In some situations, trying to solve a problem uncovers another problem. Attempts to fix that uncover yet another. A few more rounds and one can be doing something seemingly completely unrelated to the main problem. Is there an expression for that?

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    I suppose it could be referred to as 'Stack Overflow'.. Nov 22 '18 at 18:57
  • No; no rounds of that could ever leave what you were doing "unrelated to the main problem" unless you'd missed a step or more. English has no interest in that kind of analysis but many programming languages might… can you think of any? Nov 22 '18 at 19:19
  • @RobbieGoodwin good point, I missed the word "seemingly", now edited.
    – user325372
    Nov 23 '18 at 9:22

You’ve gone down a rabbit hole.

See this ELL answer: https://ell.stackexchange.com/a/116548/43624 by ohwilleke.

The idiomatic expression, a "rabbit hole" is a reference to Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland". Its modern meaning is a detour from your work efforts that will require a great deal of time and analysis, while producing no useful result. It is a dead end or a fool's errand. A June 4, 2015 article in the New Yorker magazine recounts the evolution of the phrase over time.

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    I think OP is asking about something more like when you need to mow the lawn but you discover you first need gas for the mower so you jump in the car but discover the car tire is low, so you need the compressor but it’s behind a bunch of stuff that you need to move but you need to clear a space for that stuff so you decide to throw some stuff away so you go to get the garbage can but the wheel doesn’t turn so you get some oil and after you’ve oiled it and put the oil back you say, “Ok, the wheell’s all fixed, now why was I fixing the garbage can wheel when I was supposed to be mowing the lawn?
    – Jim
    Nov 24 '18 at 16:42
  • @Jim I thought the rabbit hole idiom worked for that situation, e.g I wanted to mow the lawn, but went down down a rabbit hole and somehow ended up fixing the garbage can wheel?
    – k1eran
    Nov 24 '18 at 17:08
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    But your definition says, no useful result, a fool’s errand, a dead end. Here each step is a useful result required to achieve the original goal, but the stack just got too deep so that unwinding leaves you stranded.
    – Jim
    Nov 24 '18 at 17:17
  • @Jim I guess it depends. There could be choices higher up the tree. If the protagonist has just asked his neighbour for some spare petrol then the lawn would have been mowed. I know the other stuff is important too but to use a cliche, everything is relative.
    – k1eran
    Nov 24 '18 at 17:26

I suppose you could say you got off in the weeds. I can't find any authority for this but it's a common enough expression. The implication is that you've wandered off the main path.


In such a situation, we can say that one lost sight of the main problem.


lose sight of (someone or something)

  1. To no longer be able to see someone or something due to increased distance from them or it or an obstruction of the view.
    We lost sight of the ground as the plane moved higher into the sky.

  2. To forget about or neglect to focus on something.
    I know you've had some setbacks recently, but try not to lose sight of the goal you want to achieve.

Farlex Dictionary of Idioms. © 2015 Farlex, Inc, all rights reserved.

lose sight of something

[COMMON] If you lose sight of an important aspect of something, you forget about it or ignore it.

They seem to have lost sight of their original objectives.

Collins COBUILD Idioms Dictionary, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2012


In software and programming circles, this is an incredibly common situation to be in and is usually known as yak shaving:

  1. Any apparently useless activity which, by allowing you to overcome intermediate difficulties, allows you to solve a larger problem.
  2. A less useful activity done consciously or subconsciously to procrastinate about a larger but more useful task.

See: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/yak_shaving


My wife calls this a “give a mouse a cookie” moment, because if you give a mouse a cookie, he’ll want a glass of milk.

This comes from the children’s book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie where, as described in Wikipedia:

A boy gives a cookie to a mouse. The mouse asks for a glass of milk. He then requests a straw (to drink the milk), a mirror (to avoid a milk mustache), nail scissors (to trim his hair in the mirror), and a broom (to sweep up his hair trimmings). Next he wants to take a nap, have a story read to him, draw a picture, and hang the drawing on the refrigerator. Looking at the refrigerator makes him thirsty, so the mouse asks for a glass of milk. The circle is complete when he wants a cookie to go with it.

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