I'm looking for the word(s) that describes my current dilemma:

I have begun a project that seemed, at its outset, quite simple - tedious, but simple. However, the further I get into the project, the more complex it becomes; the longer I work on it, the less likely it seems I will complete it.

Is there a word or idea that describes this? It's like running at a speed of 10 miles per hour after something that is moving at 11.

  • 2
    I can’t think of a particular word/s to describe it, but your scenario reminds me of Lucy and Ethel working in the chocolate factory, getting further and further behind as the conveyor belt and chocolates go faster and faster.
    – Papa Poule
    Dec 7, 2015 at 20:05
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    If you're looking for a single word, complexify fits the bill ("My proposal would simplify the process, whereas yours would needlessly complexify it.").
    – Gnawme
    Dec 7, 2015 at 21:14
  • 1
    [severe] underevaluation [of project complexity] ?
    – Graffito
    Dec 8, 2015 at 0:38
  • 1
    This project looked easy from a distance Dec 8, 2015 at 7:56
  • 7
    This is called a 'software project'. Dec 9, 2015 at 2:46

15 Answers 15


How about 'snowballing complexity'.

  • 7
    I would also not hyphenate "snowballing".
    – Cat
    Dec 7, 2015 at 22:07
  • Snowballing best conveys the cumulative effect of my situation. I just realized this question had been closed as a duplicate, and I'd like to note that this answer demonstrates why the question is not a duplicate: It does not ask for the word that describes something harder than it looks; rather, it asks for the word that describes something that grows more difficult with time. Consider the example given in the "duplicate": painting a room. While perhaps harder than it looks, it becomes easier with time. Dec 8, 2015 at 20:55

If you're willing to accept an idiom, you might try spiral out of control.

"The project started off easy, but quickly spiraled out of my control."

Or you could possibly use the word exponentially to convey your meaning.

"The project started off easy, but grew exponentially harder as the work progressed."

  • 14
    Please not "exponentially". It's abused. Dec 7, 2015 at 23:27
  • @EthanBolker Unless you'd like to argue that using it is abuse in this instance, it's perfectly fine. OP says "like running at a speed of 10 miles per hour after something that is moving at 11", which is not exponential, but "it's abused" isn't a good reason to not use a word. Dec 8, 2015 at 2:09
  • 11
    The word exponential has a very specific mathematical meaning related to complexity. There's nothing wrong with using that word if it really does grow exponentially harder. However, it is not appropriate to use the word to convey a general meaning of 'becoming complex'. Don't fall into the all too common habit of abusing the word exponentially for dramatic effect. Dec 8, 2015 at 3:48
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    @CraigYoung At least they didn't say it literally grew exponentially harder Dec 8, 2015 at 13:10
  • 1
    Yeah, but who actually says that? :-)
    – pgblu
    Dec 9, 2015 at 12:48

If the project became complex because you decided you needed do more than you originally intended then consider scope creep.

Scope creep can apply to projects that weren’t necessarily simple to begin with, but definitely does mean that they have become much more complex than originally envisioned. In this case, the emphasis is less on “things were more complex than we gave them credit for,” and more on “no one seems to know when to cut off new ideas.”

From Wikipedia:

Scope creep (also called requirement creep, function creep and feature creep) in project management refers to uncontrolled changes or continuous growth in a project’s scope. This can occur when the scope of a project is not properly defined, documented, or controlled. It is generally considered harmful.

  • 4
    This would only be apt if the problems with the project are not inherent to its original goals. Scope creep is the addition of new goals. It is entirely possible that the problems fall under the original goals but were unanticipated. Dec 8, 2015 at 5:36
  • @CandiedOrange Agreed; does my answer not sufficiently indicate this?
    – KRyan
    Dec 8, 2015 at 5:37
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    The OP's question is not as narrow as this. It may be this is the reality but that hasn't been communicated. Alternatively, it may be that the OP's problems were simply hidden at the start. This answer, even with the wikipedia quote, doesn't make this distinction clear. It's not scope creep just because it's harder than you thought it would be. Dec 8, 2015 at 5:56
  • If you made that distinction a little clearer I'd be happy to upvote. Especially since this is stackexchange not a help service so there is no point in obsessing over what the OP's actual situation is. Dec 8, 2015 at 6:00
  • @CandiedOrange The opening line says it “can apply to projects that weren’t necessarily simple to begin with,” and the rest of the description says it has less emphasis on things being more complex than originally thought, and more emphasis on adding in new ideas. So I really think I have covered all of that. How would my answer make that any clearer?
    – KRyan
    Dec 8, 2015 at 20:14

If you're looking for a single word, complexify [M-W] fits the bill:

My proposal would simplify the process, whereas yours would needlessly complexify it.

  • 7
    Learn something every day. Had I not seen your reference, I would have said that "complexify" was a made-up word. Even spell-check thinks it's wrong.
    – Michael J.
    Dec 7, 2015 at 22:24
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    I'd say complicate, never heard of complexify, sounds fake, but who knows
    – Kyle
    Dec 8, 2015 at 11:30
  • 1
    I always avoid complexify and use complicate but they have their technical differences. Dec 8, 2015 at 13:54
  • I am absolutely never going to use this word, but you might get the answer at the end of the day. My only problem with this — other than its obscurity — is that my project was perhaps never simple; rather, I underestimated its complexity. Also, the more I think about it, the more I realize the definitions for complexify and complicate are the same, although complexify seems to better fit the bill. It now dawns on me that I may have taken the most complicated route to finding the word "complicated." Dec 8, 2015 at 17:38
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    @Calne maybe it's one of those words that they put in to catch plagiarism. I forget what those are called. Dec 8, 2015 at 19:02

There is a well-known mathematics concept called the coastline paradox. In short, it says that the length of a coastline is wholly dependent on how we measure it. That is, the smaller the ruler that we use, the longer is the coastline. This concept underpins fractal geometry.

In CS and IT, there are formalized measures of complexity such as Big Oh and MDL. These can be useful in writing software and predicting run times. Some topics in Information Theory may also apply to your problem.

Outside of these, I have seen "down the rabbit hole", "take the red pill", "maze of twisty little passages", "feature creep", "Gordian knot" and others to describe the creeping featurism of any project.

  • 2
    "Down a rabbit hole" was the first thing that came to mind. What I'm trying to describe is the sort of thing that might be demonstrated by a person who's absolutely certain he knows the directions to his destination — but the farther he drives, the more lost he gets and the more stubborn he becomes about asking for directions. Dec 8, 2015 at 17:28

Sounds like you opened a can of worms.

  1. (idiomatic) A complex, troublesome situation arising when a decision or action produces considerable subsequent problems. If someone gets a promotion that might not be deserved, it could open up a whole can of worms with the other employees.
  2. (idiomatic) A troublesome situation; an issue whose resolution is difficult or contentious, but not necessarily complex. Questioning the decision would definitely open a can of worms. wiktionary.org

When it comes to such as situation in software - I often just go with the complexity was underestimated

  • We underestimated the complexity of the code/project.

: to estimate (something) as being less than the actual size, quantity, or number


How about - the project started simply enough but has ramified into a tangle of troublesome tasks.

It suggests the central problem is sending out more and more shoots or branches that you can't keep up with. Quite different to hitting a brick wall or wading through treacle...


It sounds like you are taking [x] steps forward and [y] steps back.

Common values are x = 2, y=1 for something that is progressing, but more slowly than expected, or x=1, y=2 for something where you now seem to have more work ahead of you than when you started.




This term for a task that is endless and ineffective comes straight out of Greek myth.

In Greek legend Sisyphus was punished in Hades for his misdeeds in life by being condemned eternally to roll a heavy stone up a hill. As he neared the top, the stone rolled down again, so that his labour was everlasting and futile.

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    I guess I could say that what I'm looking for is deceptively Sisyphean. Dec 8, 2015 at 20:33

You have bitten off more than you can chew (wiktionary.org) because your eyes were bigger than your stomach (thefreedictionary.com).


You could say, the project started as a snowball that gained so much momentum it now turned into a giant snow boulder barreling out of control.

barrel: to move very fast and often in an uncontrolled or dangerous way M-W


How about evolve?

The project evolved into something much more complex


However, the further I get into the project, the more complex it becomes; the longer I work on it, the less likely it seems I will complete it.

There is almost certainly no one English word that covers this meaning, notwithstanding the other answers provided.

In military and by extension, corporate speak, there is the term "mission creep" to describe a process where the original aims are expanded further, as time goes on, and the realities on the ground become more obvious or compelling. But I'm not sure that is the term you're seeking.

  • Good point. It's one of those existential dilemmas for which the English language has no word, but for which there is surely some incredibly long and obscure foreign word that perfectly sums it up. Dec 8, 2015 at 17:30

You got in over your head on this project.

The Wiktionary reference even has this as example:

  1. (idiomatic) More than one can handle; too much (especially in over one's head).

    I’m in over my head on this project. Can you help?

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