It's a bit difficult to explain exactly what I'm getting at, so I'll give an example:

If I get on the bus for work at 8:00 (having to be there at 9:00), there will be a traffic jam and it will take an hour and a half to get there, making me late. However, if I leave for work at 7:30, an hour and a half before I need to be at work, there will be no traffic jam and it will only take forty-five minutes to get there, so I'll arrive at work earlier than I need to. Let's assume for the sake of the question that:

  • there is no middle ground (If I leave any later than 7:30, the bus will be caught in a traffic jam and I will be late; if I leave at 7:30 or earlier, I will arrive much earlier than is necessary.)

  • arriving early is not a bad thing (i.e. a "neutral"/acceptable outcome)

Is there a phrase/expression for this situation that is reminiscent of a Catch-22 or the expression "damned if you do, damned if you don't," but differs in that rather than the solution renders itself unnecessary (without creating any negative consequences, the solution simply "oversolves" the problem?


1 - When I originally posted, I think the bus example drew focus away from the real core of the question, so I wanted to add one more (brief) example. Say you're at the supermarket buying hot dogs and buns. The buns only come in packages of six, and the hot dogs only come in packages of eight. To have enough buns, you'll have to buy a second package, but then you'll be left with more buns than you need. (Note to pedants: Assume you're specifically planning to feed eight people and they all definitely only want one hot dog each.)
2 - I think two of the existing answers--"necessary overkill" and "inescapable overcompensation"--are excellent and come quite close, but I'd like to see if there is some other idiomatic, "on-the-nose" phrase for this kind of situation.

  • 1
    Take a train? Ride into work? Buy a moped! Just kidding. The lesser of two evils would be my choice, if you consider going to work an evil.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Sep 7, 2015 at 7:46
  • 1
    How about "doomed to be late"?
    – kos
    Commented Sep 7, 2015 at 7:56
  • 3
    I think I understand the situation - one whose solution necessitates overkill - but I'm not sure why you describe it as "solution renders itself unnecessary." Leaving at 7:30 seems necessary as part of the rules you yourself set up.
    – Misha R
    Commented Sep 7, 2015 at 8:39
  • 3
    So, don't catch the 22. Catch the 38, then transfer to the 17 at Wabash. That'll get you there on time. You just have to be able to think outside the box, or you'll be stuck in that box forever (or not, like Schroedinger's cat.) Commented Sep 7, 2015 at 9:17
  • 1
    Wait, is it perhaps about the relationship between the extent of the difference in leaving vs arriving times? For instance, normally in a situation like this, if you leave a half hour earlier, you would expect to get there a half hour earlier. But in this case, leaving a half hour earlier gets you there a whole hour earlier. Necessary inconsistency between leaving and arriving time differences. Getting warmer?
    – Misha R
    Commented Sep 8, 2015 at 5:37

3 Answers 3


I would use the phrase "necessary overkill" to describe your approach to handling this situation. Arriving at work 45 minutes before your workday officially begins is overkill in sense 2 of the definition of that word that appears in Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003):

overkill n (1958) 1 : a destructive capacity greatly exceeding that required for given target 2 : an excess of something (as a quantity or an action) beyond what is required or suitable for a particular purpose {publicity overkill} (an overkill in weaponry} 3 : killing in excess of what is intended or required

If "on-timeness" is the something that is required, and if arriving at the office at 9:00 a.m. constitutes being on time, then being at the office at 8:15 a.m. every day constitutes overkill because it is 45 minutes in excess of (that is, earlier than) what is objectively required to satisfy the condition for on-timeness.

However, since the only way to avoid failing to meet the requirement of on-timeness is to take the overkill route of leaving for work at 7:30 a.m. each morning, that route is necessary, not optional. Hence, necessary overkill.

Here are three examples of the phrase in action. From Mennonite Life, volume 34 (1979) [combined snippets], we have an example of necessary overkill involving sense 1 of the word:

Senator Barry Goldwater, upon hearing that President Carter had approved proceeding with the M-X Missile System, responded by saying that it was "necessary overkill." John Cox has written a book, first published in the U.S in 1978, in which he contends that the present trend to seek overkill is folly.

And from Gargoyle Magazine, issue 27 (1985) [combined snippets]. we have this example involving sense 2 of the phrase, from an interview with Rita Dove:

Interviewer: I think that's a recent change. I think we've gotten away from the 60's when people said you have to write what you know.

Dove: It was a time of, I think, necessary overkill, especially in terms of black literature—a time when, in order to develop black consciousness, it was important to stress blackness, to make sure the poems talked about being black. 'Cause it had never really been talked about before—it wasn't predominant, except in the Harlem Renaissance, sure, but then we had, in a certain way, forgotten about that. So I think it was necessary and the pendulum had swung back.

And finally, from Tempo: Indonesia's Weekly News Magazine (2005):

JK's style is different from SBY's. Running a government often calls for special policies. In order to effectively solve problems, the steps to be taken cannot be halfhearted; if necessary they may come with a high cost and sacrifice, forcing some necessary overkill. This is where the difference between JK and SBY is apparent.


I think the term overcompensation can be flexibly used for this one.

Now, to use that in a sentence for the bus example (sorry, but it is a pretty good example), I think the conversation with a coworker might go something like this:

"So, normally this takes about 15 minutes, but traffic starts right after 8. Next earliest is 7:30 and no traffic, a bit of an inescapable overcompensation here. Ah well."


If being late for work is unacceptable and out of the question, then you have a Hobson's Choice: You can choose to take whatever transportation method gets you to work on time. You just happen to have only one choice available, the one that gets you there very early.

P.S. "The solution is necessary, but applying it simultaneously negates the problem it addressed." That is not clear at all. Let's say a person cannot swim and must cross a river. Boats are nowhere to be found, there are no fallen logs to float on, and he has no axe to chop down a tree. He must wait until winter when the river freezes over. The problem (he will sink and drown) has been negated by waiting for the ice. Aren't problems always negated by their solutions?

  • I probably need to think some more on how to phrase that so it's clearer. I was trying to differentiate there between an action solving the problem and eliminating/removing the source of the problem. And it seems I need to change the example as well, as everyone seems to be focusing on the specifics it lays out, rather than the general concept.
    – pyobum
    Commented Sep 7, 2015 at 15:45
  • Are you suggesting that the "real" solution for the man who has to cross the river is to learn how to swim? Learning how to swim removes the "source" of his problem?
    – TimR
    Commented Sep 7, 2015 at 15:54

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