For an example, I'll quote C.S. Lewis' The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:

One day the cat got into the dairy and twenty of them were at work moving all the milk out; no one thought of moving the cat.

Is there an idiom for this type of situation?

  • It doesn't answer your question, but I've always liked the abbreviation "K.I.S.S. - Keep It Simple, Stupid." – Dennis Sep 27 '11 at 0:23
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    Headline: Occam gives it up and grows a beard... – Drew Aug 15 '14 at 21:15
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    You could also use "crossing a river to get water"... – Miros Feb 12 '16 at 10:09
  • An "overkill" . – flow2k Jul 2 at 20:54

13 Answers 13


Depending on the specifics, one could use "taking the scenic route" to the solution.

This wouldn't work for the cat in the dairy, but it does work in problem solving for example.

An overly complicated device could be a Rube Goldberg machine. This could be used for a metaphorical machine as well, or one could use Rube Goldberg process.

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    +1 for Rube Goldberg; didn't think of that. – Daniel Sep 26 '11 at 22:15
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    In the UK we would refer to a Heath Robinson contraption, Heath Robinson being the direct UK equivalent of Rube Goldberg and, in fact, slightly predating him. – BoldBen Sep 20 '16 at 18:55

How about:

Swatting flies with a sledgehammer.

Although maybe that's more of an idiom for using the wrong tool, or for using unnecessary force, rather than for doing something in an unnecessarily complicated way.

EDIT: Actually, Google shows that this idiom has in fact been used with all three meanings.

  • +1 I like this one, though it usually means doing something in an unnecessarily powerful way. – Daniel Sep 26 '11 at 22:06
  • Although I have to admit that at least 90% of the instances I looked at, it did indeed mean doing something in an unnecessarily powerful way. – Peter Shor Sep 27 '11 at 3:16
  • The version I'm familiar with is 'using a sledgehammeer to crack a nut'. – Barrie England Sep 27 '11 at 10:29

Not quite it perhaps, but my favorite expression for doing things the hard way is "Making love in a hammock. Standing up."

  • I really like this one. It really paints a picture. – Sam Figueroa Jul 1 '16 at 11:33

This is probably idiosyncratic to a particular person I know, but she's referred to her digressions as "going from my thumb to my pinky by way of my elbow."

  • I think this is the one I've for which I've been looking for the past 1/2 hour. Thank you! – harperville Jan 15 '15 at 14:51

Making three right turns (instead of one left) is also an option.


Doing something "ass about face" , Which means doing something in a backwards manner. This phrase is in regular use in England.

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    Not very fitting, IMHO. – Daniel Sep 26 '11 at 22:07
  • @drɱ65δ: Depends on your context, so I don't think it should be dismissed out of hand. For example, it might be dialog in a novel. – Codie CodeMonkey Sep 26 '11 at 22:09
  • @DeepYellow: True – Daniel Sep 26 '11 at 22:16
  • You asked for a idiom, and this is a very English expression, commonly used by people like dairy farmers, or 'working class' people, so this expression would definitely be used to describe the above situation.It isn't a very nice expression in my opinion, but it does describe people not thinking and doing things backwards. – Tracey Hill Sep 26 '11 at 22:46
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    Or in American English, "ass-backward". – Dennis Sep 27 '11 at 0:20

It's definitely related, though I tend to use it when I start doing something simple and it becomes far too complicated later:

Yak shaving.

Commonly in use in the software industry, and dates back to the 1950s apparently. Seth Godin wrote up the story which prompted the term.


For those on this side of the Atlantic unfamiliar with Rube Goldberg, you can use:

  • Heath Robinson,
  • Heath Robinsonesque,
  • Heath Robinson contraption,
  • Heath Robinson solution,
  • Heath Robinson machine or
  • Heath Robinson affair.

How about this one?: go all around Robin Hood’s barn

  • I would have said Robinson's barn, here (I have never heard Robin Hood's barn). I wonder now whether that expression might be related to the Heath Robinson of @Hugo's answer. – Drew Aug 15 '14 at 21:13
  • A similar expression (in meaning) is being taken down the garden path. – Drew Aug 15 '14 at 21:13
  • Thank you for this old phrase which I grew up on. My 96 year old mother grew up on it too. It's fairly common in New England. – Sister Sep 30 '14 at 22:57

Going around your ass to get to your elbow?

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    While "not knowing one's ass from one's elbow" might be idiomatic, are you really certain that this answer is? Perhaps not, given the question mark. Answers really should be answers. (The system is responsible for one of the downvotes here, probably because of the question mark.) – Andrew Leach Aug 15 '14 at 19:31
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    @Andrew: Around 40,000 results from Google suggest michael G and me aren't the only ones who've heard/used it. – FumbleFingers Aug 15 '14 at 20:56

There's got to be one out there, but I'm mostly drawing a blank.

For what it's worth, according to Wiktionary, the idiom to take/seize a bull by its horns means

Take direct action to solve a problem without looking for other, less demanding, approaches.

but elsewhere I can only find it defined as tackling a difficult situation decisively.

Interestingly, some googling turned up idiomatic expressions in other languages that might fit your bill, particularly Spanish, where

Buscar tres pies al gato

(literally, to look for three feet on a cat) apparently means to unnecessarily complicate something.


In British English Going(all)round the houses is exactly what the OP is looking for. It would seem to be related to the American Robin Hood's(or Robinson's)barn and may be less common among younger people than older ones but is still current. I'm surprised that it hasn't appeared before.


Convoluted, tortuous, intricate, long-winded?

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    Aye, but them ain't idioms. – Daniel Sep 26 '11 at 21:30
  • Fair enough :-( – CesarGon Sep 26 '11 at 21:31
  • "Circuitous" would be another good non-idiom term. – kindall Sep 27 '11 at 2:56
  • Byzantine is my favourite – Sanjay Manohar Apr 22 at 11:46

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