I feel like this is a not uncommon series of events when I’m faced with a problem:

  • I have a problem.
  • I try to fix the problem, to no avail.
  • I resign myself to the problem being unsolvable.
  • Shortly afterwards, the problem is resolved with minimal effort on my part.

For example, suppose I’ve lost a set of keys. I spend a while searching the flat for them, to no avail. I give up, sit down and perhaps call somebody to whinge about it – and then spot them sitting in front of me. Complaining about it is often the precursor to discovering it’s been fixed.

Is there a phrase that describes this feeling, of a problem that solves itself shortly after you’ve given up?

I’ve often said Murphy’s law or sod’s law of the universe to describe this sort of event, but I don’t think that’s accurate – this isn’t a bad thing (far from it!), it’s just a shorthand to say “it’s a weird quirk of life”.

I considered the term heisenbug, but (1) that seems a bit technical, and (2) the problem is solved, not reproducing intermittently. To me, a heisenbug is still a concern even if it doesn’t reproduce on demand, because it might recur later. That’s not the case here.

Perhaps this is some form of irony? I was thinking perhaps situational irony, but I’m aware that this is a heavily overused term, and I’m not sure if it’s accurate here.

I’ve tried googling, and looking back through old questions, to no avail. I’m not sure if there’s a term I’m not finding, or if this is just less common than I think.

  • 2
    Welcome to ELU, alexwlchan. That's a nice first question. I agree that the options you discarded are not quite fitting.
    – Helmar
    Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 21:58
  • Are you looking for a descriptive phrase (like Prester John's "tardy serendipity", or are you looking for an idiom?
    – Lawrence
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 9:20
  • "Is there a phrase that describes this feeling, of a problem that solves itself shortly after you’ve given up?" - what feeling is it? Relief? Surprise? Happiness? Confusion? Suspicion that the universe is playing a joke on you? Frustrated that you've been wasting time? Feeling like you've been led down a garden path? Murphy's Law and Sod's Law and Heisenbug describe the situation rather than the feeling around it. Cosmic Plaything trope ? Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 18:48
  • Related... solving problems you're stuck on by asking the duck hwrnmnbsol.livejournal.com/148664.html Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 19:49

12 Answers 12


The scenario you describe is attributable to Humphrey's Law, which states that 'a normally automatic or unconscious activity is disrupted by consciousness of it or reflection on it'.

Of course, this assumes that the reason you don't find your keys is that you're too consciously focused on the act and outcome of finding your keys to allow the instinctive and unconscious mechanisms of your brain to do what they need to do to actually find them - and that the reason they eventually turn up is that this impediment of consciousness is removed.

But we all know the real reason: the universe is laughing at you.

Which, of course, is Sod's Law.

  • While I think that @Laurel's Eureka! should get the accept, I gave this one an upvote as I have experienced this MANY times. I think this is the cause of many of the times I've heard "If it was a snake, it would have bit you."
    – TecBrat
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 13:46
  • The only answer which takes "giving up" into consideration.. +1.
    – EKons
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 15:35

I think with a concept like this you're going to get different phrases depending on the specifics of the situation.

For example, in the case of the keys, a common phrase would be that it was staring me in the face

to be obvious The answer to this problem was staring him in the face, although at first he couldn't see it.


However, this phrase only really applies if the specific solution to the problem was something obvious that you simply missed because you were looking to hard.

Let's say we took a different approach. Say you were working on a chemistry experiment for ages and you simply couldn't get the solution you were looking for. You give up, forget to wash out your equipment overnight, and come in the next day and see that your desired result was achieved, simply by leaving it overnight. You gave up on the problem and it fixed itself, but the solution wasn't blindingly obvious. In that case, 'staring me in the face' would not apply.

  • Close, but "staring me in the face" doesn't capture the "giving up" part of things.
    – DCShannon
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 22:15

If you're looking for a descriptive phrase, consider the following in the context of your first example regarding problem-solving: "incubating the problem".

You’re walking down the street, completely relaxed, and you are not thinking about any particular thing. Then all of a sudden the solution to a problem you’ve been working on for weeks pops into your head out of the blue. You wonder why you didn’t think of it before. You’ve experienced your subconscious mind at work. Your subconscious mind will continue to work on a problem long after you leave it. This is known as incubating the problem. Many idea people report that their best ideas come when they are not thinking about their problem. - Michael Michalko, How to Get your Subconscious Mind Working on a Problem (emphasis, mine)

If you're looking for an idiom, consider:

Stop searching and you will see. - attributed to Lao Tzu, Getselfhelp.co.uk

These kinds of sayings are open to many interpretations. The one I'm trying to highlight is that of finding a long-lost, forgotten object when simply sweeping under the cupboards one day.


One might possibly refer to your situation as a "tardy serendipity" or a "delayed serendipitous solution". Wikipedia notes that the word "serendipity" '...was coined by Horace Walpole in 1754. In a letter he wrote to a friend, Walpole explained an unexpected discovery he had made by reference to a Persian fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip. The princes, he told his correspondent, were "always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of".' The resolution of the problem is "serendipitous" because the quester has abandoned the search for a solution when one presents itself spontaneously. The adjective "tardy" recognizes the effort of the previous search and the fact that the seeker could have been spared some labor had the solution presented itself earlier rather than "tardily".

  • Please explain your answer in full. Why are these phrases suitable? Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 17:25
  • Something like this?
    – user193445
    Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 18:07

The OP's situation might be described in colloquial English (BE?) as "jammy".

Urban Dictionary: Jammy - ...lucky, defying probability with outrageous good fortune.

So, one might say: "Well lo and behold. There they (the keys) were all the time. Sitting on the table, right in front of my nose. How jammy is that?"

  • 2
    American English speaker checking in - never heard of that before!
    – user812786
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 19:45
  • 1
    @whrrgarbl Yes, I am believe it's confined to BrE, a slang utterance rather than mainstream language. It would even include the expression, "He's a jammy bugger!", a mildly vulgar way of describing a person with an inordinate amount of good luck, perhaps a level of luck that is undeserved or envied by others, as in, "He wasn't even trying to score - the ball just bounced off the jammy bugger's head into the goal." (Cambridge Dictionary). Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 1:33

I have found it: Eureka! I mean that quite literally. Wikipedia gives the description:

The eureka effect (also known as the aha! moment or eureka moment) refers to the common human experience of suddenly understanding a previously incomprehensible problem or concept.

Insight can be conceptualized as a two phase process. The first phase of an Aha! experience requires the problem solver to come upon an impasse, where they become stuck and even though they may seemingly have explored all the possibilities, are still unable to retrieve or generate a solution. The second phase occurs suddenly and unexpectedly. After a break in mental fixation or re-evaluating the problem, the answer is retrieved.

Alternatively, there's epiphany or miracle, depending on how powerful or supernatural the revelation feels.

  • 1
    I'm not sure I agree that "seeing keys on a desk in front of me" is really a moment of insight, a fitting "Eureka!" moment, that lost keys were ever incomprehensible, or that "Eureka" describes "this feeling, of a problem that solves itself"... Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 18:50
  • @TessellatingHeckler It fits more closely with the second part, an impasse where they become stuck. You've searched everywhere, but can't find them. The break in mental fixation is the point where you give up, then find the solution (in this case the location of the keys). This problem didn't solve itself; it only appeared to.
    – Laurel
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 19:12
  • I think Eureka is more like when you get past writer's block, or something along those lines. You've been staring at the problem for a long time, making no progress. That's pretty different than giving up and resigning yourself to the lack of a solution.
    – DCShannon
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 22:18

click into place

Become suddenly clear and understandable:
given this info, everything soon clicks into placeOD

  or perhaps simply it clicked e.g.

I spent ages looking for the keys, and had given up when it just clicked that they were on the table.


There is French idiom, "L'esprit de l'escalier", which might apply:

L'esprit de l'escalier or l'esprit d'escalier ("staircase wit") is a French term used in English for the predicament of thinking of the perfect reply too late.

But this applies to replies (to a conversation which is past), not to solutions (to a problem which is past).

You might be able to use its synonym, "afterwit", or maybe a portmanteau such as "aftersolution".


I'm having trouble with the giving up part. Nevertheless here some ideas, hoping they will help get the ball rolling:

When you feel as though the answer should have been obvious: "Duh!" (The inflection is important -- high, low, middle, and you can also accompany this with a gesture of tapping your temple with the heel of your hand)

And then the obvious hit me.

(for the keys in your example) And there they were, staring me in the face.

I allowed my subconscious to work on the problem.

The answer came when I stopped trying.

Problem forgotten, problem solved. (Here I tried to make up something that would sound like a traditional maxim.)

  • 2
    Related to "I allowed my subconscious to work on the problem." is "I put it on the back burner." Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 5:05

How about epiphany?

Epiphany: An epiphany (from the ancient Greek ἐπιφάνεια, epiphaneia, "manifestation, striking appearance") is an experience of sudden and striking realization. Generally the term is used to describe scientific breakthrough, religious or philosophical discoveries, but it can apply in any situation in which an enlightening realization allows a problem or situation to be understood from a new and deeper perspective. Epiphanies are studied by psychologist and other scholars, particularly those attempting to study the process of innovation.

Epiphanies are relatively rare occurrences and generally follow a process of significant thought about a problem. Often they are triggered by a new and key piece of information, but importantly, a depth of prior knowledge is required to allow the leap of understanding. Famous epiphanies include Archimedes's discovery of a method to determine the density of an object ("Eureka!") and Isaac Newton's realization that a falling apple and the orbiting moon are both pulled by the same force.


I've always liked the Taoist expression for this: wu wei (Chinese = 無為, meaning "non-action" or "action-less action"). It also means "action through inaction". Whilst you where trying desperately to find your keys you didn't. Only when you truly gave up did you find them immediately with ease. See Wu wei - Wikipedia.


"just a hiccup!"


noun 2. A temporary or minor problem or setback
"just a little hiccup in our usual wonderful service"

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