Ironically, the phrase I am trying to recall is just out of reach, so perhaps someone can help me with a phrase that describes a moving goal that is forever just out of reach.

I will try to provide some additional context on how I intend to use it. I am currently responsible for the rewrite of a large piece of software that needs to be supported in the interim. My experience in the industry tells me that if we were to release the new software only when it was a complete replacement for the old software, we would never actually release it. The correct approach is to release a functionally complete, but feature reduced product which can then be iterated upon.

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    Somewhat related... english.stackexchange.com/questions/144316/… Commented Dec 1, 2015 at 15:51
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    As you mentioned "goal", how about "The goalposts keep moving".
    – 7caifyi
    Commented Dec 1, 2015 at 16:02
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    The answer is "a moving goal". Or indeed "moving target" as AP gives. That's probably the phrase that was on the tip of your tongue .. "moving target"
    – Fattie
    Commented Dec 1, 2015 at 17:41
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    Perhaps ultima Thule.
    – ermanen
    Commented Dec 1, 2015 at 18:17
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    See also Sysiphus: "As punishment, he was condemned to spend eternity rolling a boulder up a hill. Each time the boulder would near the summit, it would roll back down to the bottom. Sisyphus would then be forced to repeat his task." ancient-mythology.com/greek/sisyphus.php
    – Ben
    Commented Dec 2, 2015 at 9:19

20 Answers 20



chase rainbows

: to waste your time trying to get or achieve something impossible (usually in continuous tenses) Cambridge Idioms Dictionary

[go on a] wild-goose chase

  1. a wild or absurd search for something nonexistent or unobtainable

  2. any senseless pursuit of an object or end; a hopeless enterprise Random House

[go on a] snipe hunt Google Pictures

: a futile search or endeavor. American Heritage® Dictionary

  • 1
    both excellent examples of a moving goal, or moving goalposts.
    – Fattie
    Commented Dec 1, 2015 at 17:37
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    Chasing rainbows is a good example - you can see a rainbow and chase after it, but it seems always to recede. The other two, though, are examples of chasing something which doesn't exist in the first place. Commented Dec 1, 2015 at 18:08
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    This doesn't describe a moving goal, it describes the act of attempting to meet the moving goal.
    – DCShannon
    Commented Dec 2, 2015 at 18:48
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    @DCShannon Even worse, these examples describe tasks with imaginary goals, let alone moving goals. Definitely shouldn't be the accepted answer when we have "carrot on a stick" and "Sisyphean task" as well.
    – TylerH
    Commented Dec 2, 2015 at 20:03
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    Chasing rainbows is chasing things you will never get, wild goose chase you often get what you are getting but in a round about way, and snipe hunt absolutely makes no sense at all. Going snipe hunting is taking kids out hunting for fake animals. It is really a travesty that this has 30 upvotes and shows that the people voting have as little English knowledge as the author. Commented Dec 5, 2015 at 11:51

You could call that a "carrot on a stick". It refers to a carrot dangled in front of a beast of burden by a stick held by the rider.

The similar "carrot or the stick" phrase refers to giving someone either a reward or a punishment.

Here is a write-up describing the two phrases. http://public.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/carrot.html

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    "carrot on a stick" is just a misreading of "the carrot or the stick".
    – Fattie
    Commented Dec 1, 2015 at 17:39
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    @JoeBlow- As far as I know the “carrot on a stick” refers to a contraption whereby a stick is affixed to the donkey’s bridle such that it extends out in front of the donkey and a carrot is tied to the stick. The donkey moves forward to get the carrot but somehow?! he never manages to get it. This is different than “the carrot or the stick” in which the choice is between punishment or reward.
    – Jim
    Commented Dec 1, 2015 at 17:48
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    See also en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carrot_and_stick, which also covers both usages. If you Google "carrot stick donkey" and look in Images you will find a lot of pictorial examples. Commented Dec 1, 2015 at 20:40
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    "Carrot on a stick" sounds like an eggcorn to me.
    – caitriona
    Commented Dec 2, 2015 at 9:42
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    @JoeBlow The carrot in "the carrot or the stick" is the "carrot on a stick"
    – DCShannon
    Commented Dec 3, 2015 at 18:54

Going right along with the theme established by Chenmunka, there is also the sisyphean task.

This is derived from the Greek myth of Sisyphus, an ancient king of Ephyra/ Corinth.

After being boastful and deceitful, Sisyphus was punished by the gods to roll a rock up a hill in the underworld, only to watch it immediately roll back down, and having to endlessly repeat this effort.

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    The only really correct answer. :)
    – Nemo
    Commented Dec 1, 2015 at 22:07
  • @cobaltduck Your reference suggests that "Sisyphean" should be capitalized. Your answer is also my favorite. Commented Dec 2, 2015 at 0:32
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    @MarkHubbard There are many such adjectives that do not have an initial capital: erotic (< Eros), draconian (< Draco), narcissistic (< Narcissus), etc. Usually the more popular the word, the more likely it is to be in lower case.
    – Théophile
    Commented Dec 4, 2015 at 4:28

I think in certain contexts moving target could work:

an idea or situation that continuously changes as you are trying to deal with it


something that is always ​changing, making it ​difficult to ​count, ​describe, ​achieve, etc.

(Cambridge Dictionary, suggested by DCShannon in comments)

  • +1 There we go, that's what I thought of first, and the absolute exact phrase for the question.
    – DCShannon
    Commented Dec 2, 2015 at 18:47
  • Here's a better definition: "something that is always ​changing, making it ​difficult to ​count, ​describe, ​*achieve*, etc.", from dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/moving-target
    – DCShannon
    Commented Dec 2, 2015 at 18:52

Such a task would be tantalizing.

This is derived from the Greek myth of Tantalus, one of the sons of Zeus.

After stealing ambrosia from Mount Olympus, Tantalus was punished by the gods to stand in the underworld for eternity by fruit trees such that he could never quite reach the fruit.

As described in the Encyclopedia Britannica these goals would move when Tantalus attempted to get them:

According to Homer’s Odyssey, Book XI, in Hades Tantalus stood up to his neck in water, which flowed from him when he tried to drink it; over his head hung fruits that the wind wafted away whenever he tried to grasp them (hence the word tantalize). 

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    this really is not the same as a "moving goal".
    – Fattie
    Commented Dec 1, 2015 at 17:37
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    @joe, you need to re-read your Bullfinch. In the myth, the fruit branch and water level are dynamic.
    – user662852
    Commented Dec 2, 2015 at 3:08
  • @user662852 - then that information needs to edited into the answer
    – AndyT
    Commented Dec 2, 2015 at 11:15

You might say your goal is elusive.

hard to find or capture

If you are chasing a goal and just keep missing it, it is evading and eluding you.


As others have commented, but not directly answered, you can say it is a case of moving goalposts.

Cambridge Dictionaries Online

move the goalposts
To ​change the ​rules while someone is ​trying to do something in ​order to make it more ​difficult for them.

In addition to another answer of will-o-the-wisp, there is also a pipe dream, which while not directly giving the exact connotations you're asking for, does give the idea of endless pursuit of something that can never be realized.


pipe dream, noun
a hope, wish, or dream that is impossible to achieve or not practical

Putting them together, you could say something like:

"Because you keep moving the goalposts every time we make any progress, I'm afraid that getting this project done has become nothing more than a pipe dream."

In the case where there is no identifiable source intentionally moving the goalposts, you can say it in a more passive voice to indicate that, despite no person actively doing it, the effective results are tantamount to the same thing:

"This situation is no different from one where the goalposts keep moving, and I'm afraid that getting this project done has become nothing more than a pipe dream."


"It feels like the goalposts keep moving, and … ."


I re-read your question and have some off-topic-for-English-Language-but-on-topic-for-your-situation comments for you:

  1. Disruptive technologies are more disruptive the earlier they're introduced. They're successful not because they beat their predecessors in all areas, nor because they're perfectly polished, but because they fill an unrealized need. An unreleased software product can't meet any needs.

  2. The process of delivering incremental improvements in software is absolutely crucial to saving money and making the best product possible. Without people actually using it and being in a position to find out in the real world whether it meets needs correctly, what parts are missing, and what parts aren't even needed, you're almost guaranteed to build the wrong thing. Study the agile software development lifecycle and its philosophies; you will find that the primary benefit of iterative improvement is early feedback.

  3. Speaking of early feedback, it's your users who give the best feedback—never in-house resources. There's always someone who doesn't need all the features, and is willing to try a new product that does certain things better without having all the bells and whistles. Get users involved in the development process and you've got, for free, what would normally cost big bucks to pay for in-house as a focus group or something! You want people to bang on your product as early as possible to reduce the cost of fixing stuff that's wrong with it or could be done better--especially if the change is to key architectural aspects that permeate the entire product and would be more painful to change later than earlier.


I am certain I have heard the phrase 'Will-o-the-wisp' used to describe such a goal:

A will-o'-the-wisp is an atmospheric ghost light seen by travellers at night, especially over bogs, swamps or marshes. It resembles a flickering lamp and is said to recede if approached, drawing travellers from the safe paths.


You could also liken the goal to the 'end of the rainbow' in that you can see the 'end' of the rainbow, but you can never reach it:

The Irish leprechaun's secret hiding place for his pot of gold is usually said to be at the end of the rainbow. This place is impossible to reach, because the rainbow is an optical effect which depends on the location of the viewer. When walking towards the end of a rainbow, it will appear to "move" further away (two people who simultaneously observe a rainbow at different locations will disagree about where a rainbow is).



You can compare such a goal to the classical line:

The horizon is an imaginary line that recedes as you approach it.


You could say that your target recedes before you, as from the famous quote from The Great Gatsby:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther... And one fine morning —
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.



This is probably British English specific, but I love the phrase painting the Forth Bridge

it takes such a long time that by the time you have finished doing it, you have to start again

The general idea being that once you've finished painting the bridge, it's taken so long that the paint at the other end needs refreshing.

However, thanks to new paints, it's actually been finished now!


Figuratively, you may say that the goal is (or forever remains) just inches from your grasp.

Examples: The bottle dangles just inches from your grasp, but then horror strikes you as it is beyond your reach. What happens when the life you've dreamed of remains just inches from your grasp?

  • When the goal is just inches from your grasp, that means the goal is just inches from your grasp. The OP is asking about a moving goal, or "moving goalposts".
    – Fattie
    Commented Dec 1, 2015 at 17:38

Literally, a mirage is an optical illusion that disappears toward the horizon as you approach it.

It may be used figuratively:


something illusory and unattainable like a mirage


"Pie in the sky" is an unattainable goal, with an emphasis on the illusory, Utopian nature of the goal.


  • Welcome to English Language & Usage. You may have a good answer, but it needs sourcing to be taken seriously. If you edit and cite the source of the information provided, you will have a better answer.
    – J. Taylor
    Commented Feb 21, 2018 at 19:44

Fool's errand


A task or activity that has no hope of success

Use in a sentence:

He sent gullible freshmen on fool’s errands

Source for definition and usage: OxfordDictionaries.com


For a classical literary allusion, one might speak of chasing banners from Dante's Inferno. Or, if you prefer country music, you can go follow Johnny Cash with trying to catch the Devil's herd.


The best word for a moving goal that is forever just out of reach is "an elusive goal". Unless you see a goal and find that the goal is reachable, you would not move. An elusive goal is: a goal that you see and start chasing; when you find yourself reaching the goal, you find the goal has moved a little farther; so you start chasing the goal with a greater speed; as you find yourself very close to the goal, it again hops a little farther; you again hasten your speed; as you again find yourself close to the goal, it further eludes itself from your reach; thus, the race keeps on and on and the goal remains "elusive".

So, the best one-word-substitution for a moving goal that is forever just out of reach is "an elusive goal".


The terms you want are already known to the software industry. They are "Agile", "Iterations", "Scrum", "Burn-down Charts", "Cadence", "Done", "User Stories", "Tasks", "Unit Test", "Bugs"

The speech may sound like this:

Today we are going to begin using Agile, I've appointed Joe as the Scrum Master. I am the Product Manager/Owner and will work with the BAs to write User Stories. Each user story will list all the specifications for each widget and will contain the acceptance criteria. Programmers will break out and determine how many tasks are required for each user story using "Planning Poker". No single task may have more than 6 hours of duration assigned. If they prefer, rather than duration they may use "Fibonacci sequencing" to determine the relative difficulty of getting it completed.

We will not ever assign more work than we have the capacity to do! Each morning at 8:00am sharp we will review the work board for all work that is in-progress asking for any impediments. I as the Product Owner will work on the impediments and ensure you have the resources you need.

The QA team will embed with the programming team and testing starts with the development team using Unit Tests. The QA team will write manual tests for each iteration and eventually automate them as well. I will be working directly with the build people to implement continuous builds that will have Build Verification tests run after every build. No code goes to the QA team until all BVT tests are passed. Programmers must provide Test Case Results for their Unit Tests prior to entering QA.

No production code will be allowed until all Bugs of Priority 1 or 2 have been fixed. No code will be written until an Software Architect has approved the design.

All Changes are welcome but we will not start any more work than we can handle.

  • This does not answer the question posed.
    – Flambino
    Commented Dec 6, 2015 at 12:13

To all the answers already posted I'd add:

To chase a chimera:

  • a fanciful mental illusion or fabrication.
  • In Greek Mythologya chimera was a fire-breathing female monster usually represented as a composite of a lion, goat, and serpent. It is now used an unattainable goal.

The Free dictionary


I would simply say "like dogs chasing the rabbit". In dog racing there is a fake rabbit often used that is just out of reach and ahead of the dogs.

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