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I am looking for an English equivalent to the German idiom Mühsam ernährt sich das Eichhörnchen. Which literally translates to the squirrel feeds itself arduously. It's used to describe any arduous or cumbersome task that has a lot of minuscule steps and ultimately reaches the target. Exactly as the squirrel that gathers hundreds of nuts and hides them in dozens of places for months to prepare for the winter.

It is mainly used as (self-)motivation or justification after reaching seemingly no progress.

"I worked all day and I feel like I didn't make any progress."

"Well, (Mühsam ernährt sich das Eichhörnchen.)

I found slowly but surely, but I am looking for something more visual.

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    It's not quite the same, but slow and steady wins the race (also “slow and steady gets the job done”) has at least some level of similarity. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 11 '16 at 17:37
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    'Rome wasn't built in a day' is in the same ballpark. As is the question Are there any English sayings to the effect that little changes may lead to big?. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 11 '16 at 18:06
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    In French there’s the fairly visual “petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid” (little by little [as per @tchrist ] the bird builds its nest), but none of the English versions (little strokes fell great oaks; many a mickle makes a muckle; slow and steady wins the race; little by little you get far) proposed at that link seem be as visual as the original (not to mention that yours is not among the three proposed German versions). – Papa Poule Sep 11 '16 at 18:21
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    I'm fond of P.G.Wodehouse's version: "Every little bit added to what you've got makes just a little bit more". – StoneyB Sep 11 '16 at 18:29
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    Perhaps it should be noted that "slow and steady wins the race" is associated Aesop's tale of the Hare and the Tortoise, and thus evokes the image of a slow, persistent tortoise that succeeds where a zooming, scattered hare fails. – kasfme Sep 12 '16 at 4:54

12 Answers 12

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"Rome was not built in a day" = It took hundreds of years to build Rome.

  • The proverb is usaully quoted by a person who has been blamed for slow work, or to a person who is impatient at not being immediately successful in what he tries to do. (Common English Proverbs)

"I worked all day and I feel like I didn't make any progress."

"Well, Rome wasn't built in a day.

  • Rome wasn't built in a day: Important work takes time. This expression functions as an injunction or plea for someone to be patient. For example, you can't expect her to finish this project in the time allotted; Rome wasn't built in a day

This phrase was a French proverb in the late 1100s but was not recorded in English until 1545.

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I am not sure if there's a proverb/idiom with the exact same meaning but I can suggest the following.

Every little helps.

You just took a baby step.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

First step is always the hardest.

Wiktionary:

Alternative forms: every little bit helps

Proverb every little helps

(Britain) Even the smallest things are helpful when towards a goal.

Noun baby step ‎(plural baby steps)

A small effort made towards the completion of a much larger task. Learning a new language is difficult, so we'll learn by taking baby steps.

Proverb a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

even the longest and most difficult ventures have a starting point

TFD:

first step is always the hardest

Prov. Starting a new endeavor is the hardest part of it.

Fred: I want to quit smoking, but I can't convince myself to sign up for the "stop smoking" program, Jill: The first step is always the hardest.

If I can just start this project, I know the rest will be easy. The first step is always the hardest.

  • I like the baby steps. Specifically because it does not refer to the start of the activity. – Helmar Sep 11 '16 at 19:19
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    Note that "every little helps" isn't idiomatic. Use the so-called alternative form instead: "every little bit helps". I hope this little bit helps. :) – Lawrence Sep 12 '16 at 4:28
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    'Every little helps'? Does it a verb? Wiktionary the worst. Or does British English not verbs? – Mitch Sep 12 '16 at 13:03
  • In British English, "every little helps" is perfectly idiomatic, and complete in itself. @Mitch, how could you miss the verb? Hint: it ends with 's'. – TonyK Sep 19 '16 at 16:44
  • "Little" isn't often used as a noun in American English without "a" proceeding it, e.g., I cried a little when I heard David Bowie died. My impression is that it's not often used as a noun without "a" proceeding it in British English either, except in this particular phrase. – Michael Seifert Sep 21 '16 at 20:43
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How about light at the end of the tunnel? It doesn't involve squirrels or nuts, but it works well in your example. And it's more visual than slowly but surely.

From The Free Dictionary:

light at the end of the tunnel: the end of a difficult period or job

light at the end of the tunnel: something which makes you believe that a difficult or unpleasant situation will end

light at the end of the tunnel: the end of a difficult situation or task, the solution to a difficult problem

light at the end of the tunnel: the prospect of success, relief, or escape after strenuous effort

"Tunnel" represents prolonged difficulty; lack of progress; or the darkness resulting from same; "light" represents the end of difficulty; progress/success; or the light associated with same.

Your example:

"I worked all day and I feel like I didn't make any progress."

"Well, soon you'll see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Note the motivational aspects of the second sentence, which one could complete in numerous ways.

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brick by brick (adverb)

Example:

We think Leeds will recover step by step and brick by brick.

(You can use it more figuratively also.)

There are more examples at https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/brick_by_brick

This is kind of related to the already proposed "Rome wasn't built in a day."

But based on the dialogue example you gave, I would rather reference another animal. In the dialogue, the second person is giving the first person some encouragement, creating an identification with an animal in the natural world. So here's what I would suggest:

"I worked all day and I feel like I didn't make any progress."

"Well, sometimes it's two steps forward, one step back. But you'll get there in the end."

The animal that goes two steps forward, one step back, is the snail. I think that in Germany snails are small and cute, right? And they are very patient. So hopefully this approaches the charm of your original.

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The visual imagery of the AmE idiom 'nickel-and-dime' suits your ask. The idiom came to mind because I recalled a roadside panhandler's sign (along with the kinetic image of him chasing coins thrown from car windows):

Those nickels and dimes add up!

At first I thought it might not be suitable, because it is most often used negatively, as shown by definition 1 of the transitive verb in American Heritage:

nickel-and-dime
....
v.tr.
1. To drain or destroy bit by bit, especially financially: nickel-and-dimed the project to death.
2. To accumulate in small amounts: "nickel-and-diming a substantial bankroll together" (Newsweek).

(American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. S.v. "nickel-and-dime." Retrieved September 16 2016 from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/nickel-and-dime.)

However, as exampled by the panhandler and evidenced by definition 2 from American Heritage, a suitable context or a skilled speaker may quite easily bring out a positive sense of the idiom, and it will be readily understood...by those familiar with the low value of American nickels and dimes.

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Nine women can't make a baby in one month The process to make a baby takes the time it takes; there is little that may change from day to day, and you can't accelerate it. It is a colorful way of expressing Brooks' Law from the 1975 pop project management book The Mythical Man Month

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You can use the somewhat Latinate gradually, but I think little by little better conveys what you’re looking for here. Oxford Dictionaries Online offers “by degrees” for the sense of the expression.

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    The OP is looking for something more visual. – 54 69 6D Sep 11 '16 at 17:44
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This may not be quite right, but at least it involves animals, if you consider insects animals, and it touches on some of the key elements of the squirrel feeds itself arduously.

Consider the fable The Ant and the Grasshopper. According to Wikipedia:

The Ant and the Grasshopper, alternatively titled The Grasshopper and the Ant (or Ants), is one of Aesop's Fables, numbered 373 in the Perry Index. The fable describes how a hungry grasshopper begs for food from an ant when winter comes and is refused. The situation sums up moral lessons about the virtues of hard work and planning for the future. (emphasis added)

The fable concerns a grasshopper (in the original, a cicada) that has spent the summer singing while the ant (or ants in some versions) worked to store up food for winter. When that season arrives, the grasshopper finds itself dying of hunger and begs the ant for food. However, the ant rebukes its idleness and tells it to dance the winter away now. (emphasis added)

With regard to the OP's example and its desired (self-) motivational aspect:

"I worked all day and I feel like I didn't make any progress."

"Well, have you ever heard the fable The Ant and the Grasshopper? You're the ant, and when winter comes, you will be glad of all your hard work. You will have prepared well."

One could frame the response of the last two sentences in numerous, and I'm sure, better ways.

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“The dictionary is the only place that success comes before work. Work is the key to success, and hard work can help you accomplish anything.” - Vince Lombardi http://sumo.ly/23Zo via @quotezine

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How about the proverb "Mighty oaks from little acorns grow," meaning great things may come from small beginnings.

According to phrases.org.uk, the word acorn comes from the OE aecern, meaning berry or fruit (and the tree genus Acer comes from the same root, aecern). From the same source(and I add this quotation because I find it interesting!):

Before oaks were mighty they were first either great, tall, sturdy or even just big. Examples of early variants of 'mighty oaks from little acorns grow' are found in

  • Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, 1374, "as an ook cometh of a litel spyr" [a spyr, or spire, is a sapling]

  • Thomas Fuller's Gnomologia, 1732: "The greatest Oaks have been little Acorns"

  • an essay by D. Everett in The Columbian Orator, 1797: "Large streams from little fountains flow, Tall oaks from little acorns grow."

The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations states that 'great oaks from little acorns grow' is a 14th century proverb. Unfortunately, they don't include any details to support their view. The 'mighty' version is known, in the USA at least, from the middle of the 19th century. It appeared in A. B. Johnson's The Philosophical Emperor a Political Experiment from 1841.

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To be "treading water" denotes that one has to put in an effort just to stay still -- as when swimming.

tread water

to be active but without making progress or falling farther behind

Sales are about the same as last year, and the company is pretty much treading water.

Source: http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/treading

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The two following idioms were not yet mentionned:

  • step by step one goes far.
  • constant dripping wears the rock away.

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