I'm looking for an idiom for when someone will do small, irrelevant tasks during a crisis instead of working to solve the crisis. The focus of the phrase wouldn't be on procrastinating, it would be about ignoring the crisis entirely.

Some examples:

  • Choosing to organize the supply cupboard when a short deadline suddenly appears
  • A stock trader doing low priority market research during a market crash

  • Sweeping up the ashes while your house is still on fire

  • Changing the oil of your car when you have 4 flat tires

Is there an idiom for this? I feel like it has been on the tip of my tongue for days now.


The one I hear most often is "fiddling while Rome burns."

  • That's the one. I knew there was a musical connotation to it. – Myles Mar 30 '16 at 16:28

The most common example of this where I am from is to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. It means exactly what you say in your title- to focus on a trivial or cosmetic matter instead of the real problem.

Another similar but maybe not as directly related expression is bike-shedding, which describes the tendency of some large bureaucratic organizations to spend too much time on the fine details of a project rather than the truly important features.

  • Two up and two down but no comments. Anyone want to explain? – cobaltduck Mar 30 '16 at 17:12

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote:

"Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least".

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