Looking for a single word that means doing something but not totally finishing whatever it is. Like if one is studying for an exam, that person won't review everything, he/she will just review certain parts of a lecture for the time being.

Edit: I don't mean it like it is a bad thing. What I'm trying to say on the example is to review for an exam little by little on multiple times.

  • Question and question description ask for different things. Cherry picking which parts you want and ignoring the rest is different from studying little by little. One could do one or the other, or both, or neither. They are different ideas. Which do you want an answer for? Commented Jan 22, 2016 at 18:34

11 Answers 11


The review for the exam was 'piecemeal' (adv. and adj.):

  1. By a small amount at a time; in stages: articles acquired piecemeal.

[piecemeal. (n.d.) American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. (2011). Retrieved January 20 2016 from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/piecemeal . Emphasis mine.]

For example,

Her review for the exam was piecemeal.

'Piecemeal' communicates the chronological dimension of what I understand to be the meaning you want.

  • +1 Good one...
    – Jim
    Commented Jan 21, 2016 at 4:09
  • I don't know how widespread this is, but at least for me piecemeal has a connotation of the pieces never quite managing to cover the whole. This implication could be one to keep in mind when deciding whether to use this word. Commented Jan 22, 2016 at 2:22
  • 3
    It also has a connotation (for me) of the pieces being done in "random order", as opposed to in some specific order. If it were done in a defined order, I would use a different term, such as "incrementally" Commented Jan 22, 2016 at 7:42


Incremental, according to Merriam Webster:

of, relating to, being, or occurring in especially small increments [e.g.] incremental additions

Vocabulary.com says:

If you are making incremental progress in math, you are moving slowly but steadily forward. Incremental describes regular, measurable movements that are usually small

Incrementally is doing things by increments. In your case you are reviewing your course-work incrementally, in easy to absorb bite-size portions.

Doing this for a week is better in the long run than cramming for hours the night before an exam; you will retain more.

  • 1
    Usually used in conjunction with improvement: incremental improvement. Note that increments are typically fixed-size chunks. Someone who sets aside an hour a night to study might be described as learning the material incrementally.
    – Tom Hundt
    Commented Jan 22, 2016 at 1:31


According to Merriam Webster gradual is defined as (for this meaning):

1: proceeding by steps or degrees
2: moving, changing, or developing by fine or often imperceptible degrees

Vocabulary.com (for this meaning) words it a bit differently:

proceeding in small stages

Gradually is often used to describe things that are done over time, in relatively small amounts each time.

  • 1
    One would not say one is gradually studying (unless one was trying to be funny); one would say one is gradually zeroing in on an answer to a problem, or maybe gradually getting better at playing the piano. It usually means a lot of time is required. (As the above definitions explain: taking small steps means the process takes a long time.) It does not imply not finishing (as in the original question). It implies the process is ongoing.
    – Tom Hundt
    Commented Jan 22, 2016 at 1:40
  • Your comment applies to every answer here. Studying was probably not a great example since unless one is cramming one does not study everything all at once. Similarly for "not finishing" -- also, one could interpret the question as not finished yet, not just will not finish; Gradually does apply to not finished yet. One would not say one is studying piecemeal or studying incrementally either, because it is implied. It's a matter of perspective and context.
    – Keilaron
    Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 17:19


Google Definition:


do something at a slow and steady rate or speed in order to avoid overexerting oneself.

Rather than cramming for an exam, a student should pace her studies throughout the semester.

Update in response to downvote.

While the definition of the word does not exactly fit the OP's word "little by little," I feel this word is very commonly used in the above situation by students:

Hey, what are you trying to do? Memorize the entire book in the first week of class? Pace yourself!

(while cramming) I'm not going to put myself through this again. I'm going to pace myself next semester.



b : relating to or being iteration of an operation or procedure

So then, what's iteration?

1 : the action or a process of iterating or repeating: as
a : a procedure in which repetition of a sequence of operations yields results successively closer to a desired result


Intermittently. Do a little now, then a little more later, then some more tomorrow... as time permits. You're doing it with interruptions, not all at once. Also it's not predictable how much time you can spend each session; the durations are random. (Contrast with the above incrementally.)

  • I disagree with this one - something can happen intermittently without in any way advancing a long term goal. My car's windshield wipers, for example. They operate once every set interval, but they never get any closer to a "done" state. Commented Jan 22, 2016 at 20:16
  • Consider "I could only work on the project intermittently, but it was eventually completed." That doesn't really tell me that you took baby steps to get the project done, it just tells me the work you did wasn't at regular intervals. Each time you worked on it, you could have made a lot of progress, and it still could have been intermittent work. Can you provide an example with this word that does communicate the idea that work was completed in small portions?
    – talrnu
    Commented Jan 23, 2016 at 16:12


Little-by-little, gradually: 'the troops moved through the village inchmeal, recapturing it virtually house by house'.


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    – user140086
    Commented Jan 22, 2016 at 13:58

little by little [ lit-l ] Main Entry: gradually

Part of Speech: adverb

Definition: happening slowly, evenly

Synonyms: bit by bit, by degrees, by installments, constantly, continuously, deliberately, gently, imperceptibly, in small doses, inch by inch, increasingly, little by little, moderately, perceptibly, piece by piece, piecemeal, progressively, regularly, sequentially, serially, steadily, step by step, successively, unhurriedly

Antonyms: abruptly, fastly, intermittently, suddenly

  • 2
    The OP tagged the question "single-word-requests"...maybe you should hyphenate "little-by-little"? I realize it's a formality, but that's kind'a the point. Also, on EL&U, material copied from a source is (a) supplemented with reasoning for choosing that response; (b) attributed scrupulously to the source. FYI.
    – JEL
    Commented Jan 21, 2016 at 3:10
  • 1
    In an odd twist, "Gradually" seems not to be an answer yet given.
    – The Nate
    Commented Jan 21, 2016 at 12:09

There is also successive.

following one after the other in a series : following each other without interruption

From MW.

But I'm not a native speaker so I don't know for sure.

  • Successive would imply doing different parts of the overall task on separate occasions. The question refers to repeating sections of the work, which is not the same.
    – Chenmunka
    Commented Jan 21, 2016 at 18:53
  • The point with successive is there is a dependency: you can't do this part before you've completed the previous one. It doesn't say anything about the element of time, which the OP was concerned with. It also doesn't really talk about progress (finishing or not); it's about how the process is going to work.
    – Tom Hundt
    Commented Jan 22, 2016 at 1:44



Selectively choose (the most beneficial or profitable items, opportunities, etc.) from what is available

Use in a sentence:

The company should buy the whole airline and not just cherry-pick its best assets

Source: Google


Stepwise (or step-wise). In the tech world, the term "stepwise refinement" is, or was, used for moving ahead in a project bit by bit. Also "Iterative" is bandied about, with one cycle of work being called an iteration.

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