    – J.R.
    Commented Aug 10, 2013 at 19:20
  • 3
    A "wild goose chase" by definition implies that you're looking for something, so it's not as universally applicable. Commented Aug 11, 2013 at 9:47
  • Compared with "rigmarole" the curves seem to have crossed in the 70s.
    – djs
    Commented Dec 9, 2018 at 11:59

A fool’s errand came to mind. Definition:

An attempt to do something that has no chance of success.
Billions of dollars have been spent on long-range weather forecasting, but it’s a fool’s errand.


The first phrase that came to mind for me is "time sink"

1.(informal) Something that consumes a great deal of time, usually with little benefit; a waste of time.

Almost matches your definition word for word.


In a word, I'd recommend Sisyphean:

Sisyphean (not comparable)

  1. Incessant or incessantly recurring, but futile.
    Sisyphean labors

source: wiktionary.org

For example:

A: I'm going to have one of the developers contact Apple and ask them to add a new feature to Apple Maps.
B: That's seems like a Sisyphean task.

  • 4
    Best by far, in my books. All the others are a bit common. Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 20:46
  • Sysyphus: noun, Classical Mythology; a son of Aeolus and ruler of Corinth, noted for his trickery: he was punished in Tartarus by being compelled to roll a stone to the top of a slope, the stone always escaping him near the top and rolling down again (dictionary.reference.com/browse/Sisyphus?s=t) Commented Aug 10, 2013 at 1:42
  • 6
    I disagree. As your definition already says, this refers to an incessant or incessantly recurring situation. I don't think it fits very well with the example given in the question (having someone contact Apple about a new feature).
    – us2012
    Commented Aug 10, 2013 at 2:20
  • 3
    I agree. A Sisyphean task might not in itself be very time-consuming (though requesting an Apple maps feature isn’t really either, as has already been pointed out): it is the difficulty and repetition of the task that makes it Sisyphean. Commented Aug 10, 2013 at 3:02
  • 1
    @Pieter: What's wrong with common?
    – J.R.
    Commented Aug 11, 2013 at 0:19

This is a classic hiding to nothing.

British be unlikely to succeed, or be unlikely to gain much advantage if one does:
politically we are on a hiding to nothing in the long run

ODO indicates the origin lies in a horse winning a race easily but without much kudos — but this may mean making a supreme effort and finishing many lengths in front, only to be derided for the quality of the competition. In any case, the expression now indicates putting in effort with little hope of return.

  • I'd never made the connection with horse racing - in that case, does "hiding" refer to the jockey using his whip a lot, i.e. taking the hide off the horse?
    – MT_Head
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 19:32
  • @MT ODO indicates that the hide part is the hide/skin. But I've no idea what it originally meant or how the expression has morphed into what it means today.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 20:12
  • I know when a horse is expected to win betting on them is worthless because of the odds. "skin in the game" means you've put money on something so perhaps the terms are related? Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 21:07
  • Flogging a dead horse? Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 22:41
  • 4
    So you know, this is not a phrase in use in American English.
    – Joe
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 23:24


4. of little or no weight, worth, or importance

A: "I think we can take Amazon.com head on."

B: "That would be frivolous."


Fruitless toil. The fruitlessness of toil is inevitable unless it springs from a motive which in itself is sufficient, pursues a purpose which will surely be accomplished, and is done in hope of the world where our works do follow us.

  • 1
    +1 I was going to post "fruitless labor," close enough. Commented Aug 11, 2013 at 8:24
  • I was thinking "fruitless endeavor." Well-put.
    – David G
    Commented Aug 14, 2013 at 18:40

The first that come to mind are

You're spinning your wheels

A wild goose chase.

An exercise in futility

A waste of breath

  • 1
    -1 Usually answers should provide alternatives to ones that have been previously suggested. Only the last one in your list is an "original" answer and there is no link to check its meaning.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Aug 10, 2013 at 0:58

An old expression: "Shovelling sand against the tide."

It means you're doing a lot of work, and in six hours, nobody will be able to tell.


The term that I've heard to describe things like this is "Pounding sand down a rathole", which is a meaningless or fruitless activity.


No one knows how deep that rabbit hole goes.

Chasing a rabbit down a hole.

Pound sand.

  • I think you'll find that pound sand is short for "go pound sand up your ass" - an extremely rude way of telling someone to go away and leave you alone - and if you use it in any other way, people will be confused and offended.
    – MT_Head
    Commented Aug 17, 2013 at 2:35

A bit more blunt, but meaningless and futile springs to mind.


Sounds like the idea of approaching Apple is "only inviting cognitive dissonance." Cognitive dissonance says the human species cannot entertain two conflicting or contrary ideas in their minds at the same time without experiencing dis-ease, which is eased by coming up with rationalizations why they are better off choosing one option over another option, or options.

Those who invest time in an almost certainly futile task sometimes refuse to give up BECAUSE they've invested so much time in the task. Enter, cognitive dissonance:

"I can't be crazy for investing this amount of time on something futile, but I'd be crazy to give up now."

So the person decides to keep on trying--against all odds!

A more sensible approach is simply to "cut one's losses," give up, and chalk it up to experience. Not to take the sensible approach and, instead, do the same thing over and over again expecting a different result is Albert Einstein's definition of insanity.

Sometimes the human species isn't so much the rational animal, we're the rationalizing animal!


In Australian vernacular English, such an exercise might be described as a “wombat”: Waste Of Money, Brains And Time.


Related to wild goose chase and fool's errand is another phrase: bootless errand

Brewer's dictionary definition goes like this: An unprofitable or futile message. The Saxon bot means “reparation”—“overplus to profit”; as “I will give you that to boot”; “what boots it me?” (what does it profit me?).


Wave a dead chicken over it.

I'm adding this one largely for comedy value.

To perform a ritual in the direction of crashed software or hardware that one believes to be futile but is nevertheless necessary so that others are satisfied that an appropriate degree of effort has been expended. "I'll wave a dead chicken over the source code, but I really think we've run into an OS bug".

Thanks to foldoc.org for that!


Vanity, Vain

It will be a vain attempt.

Nothing good will come of it.

  • I would question whether vanity implies the "consumption of time" as in the question.
    – TrevorD
    Commented Aug 10, 2013 at 14:17
  • Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.
    – Julie
    Commented Aug 11, 2013 at 9:21
  • Here is a quote in which uses vanity to describe the passage of time. I believe it to be the most well known vanity quote: "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun?... The sun riseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.....and there is no new thing under the sun."
    – Julie
    Commented Aug 11, 2013 at 9:29
  • How does that address the question of a Term for “will consume time and almost certainly yield nothing”? in the context of a response to: "I'm going to have one of the developers contact Apple and ask them to add a new feature to Apple Maps."?
    – TrevorD
    Commented Aug 11, 2013 at 10:51
  • "That would be an unfruitful expenditure. All of your work would be in vain. Your time would not be well spent. It will be a time-sucker. The door will be closed before you come to it.
    – Julie
    Commented Aug 11, 2013 at 11:16

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