I'm looking for an idiom or expression that would mean "all one's efforts wasted".

I have found "to have one's cake dough". Can I use it for "all my efforts wasted" too? ( A non-native friend told me it is used for saying " all 'my plans' failed", not 'my efforts'.)

I want to use it in:

John spared no efforts to provide his son with anything he needed for going to a medical college, but his son disappointed him by going to an art college. John accepted his son's choice but was really upset and felt ----(=all those efforts were wasted).


In Persian we say "one's yarns changed back into cotton".

(You know that cotton is changed into yarn by spinning, using a spindle, that takes a long time and efforts, so "all my yarns changed back into cotton" means "all my efforts wasted".)

  • 8
    The yarn --> cotton one is great! I'm going to start using that in English because it's way better than any existing expressions! May 5, 2016 at 16:17
  • 15
    It's worth noting that I've NEVER heard the "cake dough" expression. EDIT: Apparently it dates back to Shakespeare and beyond. But I think it's safe to say it's not a commonly understood current expression, at least not in American English. May 5, 2016 at 17:27
  • I see, @ChrisSunami, I just found it in dictionary, but I didn't know that if I can use it or not. :)
    – Soudabeh
    May 5, 2016 at 17:37
  • 8
    All that work, down the drain.
    – Chloe
    May 6, 2016 at 21:08

21 Answers 21


Your example works really well with in vain:

John accepted his son's choice but was really upset and felt all his efforts had been in vain.

More than one dictionary uses similar examples to illustrate in vain. Take Merriam-Webster (vain):

―in vain

1 : to no end : without success or result < her efforts were in vain>

See Oxford Learners too, “All our efforts were in vain.” The connotation is though not quite that of the Persian idiom, that one’s work was undone, but that it was unsuccessful, and hence a waste of time and effort.

  • 2
    Perfect fit for the sample sentence. May 9, 2016 at 9:02

A good phrase for this is all for naught.

Naught just means "nothing", so it's another way of saying all your efforts had no result.

"John accepted his son's choice but was really upset and felt his efforts were all for naught."

  • 5
    I feel like I've heard "all for nothing" much more often...
    – user541686
    May 6, 2016 at 1:32
  • 2
    @Mehrdad you must live somewhere they speak a different kind of English than the answerer ;).
    – rubenvb
    May 6, 2016 at 14:09
  • 6
    I'm no linguist, but I'm fairly sure all for naught is the original expression which occasionally gets bastardised into all for nothing
    – Cronax
    May 6, 2016 at 14:31
  • 2
    @Mehrdad yeah but either will work as a matter of taste and context. "Nothing" is plain and to the point while "naught" is a little more poetic.
    – Devsman
    May 6, 2016 at 14:37
  • 2
    What the heck are ngrams for: all for naught vs. all for nothing
    – Jacinto
    May 6, 2016 at 17:14

Try go down the drain.

John's efforts went down the drain.

Also, turn to dust

John accepted his son's choice but was really upset and felt his efforts were turned to dust.

  • 6
    "Down the drain" is really the most common idiom for this situation, at least in my experience. "Turn to dust" is much rarer and sounds a bit overwrought. May 5, 2016 at 17:35
  • "down the pan" is a variant on this.
    – Separatrix
    May 6, 2016 at 15:22
  • 4
    Other variants include "down the toilet" and "down the tubes" May 6, 2016 at 19:15
  • 2
    Or even 'down the shitter' if you want to get really coarse.
    – Joey Sabey
    May 8, 2016 at 4:29
  • 1
    I particularly used "poured down the drain" to invoke the kitchen sink.
    – Joshua
    May 9, 2016 at 2:31

They went up in smoke.

go up in smoke
If a plan or some work goes up in smoke, it is spoiled or wasted.
Then his business went bankrupt and 20 years of hard work went up in smoke.

go up in smoke. (n.d.) Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms. (2006). Retrieved May 5 2016 from http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/go+up+in+smoke


Although not a particularly poetic idiom, you can just say it was all for nothing.

Or, if you want to put emphasis on needing to recover from a failed effort, you can say back to the drawing board or back to square one.

Start again on a new design or plan after the failure of an earlier attempt.



I would have used to no avail.

to no avail - without any benefit or result

The boy pushed against the door to no avail - something heavy was holding it shut.

For your specific sentence I would rearrange it to something like:

John spared no efforts to provide his son with anything he needed for going to a medical college but to no avail, his son disappointed him by going to an art college. ...

  • Thanks, @Old Curmudgeon. How should I use it in my example? :)
    – Soudabeh
    May 9, 2016 at 13:43
  • 1
    @Soudabeh - Added a possible use. May 9, 2016 at 13:46

If you specifically want an echo of the Persian expression, you might say your plans have unraveled or come undone, both of which convey the sense of something completed working its way backwards to an incomplete state.


I like the phrase "an exercise in futility" to describe a lost cause.

John accepted his son's choice but was really upset and felt his efforts were an exercise in futility.


Simon Bolivar's last words were supposedly "I have plowed the sea."

  • Probably more comment-worthy than answer-worthy, but I liked the quote so I upvoted
    – Unrelated
    May 5, 2016 at 21:03
  • 3
    I like this one. But a source or quote and a rephrasing of the OP's sample sentence using your "have plowed the sea" would make your answer more useful and anttractive.
    – Jacinto
    May 6, 2016 at 7:44
  • 1
    Poetic, but very obscure.
    – smci
    May 9, 2016 at 2:36

What about down the toilet

e.g. My business is going down the toilet after all these years...

  • 2
    I'd say that means more like "failed completely"; it's a reflection about the result not about the effort itself.
    – Sled
    May 6, 2016 at 20:13

Two options:

John spared no efforts to provide his son with anything he needed for going to a medical college, but his son disappointed him by going to an art college. John accepted his son's choice but was really upset that his sacrifices were just a fool's errand.


John spared no efforts to provide his son with anything he needed for going to a medical college, but his son disappointed him by going to an art college. John accepted his son's choice but was really upset and felt as though he had been chasing the white whale. (a reference to Herman Melville's Moby Dick)


I think "fruitless" works well here.

John's efforts to get his son to law school proved fruitless.


It's a bit crude and graphic, but my favourite British idiom for something completely futile is "pissing into the wind":

Apparently it's an Italian proverb and may be in American English also.

Defined to me as "to waste time trying to achieve something futile".


You could try: Out the window, or maybe Pointless!


you could use a phrase that also implies the dad had a plan. "...felt his plans were of mice & men"

It references a longer quote "the best laid plans of mice & men often go awry" You can see the dictionary give some info: http://www.dictionary.com/browse/the-best-laid-plans-of-mice-and-men-often-go-awry


I like the one I believe coined by Douglas Adams: "You are rearranging deck-chairs on the Titanic."

Depending on the audience, you can substitute other doomed liners: the Lusitania, the Andrea Doria, even the Costa Concordia.


The common ones you already got are: all your work is "down the drain"/ "down the toilet"/ "all in vain"

"back to square one" covers it if you're required to make another try.

"spinning your wheels" describes both your situation and the process.

If you're in a big predicament or you've run out of options/time then you're colloquially: "up s### creek [without a paddle]"/ "up the creek"/ "s### out of luck" / "SOL"


I haven’t been able to come up with a metaphorical idiom which is exactly equivalent to the spinning one, but some of the phrases that might be used in British English are:

‘but was really upset that his plans had come to naught.’

‘but was really upset that he had built his house upon the sand’ which is an allusion to Matthew 7:42-72

‘but was really upset that his house of cards had come tumbling down’: similar to house built on sand, lots of effort going into something which has a poor foundation, which then fails. Both of these have the effect of suggesting the son is seen as the weak foundation, which may not be what you require.

but was really upset ‘that it had all come crashing down around his ears’, again this is similar to the previous two, an is analogous to a poorly built structure. This one implies that the loss is felt to be catastrophic.

‘but was really upset to realise he had counted his chickens before they hatched’ would mean that he had built up his expectations on something that wasn’t within his control.

but was really upset and felt it had all come apart at the seams’ where ‘it’ signifies the plan for his son’s future and is analogous to a poorly made garment.

NB It is possible you have an incorrect word in your spinning example, if by ‘yard’ you mean ‘spun thread’, I think you want ‘yarn’, but if you mean ‘lengths [of yarn], ‘yards’ might be acceptable.

  • Thank for reply, @Spagirl. I meant "thread", i.e. when the cotton is spun it is changed into yarn/ thread. Shall I use "all my yarns"? :)
    – Soudabeh
    May 5, 2016 at 9:56
  • 1
    @Soudabeh Unless anyone else can comment otherwise, I think 'yard' in this usage is incorrect. 'Yarn' means 'spun thread'.
    – Spagirl
    May 5, 2016 at 9:57
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    @Soudabeh what you have now looks fine to me.
    – Spagirl
    May 5, 2016 at 10:21
  • These expressions are all common in American English as well.
    – Nicole
    May 11, 2016 at 20:12

It’s probably used more to describe things, nerves, and dreams (but perhaps the Father in your scenario had had some dreams about his Son being a doctor!), but “Shot {all} to Hell/pieces” can also work to describe “ruined, wasted” time and effort, as in the top definition for “Shot to Hell” from ‘Urban Dictionary’:

My computer just froze and I hadn't back[ed] up my data, three hours of writing a thousand-word term paper just shot to hell.

In your example sentence it would give:

“John accepted his son's choice but was really upset and couldn’t help but feeling that his efforts (and dreams for his Son) had just been shot all to Hell/pieces.”

Especially if Father and Son have been arguing about this issue all along, “beat[ing] a dead horse” is an expression that already contains the notion of “wasted effort” in it (and would therefore not require you to use “his efforts” in the sentence, as “Shot all to Hell” does).

Regardless of whether the Son’s artistic preferences have always known to Dad or the announcement was a total surprise, you could consider using it, although it would require you describe how the Father now feels about his past effort (perhaps by changing “felt” to “wondered”) because otherwise it will seem as if the Father is still trying to convince the Son:

“John accepted his son's choice but was really upset and wondered if he’s just been beating a dead horse for all these years.

beat a dead horse US informal (UK informal flog a dead horse)
to waste effort on something when there is no chance of succeeding ...

(from Cambridge Dictionaries Online)


I know this question has an accepted answer, but I had a need for a similar phrase (in a slightly different context). I settled on paraphrasing Shakespeare, the original being "All sound and fury, signifying nothing." Wikipedia - Macbeth, Act 5 Scene 5.

In the father/son context, "John accepted his son's choice, but saw that his words had been only sound and fury, resulting in nothing." Not perfect for this context, but a nicely poetic idiom nonetheless.


His efforts went down a rathole

DOWN THE RATHOLE idiom (chiefly AmEng)

For a worthless purpose or purposes: Seeing your inheritance disappear down the rathole.

Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary

The metaphor comes from old farmhouses and settlers' cabins with wooden floors. Inevitably, holes would appear as knots dropped out of the surrounding wood. The holes were called "rat holes" because rodents used them for coming and going.

sfgram on WordReference

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