I like to use the idiom 'phone it in' in the sense described by Wiktionary:

To fulfill a responsibility with a minimum effort rather than the appropriate level of effort.

For example: 'He used to try his best at this task but at the moment he's really phoning it in.'

However, friends and colleagues do not seem to recognize the idiom. Is there an equivalent idiom that might be more likely to be understood?

  • 4
    I don't recognize the cited usage. Although it would probably be easy enough to guess the meaning from context in most cases, I don't really think it can count as an "idiom". It's either from someone "playing" with language, or a less-than-articulate speaker who just couldn't call to mind how we normally express such a concept. Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 18:38
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    @FumbleFingers "Phoning it in" is a fairly popular and well-known Idiom.
    – milestyle
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 18:55
  • 7
    @milestyle I don't dispute that it is popular and well-known to you, but I've never heard it in the UK, or from work colleagues from five other continents. I have heard "dial something in", but that doesn't have the OP's meaning of "minimum effort".
    – alephzero
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 19:34
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    In the UK, I also didn't recognise "phoning it in" until I looked it up a few months back after reading some American reviews that used the phrase. For whatever reason I've only heard it in the context of actors phoning in a performance.
    – Muzer
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 13:05
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    The term "phoning it in" refers to the concept that a person is "not really there" or not giving 100% effort ... in this case the effort applied to a task is only half-hearted or token. I believe (but do not yet have a source) that this originated in the news industries where people being interviewed did so by telephone rather than in person. From there it quickly was adopted by the entertainment industry to refer to actors who "might as well have phoned in their lines" because their performances were considered so weak.
    – O.M.Y.
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 22:36

17 Answers 17


He's really just going through the motions.

From the [Free Dictionary]:

go through the motions

Fig. to make a feeble effort to do something; to do something insincerely or in cursory fashion. Jane isn't doing her best. She's just going through the motions. Bill was supposed to be raking the yard, but he was just going through the motions.

McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs.

go through the motions

Do something perfunctorily, or merely pretend to do it. For example, The team is so far behind that they're just going through the motions, or She didn't really grieve at his death; she just went through the motions. [c. 1800]

The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer.

go through the motions

To do something in a mechanical manner indicative of a lack of interest or involvement.

American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition.

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    To my ear, this is "stronger" than phoning it in. Going through the motions would imply something that on the surface appears to be doing work, but actually isn't. Phoning it in would be doing the work, but at a bare minimum standard.
    – Muzer
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 13:04
  • In the three dictionaries I quote, there are three definitions indicating perfunctory performance and one indicating mere pretence. Corpus data is almost always more reliable than personal opinion. Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 14:05
  • I'd agree with @Muzer, this is a good option but maybe better suited for not trying to avoid failure, rather than coasting to a minimal success; the quoted examples in this answer include situations where the person is not achieving results or fulfilling their responsibilities (Bill's yard didn't get raked, the team lost the game). I've suggested coasting as a milder alternative that fits cases where people do get a bare success without trying. Commented Aug 14, 2015 at 14:54

He's making a token effort.


sense 2(a)

The above also mentions perfunctory. You could write that he did a perfunctory job, or that he did the task perfunctorily (don't try that last one in speech—you'll stumble on the pronunciation.)

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    The spelling seems equally challenging. Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 11:12
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    I've seen "perfunctorily" rather than "perfunctorally". Seems like a standard case of y->i when -ly is added.
    – hobbs
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 5:09
  • duh. I get the hint. Commented Aug 17, 2015 at 4:10

How about "Half-assing" something?

"I don't feel like working on this essay. I'll play video games and just half-ass it later."

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    I would say half-assing is more forceful: phoning it in means to do the bare minimum, while half-assing generally means to do less than the bare minimum.
    – neminem
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 23:21

At the tech magazines where I used to work, we had several freelance writers who could produce good, in-depth feature stories when they had the time and inclination to do so. But they were good enough writers that they could (try to) get away with turning in articles that showed very little effort and even less research; I suspect that this happened when they overbooked assignments with multiple clients or when they found the subject they had agreed to write about unbearably tedious.

In any case, when the magazines' editors would receive one of these minimum-effort pieces, we would say that the author had written it "on autopilot." Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) defines autopilot as follows:

autopilot n (1935) 1 : a device for automatically steering ships, aircraft and and spacecraft 2 : AUTOMATIC PILOT [defined in its own entry as "a state or condition in which activity or behavior is regulated in a predetermined or instinctive manner"]

Another term we sometimes used for this phenomenon was skating, invoking the following meaning of the verb skate (again as given in the Eleventh Collegiate):

skate vi (1696) ... 3 : to proceed in a superficial or blithe manner

Both ideas are very similar to the idiomatic notion of "phoning [something] in."

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    Caution: "autopilot" and "skate" could also mean making a difficult task appear effortlessly easy due to skill or routine practice. Commented Aug 15, 2015 at 6:22
  • @200_success - I have also heard the term "phone it in" used in this way, like: "that task is so easy for him, he could phone it in", but I don't think this is a common usage. Commented Aug 19, 2015 at 19:12
  • You can disambiguate skate by saying either skate by (laziness) or skate through (super easy). Commented Aug 19, 2015 at 20:13

Not an idiom, but the person you're describing is performing a Cursory effort:

rapidly and often superficially performed or produced

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    The phrase "cursory effort" is an excellent synonym for the OP's idiom.
    – O.M.Y.
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 22:44

Coasting works if the person is just about fulfilling their responsibilities.

From Oxford dictionaries:

Proceed without making much effort: "Colchester coasted to victory"

From Merriam-Webster (relevant meaning in bold):

  • to move forward using no power or very little power

  • to move downhill by the force of gravity

  • to progress or have success without special effort

... "He was accused of trying to coast through school"

... "The company is coasting on its good reputation"

This meaning is (I believe) an analogy to a bad practice in driving: letting the car just roll along with the clutch off, with no control or power from the engine. It is going forward, but the driver is neglecting to properly control the car.

As a commenter pointed out, "going through the motions" might be too strong since it implies not actually performing a task or achieving results. Coasting is more appropriate if they are getting adequate results, but via dangerously little effort. If someone says "You're coasting, Bob", and you reply "But I met my targets", that wouldn't logically contradict the accusation - coasting is a mild criticism that already implies nominal success or progress.


You could say this person is just punching the clock.

The phrase comes from old-fashioned mechanical time clocks at offices and other work sites. An employee would insert their time card when they arrived (and perhaps punch a button) and the clock would mark the card to indicate the time. They would repeat the process when they left, and then the employer would have verification of the number of hours worked (or at least spent on site) by the employee. Punching the clock can suggest that the person is showing up to work, but little else: they are doing the minimum needed to keep their job.


I use

Just scraping by


Being a warm body

To mean the same thing; barely completing the letter of the task.

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    In my world, "just scraping by" means "barely able to make ends meet".
    – Marthaª
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 2:21
  • I use it like that in other contexts, but in the context of work performance, 'just scraping by' is doing only the minimum.
    – Ehryk
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 2:22
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    In my opinion "just scraping by" would indicate having such an amount of difficulty with a task that even giving it your full attention makes for a barely passable result. For example just scraping by in a class would mean that the work was very difficult an despite your best efforts you barely passing while phoning it in would mean you don't really care how well you do you just need to pass so you do as little as possible even if (or especially if) the work is easy.
    – kylieCatt
    Commented Aug 14, 2015 at 12:47

Giving a half-hearted performance.

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    Nice example, similar to but not entirely synonymous with heart wasn't in it
    – chillin
    Commented Aug 15, 2015 at 17:49

He is grabbing only for low-hanging fruit

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    I often hear that term applied in a positive context: if you go for the low-hanging fruit, you're trying to be efficient and get the most productivity for the least effort. "Phoning it in," on the other hand, refers more to expending very little effort and therefore not accomplishing much. Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 17:51
  • @MasonWheeler - More often than not, I have seen "low-hanging fruit" used with a negative connotation, very similar to "phoning it in". Commented Aug 19, 2015 at 19:20

In naval terms this is called gun decking. It means to give the appearance of having done work, without actually having done it. EG: filling out maintenance logs without actually doing the maintenance, painting over rust instead of first chipping it away to a clean surface, falsifying qualification requirements for advancement, etc.

In the US Navy if you're caught gun decking, the punishment can range from getting shouted at by a superior petty officer, to having to go before a kangaroo court (Chief's mast), to an article 15 hearing (Captain's mast), to a court martial depending on the severity of the offense.


goldbrick -

a person who shirks assigned work

Can be used as a verb: "to shirk assigned work." Wikipedia's entry is good.

And, as the definition suggests, there's always shirk or dawdle.

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    Goldbrick refers to one who is trying to avoid effort. Phoning it in refers to one who is not delivering quality effort (even if they are trying to).
    – O.M.Y.
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 22:40
  • @O.M.Y. - I don't necessarily disagree the connotations aren't exactly the same, but it seems you're splitting hairs about how earnest the effort is supposed to be, and the same nit could be picked about "going through the motions," "making a token effort," and "half-assing." (Are they trying, if those things are said?) The Wikipedia page declares that that "not delivering quality effort" as a result of internet distraction could be "goldbricking." All that said, I don't expect this to be the best synonym-- I just find it relevant, especially in a professional setting.
    – stevesliva
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 23:06
  • The Wikipedia is overly focused on the most modern usage of the word as it relates to the effects of the internet on worker productivity. The origin of goldbrick is tied to fraud where a con artist would paint a brick with gold paint and try to sell it as a real bar of gold. As it later became adapted into a work-related verb it came to mean those who deliberately defrauded their bosses by not delivering the amount of labor that was being paid for. (...)
    – O.M.Y.
    Commented Aug 14, 2015 at 17:47
  • (...) While one actor might be lazy and therefor guilty of both phoning in a performance and goldbricking, another actor may be trying their very best and just not be capable of delivering the expected performance. In the latter case the actor would be phoning it in but not goldbricking.
    – O.M.Y.
    Commented Aug 14, 2015 at 17:50
  • @O.M.Y. Which, IMO, amounts to it suiting "half-assedly" but not halfheartedly. OP is not clear that it's specifically the latter. I support your comments, though. Thanks.
    – stevesliva
    Commented Aug 14, 2015 at 18:09

We often use the term "shitheeling", in this way - for instance: to describe the efforts of a person who is paid to do a job by the hour, and so, drags the job out for as long as possible. Or, someone in a group, who relies on the efforts of the others to perform the task. Ex:

"He's really shitheeling that job". (US)

  • I think that someone who "phones it in" is generally viewed as doing some work, they're just turning out a shoddy work product. Someone who "shitheels", by comparison, might not do any work at all if he or she can get away with it. Besides, "shitheel" is often used to mean a generally terrible person, not just a slothful one. Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 17:27
  • @DougWarren - I probably should have clarified with the entire expression: "He's really shitheeling that job". Actually calling someone a "shitheel", can be a totally different thing.
    – Oldbag
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 18:32
  • I think "shitheeling" is a synonym for "milking the job" rather than "phoning it in". The former refers to stretching out the work whereas the latter refers to not making a true effort no matter how long or short the work.
    – O.M.Y.
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 22:39

This person is just checking the boxes.

This implies that instead of putting forth a real effort or interest in the task at hand, the person is just doing the work to say they did it. In other words, so they could check a box on a task list.

Here are a few results for Googling just checking the boxes:

  • Thank you for a good answer, two years on from when I posed the question! Great that the discussion continues :-) Commented Aug 5, 2017 at 21:46

That was bush league.

This idiom borrows a term from early baseball referencing the teams from areas not in town (or away from "civilization"), and eventually became a term of derision, meaning less sophisticated. But I first heard it used on the West Wing television drama to berate unprofessionalism.


  • Welcome to the site! There are some rules we aim to live by here. Can you please add some context why you give this answer? And add the full link & some context as reference to compensate for link rot?
    – Bookeater
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 8:21
  • You are very welcome. BTW I'll up-vote if you add it all.
    – Bookeater
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 8:31
  • Let me know right away if there's anything else! Thanks!
    – chillin
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 8:39
  • I was sure there was a clip somewhere, but can't find it. Example appears in the linked transcript twice, unfortunately near the end of a massive page of telescript.
    – chillin
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 8:57
  • Being bush league could be due to a lack of ability rather than a lack of dedication.
    – dangph
    Commented Aug 14, 2015 at 1:01

He usually takes the easy way out,


He follows the path of least resistance,

  • See my comment on goldbricking above. Same issue.
    – O.M.Y.
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 22:40

He fails to put his best foot forward.

This idiom means to give a best effort, "to act with purpose," "to try or do the best that one can," and requires the intent to do so, as well as a negative to approach the meaning of "phone it in."

http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/put-your-best-foot-forward.html http://www.idiomeanings.com/idioms/put-ones-best-foot-forward/ http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/put+best+foot+forward

  • that saying doesn't really fit as it applies to first impressions and showing your strengths rather than effort in general
    – JamesRyan
    Commented Aug 14, 2015 at 12:09
  • @JamesRyan Never seen this, "first impressions" application for this idiom. On the face of it, your comment appears wildly incorrect. Can you cite anything to back up this claim of specificity?
    – chillin
    Commented Aug 15, 2015 at 17:28
  • idioms.thefreedictionary.com/put+best+foot+forward If you search on the meaning/origins it doesn't mean try your best, it means appear at your best. The subtle difference does seem to be lost for a lot of people, it is often misused the way you say too.
    – JamesRyan
    Commented Aug 15, 2015 at 20:09
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    @JamesRyan The citation disputes your own claims, definition literally reads to act or appear at one's best , to try to make a good impression .
    – chillin
    Commented Aug 16, 2015 at 22:03
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    I'm not being picky, you are using it incorrectly. I know that from general usage in literature. I may not be able to find something right now which proves you wrong undoubtedly but please consider the advice.
    – JamesRyan
    Commented Aug 18, 2015 at 9:38

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