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I'm basically searching for the opposite of putting all your eggs in one basket, where the risk is total failure because you did not hedge your efforts. I'm searching for a phrase that encompasses splitting your efforts and evokes the prospect of failing at both. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush also encompasses a sense of having focused your efforts, but only alludes to total failure.

To satisfy the criteria, the phrase must cover:

  • attempting two things (or multiple iterations of one thing)
  • both of which you might succeed at, if you addressed them serially
  • but both of which you fail at because you address them in parallel

Here are the idioms/phrases that do not sufficiently cover the idea and why:

"A servant to two masters"

This has the sense of competing priorities, but not the sense of failing to achieve your goals.

"Jack of all trades. Master of none."

The sense is insufficiently pejorative. Being a jack-of-all-trades can be seen as an advantage; I'm trying to focus on the lack of mastery.

"The man who fancied himself a wit, and was half-right."

From Christopher Hitchens. Hilarious, but lacking the sense of split effort between two things.

"Walking and chewing gum at the same time."

An idiom for multi-tasking, not for failing to multi-task.

Edit

Addressing a few suggestions and another one that occurred to me:

"Hedging your bets" or "Betting against yourself"

In this case, you cannot win both bets, but you will almost certainly win one. You limit your upside, but also limit your risk. I'm looking in particular for total, catastrophic failure due to split attention/effort.

"Can't walk and chew gum at the same time"

Failing to do two fairly simple things that most everyone can do, not failing at two hard things because you tried to do both.

"Robbing Peter to pay Paul"

In this case, Paul gets paid. If you were to rob Peter to pay Paul, and get robbed yourself before you could get the money to Paul, that'd be closer. :)

"Spreading yourself too thin"

An actual English idiom, but missing the implied sense of failure.

"Too many irons in the fire"

"A lot of irons in the fire" can be viewed positively, so this is missing the sense of a strategic misstep.

"Between a rock and a hard place"

The sense is of needing to act but having no good alternative.

"Falling between two stools"

My favorite answer so far because it does appear to be an actual English idiom (not a proverb). In that sense, it's great, but some of the usages are closer to a failure of categorization than a failure of effort. And falling between two stools implies that the attempted action was simply sitting down.

"Chasing two rabbits and catching none."

This is the exact sense I was looking for, but it appears to be a cross-cultural proverb rather than idiomatic English like "putting all your eggs in one basket". I'll be accepting it, and using it in my work! But if there are other ideas, please let me know.

  • 5
    The saying I've heard is 'They can't walk and chew gum at the same time'. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 12 '15 at 23:29
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    @EdwinAshworth -I agree. It IS said about someone who can't multi-task. – Oldbag Jan 12 '15 at 23:31
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    Too many irons in the fire? Or spreading yourself too thin? – Mynamite Jan 12 '15 at 23:33
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    @Mynamite That's an answer. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 12 '15 at 23:34
  • 4
    Candidates are advised not to write on both sides of the answer sheet at once. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 12 '15 at 23:48

17 Answers 17

140

Chasing two rabbits from the widely claimed proverb:

"He who chases two rabbits will catch neither."

Betwixt and between

Torn between the two tasks

Stuck in the middle

Double minded from the New Testament:

For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord. A double minded man is unstable in all his ways.

Moving farther afield:

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

By implication, Hemming and hawing

Between the Devil and me

  • 4
    Wow, and I thought the rabbits saying was a Russian thing! – CowperKettle Jan 13 '15 at 17:17
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    @CopperKettle Civilization IV even cited one version, "If you chase two rabbits, you shall lose them both", as being a Native American proverb. Sounds like it crosses borders pretty well. – Panzercrisis Jan 13 '15 at 21:15
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    this implies complete failure in both, not a mediocre job of both – Michael Martinez Jan 14 '15 at 23:23
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    If you chase one rabbit without catching it, the rabbit gets credit for eluding you. If you chase two rabbits, catching one is out of the question because you split your efforts. – ScotM Jan 15 '15 at 13:12
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    Are you still wacking up wep on this waskewy wabbit bit? ;-) – user98990 Feb 27 '15 at 17:05
79

I think you should go with "spread yourself too thin"

spread yourself too thin: to try to do too many things at the same time, so that you cannot give enough time or attention to any of them. "I realized I'd been spreading myself too thin so I resigned as secretary of the golf club"

(Definition of ‘spread yourself too thin’ from the Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary & Thesaurus © Cambridge University Press)

Or, as Bilbo painfully explains to Gandalf, "Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread."

  • 21
    +1. However, the LoTR example does not seem to be helpful. Bilbo is not trying to do many things at once and failing at all of them; he is peacefully living at Bag End and writing his Book. His feeling comes from the influence of the One Ring. – Stephan Kolassa Jan 13 '15 at 9:44
  • Yes Stephan, Bilbo is writing his book at Bag End, but possession of the One Ring weighs heavily upon him. I'm afraid that we must trust the old hobbit when he says to his dear friend Gandalf that, far from living peacefully, as you have it, the hafling is feeling 'all thin' (not indicative of health for a hobbit, btw) and 'stretched ... like butter that has been scraped over too much bread' i.e., Bilbo is over-extended, like someone who is trying to do too many things at once, or who has underestimated the difficulty of a given task. – user98990 Aug 20 '15 at 2:43
29

Falling between two stools is another that works quite well. It meets all three of your bullet points:

  • attempting two things (or multiple iterations of one thing)

Multiple iterations of sitting on a stool, check.

  • both of which you might succeed at, if you addressed them serially

Sitting on a stool isn't hard, check.

  • but both of which you fail at because you address them in parallel

Precisely what happens: you try to put one butt-cheek on each stool, but end up sitting on the ground between two toppled stools.

  • 1
    I love this but it's just a hair off the meaning I was going for. – Rich Armstrong Jan 13 '15 at 12:48
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    I don't think this implies that the action was sitting. It's about failing to choose which of your options to commit to, and thereby failing at both. – Dominic Cronin Jan 13 '15 at 13:15
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    Using this to describe character, I would probably prefix it with "forever": He was forever falling between two stools, didn't know whether to please his wife or his boss. – Joffan Jan 13 '15 at 20:08
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    @RichArmstrong, I think this means precisely what your question asks for. The image it conveys is of someone trying to sit on two stools at once, intending some sort of one-cheek-on-each awkward compromise, but ending up sitting on the floor between two toppled stools. Thus, it's the perfect idiom for someone who, instead of picking one task to do well, tries to achieve two tasks, only to fail at both. – Marthaª Jan 16 '15 at 6:40
19

It's a bit crude, but You can't ride two horses with one ass (also here) or one of its variants seems to be getting at exactly your meaning.

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    "If you can't ride two horses at once, you shouldn't be in the circus" - James Maxton – Henry Jan 13 '15 at 21:46
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    @Henry - Yep, that's on the linked proverb page too. Opposite meaning, though. – Bobson Jan 13 '15 at 22:14
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    I don't think this has the same meaning. The idiom you present is not about parallel tasks and splitting effort, rather, it is focused on your intrinsic personal and moral consistency and congruency. – Tomas Jan 15 '15 at 13:51
  • @Tomas - I don't understand you. Riding two horses at the same time is exactly an example of parallel tasks. And where does moral consistency come in? I mean, I can sortof see it in the same way that "you can't serve two masters" could also have a moral interpretation, but I don't see that as intrinsic to the phrase. – Bobson Jan 15 '15 at 16:04
10

"Multitasking to a standstill".

It's more often used of computer multitasking, when the overhead involved in making the multitasking happen and ensuring it doesn't cause bugs when two processes want the same resource make things slower than if you hadn't used multitasking.

But I've found it can sometimes describe human activity very well, too.

  • 1
    Also, see "high context switching costs" and "operating system overhead" if you're into the multitasking computer metaphor. – idunno Jan 13 '15 at 3:11
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    I've used the term "in thrash" but that might be dated... – Joffan Jan 13 '15 at 6:37
  • @Joffan I believe the term we used to have in IBM Mainframes was "Threshing" - when the CPU spent more of its time managing memory than doing real work. I have actually used this term to describe myself when I get in this state - spending more time reacquainting myself with 2 competing tasks than actually making any progress on either of them. – Lefty Jan 13 '15 at 7:38
  • @Joffan thrashing is one of the things that could be part of multitasking to a standstill, but it could also happen with a single process with a single thread, so I don't like it as much as a metaphor here, more for when the-work-needed-to-allow-real-work is very high. – Jon Hanna Jan 13 '15 at 9:54
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    My favorite that my dad uses is "paralysis by analysis". Working in software, I get the chance to use this one fairly often. – Ryan Kennedy Jan 14 '15 at 2:15
10

Multi-failing

It is used in various places but I first came across it in "Outnumbered" when the father says:

"There's no such thing as multi-tasking – just doing lots of things badly. The correct term is multi-failing."

I think it is completely clear in its meaning even when heard for the first time.

  • I like Multi-failing. My first reaction was something along the lines of "Dilbert", but I wasn't sure if there was a strip that had defined an idiom. The best I could find was this: dilbert.com/strip/1998-08-10 – Ernie Jan 16 '15 at 20:16
8

'Spinning too many plates', from the circus act where the juggler runs round balancing plates on poles. If he tries to do too many they all come crashing down...

7

"Sailing on two boats" i.e if a person keeps one of his leg on one boat and one on another, he would not be able to sail on either boats.

  • again, this implies complete failure of doing either task, which is not what the OP wants. – Michael Martinez Jan 14 '15 at 23:25
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    @MichaelMartinez not true, OP says specifically: "To satisfy the criteria, the phrase must cover: attempting two things (or multiple iterations of one thing); both of which you might succeed at, if you addressed them serially; but both of which you fail at because you address them in parallel" – Colin D Bennett Jan 15 '15 at 18:23
  • ah yes, you're right. I skimmed the post too quickly – Michael Martinez Jan 15 '15 at 18:24
  • Interesting phrase. Never heard it before.. – JoelAZ Jan 16 '15 at 5:46
4

From our old friend Bilbo Baggins:

I feel like Butter spread over too much bread.

  • Great minds and all that. – user98990 Jan 13 '15 at 13:03
  • Only JUST realised my error here. Sorry, Little Eva! – JBeagle Jan 14 '15 at 9:53
  • No, @Beagle90 - it's all good. I do it ALL the time. – user98990 Jan 14 '15 at 19:56
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    But Bilbo did not say this because he was doing too many things. Rather the opposite: he was craving adventure. – congusbongus Apr 30 '15 at 1:12
3

If the two goals are not just difficult to spread your effort across, but actually incompatible with one another, the rather confusing phrase you can't have your cake and eat it (too) would be appropriate.

Basically what it means is that you cannot aim for two goals where one will keep the other from being accomplished - sometimes phrased as a person trying to "have their cake and eat it too".

The meaning behind this being - you can have (hold onto) your cake, and you can eat your cake, but holding onto it means you can't eat it, and once it's eaten you can't hold onto it anymore.

3

A German saying is Man kann nicht auf zwei Hochzeiten tanzen. That would be : You can't dance at two weddings. In English there is: You can't be in two places at once.

2

Burning the candle at both ends

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    That means 'staying up late into the evening and then getting up early the following morning'. – A E Jan 13 '15 at 19:02
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    @AE +1, That's how it is most often used, but it can be applied more generally to any situation where you're doing multiple things using the same resource, like attention, and will therefore fail at all of them. – DCShannon Jan 14 '15 at 0:37
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    @DCShannon. does not imply failure. if anything, burning the candle at both ends means you are achieving more than you would otherwise – Michael Martinez Jan 14 '15 at 23:26
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    I think the bigger implication is that continual "burning at both ends" causes one to ultimately burn out faster. But I agree it doesn't really address immediate success or failure, just eventual. – JoelAZ Jan 16 '15 at 5:44
  • @JoelAZ I agree that the failure isn't immediate, but is there anything in the question that implies that it should be? – DCShannon Jan 17 '15 at 1:42
2

How about "stuck between two hay bales"? It derives from Jean Buridan's paradox (which harkens back to Aristotle). A donkey always chooses the largest, closest, best-looking hay bale, but finds itself equidistant from two identical bales, cannot decide which to eat, and dies of hunger. This emphasizes two irreconcilable desires of equal force, leading one to inaction. While not the same as multiple activities leading to failure, it adds the new dimension of desire.

2

You can’t dance at two weddings [with one pair of feet]

You cannot do two things at once. Either go to the beach with Fred or stay here with me. You can’t dance at two weddings. McGraw-Hill's Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions

A horse can't pull while kicking

A Dictionary of American Proverbs

You can't run/hold with the hare and hunt with the hounds

Fig. You can't have it both ways

You can't eat your cake and have it too

(idiomatic) To seek to have two things which are mutually incompatible (such as eating a piece of cake and yet still possessing that piece for future use.) Wiktionary

back and fill

Fig. to act indecisively; to change one's direction repeatedly; to reverse one's course. (Originally nautical, referring to trimming the sails so as to alternately fill them with wind and release the wind, in order to maneuver in a narrow space.) McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs

1

The phrase "inattentive is ineffective" might fit.

0

Herding cats might work

It's a phrase common in the IT sectors I work in, hence this commercial, by an IT company: Hearding Cats (YouTube).

  • I did like the video 😄 but I think the correct spelling is herding! – Mari-Lou A Jan 16 '15 at 20:25
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    Herding cats is a phrase about something generally impossible. It's not like you would succeed at herding one cat, but herding multiple cats makes it fail. – DCShannon Jan 17 '15 at 1:41
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    I've more often heard that metaphor used for cases where the herding is fairly literal. i.e. Convincing a bunch of people to cooparate or accept a common solution, when the people in question all have their own reasons for wanting to do their own thing. I don't think it quite fits well enough for this case. Your multiple trains of thought are the cats? – Peter Cordes Jan 17 '15 at 14:28
-1

Robbing Peter to pay Paul? The problem is not solved.

The phrase is not limited to concurrent activities, but does focus on insufficient resources being inadequately distributed.

  • 1
    No; you're only paying Paul, not necessarily doing anything at all for Peter. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 12 '15 at 23:36
  • @Edwin Ashworth - he may not be doing anything for Peter, but he's doing something to him--making him a material witness to larceny, at best--surely – user98990 Jan 14 '15 at 20:05
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    'Robbing Peter to pay Paul' doesn't entail Paul's complicity in a crime (or unethical practice, as per the usual metaphorical usage). – Edwin Ashworth Jan 14 '15 at 20:44

protected by RegDwigнt Jan 13 '15 at 10:03

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