The scenario: I have a problem Z that I’m tasked with solving by my boss. However, before I can complete Z, I must first finish tasks Y and X. However, X depends on tasks W, V, U, and T. And so on, ad infinitum.

There is a term in either the field of computer science or just in English in general that describes this situation and I, for the life of me, cannot remember it. Any help?

  • @deadrat that's a pretty close term too, but that's a logic/reasoning specific one. The one I'm shooting for was more closely tied to computing or just general task completion – David Gormley Nov 29 '16 at 22:04
  • Well, your problems are snowballing. – Hot Licks Nov 29 '16 at 22:33
  • Well, with regards to computer science, you seem to be describing a stack. As in, the tasks are stacking up (infinitely). – AleksandrH Nov 29 '16 at 23:55
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    Also, can you give an example phrase where the term would be used? – Katherine Lockwood Nov 30 '16 at 1:27
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    In nerdy computer programmer circles, this is known as yak shaving. Don't ask. – Dan Bron Feb 17 '17 at 14:28

What do you think about you situation suffering from "Spaghetti Dependencies". I don't think it is a commonly used term (a brief search only finds this: http://www.3dfa.com/spaghetti_limit.html), but I assume most people in software development would know exactly what you mean.

Of course it's a play on "spaghetti code" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spaghetti_code

I'm assuming "poorly scoped" is not the right description to tell your boss. :-)

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  • That's actually pretty good! It's not the exact term in mind, but the closest I've seen so far and probably about as good as we'll get. If only I could remember which of my old professors said it....lol – David Gormley Nov 30 '16 at 14:10

As suggested by @deadrat in Comment 1 on your question, infinite regress captures perfectly the situation you describe in your question.


An infinite regress in a series of propositions arises if the truth of proposition P1 requires the support of proposition P2, the truth of proposition P2 requires the support of proposition P3, ... , and the truth of proposition Pn−1 requires the support of proposition Pn and n approaches infinity.

Compare your scenario:

"I have a problem Z that I’m tasked with solving by my boss. However, before I can complete Z, I must first finish tasks Y and X. However, X depends on tasks W, V, U, and T. And so on, ad infinitum."

There is an obvious mapping between the truth of Pn and your having to complete an ever expanding list of pre-tasks before you can complete Task n. The underlying concept in the two cases is the same.

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    It's turtles all the way down. – user198750 Nov 30 '16 at 15:14

Consider a Sisyphean problem, in allusion to the mythical character Sisyphus, who has to roll a boulder up a hill again and again for all eternity, with the boulder always escaping his clutches right before he reaches the top.

From Wiktionary:

Sisyphean ‎(not comparable)

  1. Incessant or incessantly recurring, but futile.

    • 2013 August 10, “A new prescription”, in The Economist, volume 408, number 8848:

      As the world's drug habit shows, governments are failing in their quest to monitor every London window-box and Andean hillside for banned plants. But even that Sisyphean task looks easy next to the fight against synthetic drugs. No sooner has a drug been blacklisted than chemists adjust their recipe and start churning out a subtly different one.

    Sisyphean labors‎

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  • That's a pretty good term, but not the one I'm thinking of. It's very close. For all I know, it may have just been something a professor said a long time ago that I thought was funny and I'll never find it again. Good suggestion!, I'll mark it correct if no one can come up with what I'm thinking of. – David Gormley Nov 29 '16 at 21:46

You could call this a Russian doll problem.

In a Russian nesting doll toy, as you are handling a beautiful painted wooden doll, you discover that the head and shoulders part of the doll can come off, like lifting a lid off a round box. As you lift the lid, you discover an identical, slightly smaller doll nested inside the first. But the second doll also comes apart! And so on.

If you want to convey infinite nesting, you could add a modifier, e.g. infinite, interminably or never-ending.

Here is a stackexchange meta reference to this description, applied to the problem of ever-expanding questions: https://meta.stackexchange.com/questions/188625/etiquette-for-russian-doll-questions

enter image description here

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If any of the tasks is dependent on a task that is dependent on it, then you can have a case of infinite recursion.

You did not explicitly say that such was the case, but you said "and so on, ad infinitum". Presumably it is such self-referencing dependency that is behind the "ad infinitum".

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  • Well, the tasks aren't recursive in that manner (i.e. task Z calls task Y and X, task X then calls Z, which calls Y and X). The problem is more that before I can finish the first task, I have to finish a seemingly infinite number of "pre-tasks." Like before I can chop this wood, I have to get my axe. And before I can get my axe, I have to get the keys for the woodshed. But before I can get the keys for the woodshed, I have to take out the trash because my wife said so, etc. etc. The original task gets lost because of everything else that must be done before it. – David Gormley Nov 29 '16 at 21:45
  • So it's not about an infinity of tasks but a seemingly infinite number of tasks. In other words, you are just overwhelmed by the number of tasks and the fact that there turned out to be more than you expected. Your question as written is unclear. That's clear also from the fact that the answers that people gave, to try to help you, are all over the map. – Drew Nov 30 '16 at 2:36

You might consider catch 22

a problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem or by a rule

the show-business catch–22—no work unless you have an agent, no agent unless you've worked

also : the circumstance or rule that denies a solution


The term is often used when the problem is merely circular, not necessarily recursive.

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  • I think that's what Drew was getting at above too. It's not quite this, you can see my comment on his answer for more explanation – David Gormley Nov 29 '16 at 22:12

Consider "task dependency." The link (to a Project Insight page on task dependencies) takes you to a page where four types of task dependencies are defined. Your example sounds like the site's "finish to start" dependency:

Prededcessor must finish before Successor can start (Land must be purchased before road building can start).

This term doesn't capture the ongoing nature of the task dependencies, but it is a start. You could, I suppose, say "infinite finish-to-start task dependency," but I don't see that term used anywhere in my searches, and it is quite a mouthful.

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I believe the term non-linear may be appropriate here:

non-linear: Of or relating to a system of equations whose effects are not proportional to their causes. Such a set of equations can be chaotic.

Just as applicable is the term circular dependency:

circular dependency: In software engineering, a circular dependency is a relation between two or more modules which either directly or indirectly depend on each other to function properly. Such modules are also known as mutually recursive.

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Pandora's box

Definition: a prolific source of troubles

The god Prometheus stole fire from heaven to give to the human race, which originally consisted only of men. To punish humanity, the other gods created the first woman, the beautiful Pandora. As a gift, Zeus gave her a box, which she was told never to open. However, as soon as he was out of sight she took off the lid, and out swarmed all the troubles of the world, never to be recaptured. Only Hope was left in the box, stuck under the lid. Anything that looks ordinary but may produce unpredictable harmful results can thus be called a Pandora's box.

A modern twist on the Greek inspired idiom

can of worms

Metaphorically speaking, to open a can of worms is to examine or attempt to solve some problem, only to inadvertently complicate it and create even more trouble. Literally speaking, opening a can of worms, as most fishermen can attest, can also mean more trouble than you bargained for. (Mental Floss)

Dulcis in fundo (last but not least)

vicious circle

  1. a situation in which effort to solve a given problem results in aggravation of the problem or the creation of a worse problem: (Dictionary.com)
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