I'm looking for a word or short phrase that adequately describes those useless actions we all perform despite knowing the futility of said actions. I've tried to order the following examples roughly descending in suitability to my purpose with most appropriate first.

  • Repeatedly pressing the 'Walk' button at a pedestrian controlled crosswalk or a hallway's elevator call button when an elevator is taking a little longer than usual to arrive.
  • Tapping or shaking a wristwatch that has obviously stopped as if the action will miraculously get the watch to show the correct time.
  • Rattling a locked door after it has been determined that it is locked as if subsequent attempts will magically allow access.
  • Wandering around waving a cell phone in the air when it's perfectly obvious that no signal can be found as if the process will inexplicably transcend the laws of electromagnetism.

These actions fill time and/or alleviate anxiety. I was thinking of 'busy work' but that seems to be more descriptive of a workplace environment.

An accurate word or phrase that describes the above would not describe the following.

  • Hitting or shaking a mechanism that refuses to perform the action it was designed to do. (e.g. vending machine, computer,
  • A baseball player throwing his bat after striking out.

These actions are born out of frustration and anger. They could be described as a vent. That's not what I'm looking for.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 15:38

1 Answer 1


a compulsion would describe actions to fill time and alleviate anxiety:

  1. An irresistible impulse to act, regardless of the rationality of the motivation

If it became medically significant the psychiatric definition could apply:

  1. Psychiatry: An act or ritual that a person feels compelled to perform repeatedly, often to reduce the distress caused by an obsession.
  • After reading the link in the comments, I started to wonder if pavlovian could be worked up into an appropriate phrase but I haven't had any success yet. Compulsion sums up the motive but neglects the futility of the action.
    – user150753
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 1:10
  • 1
    Is this a form of displacement activity? Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 1:29
  • an animal or human activity that seems inappropriate to the context, such as head-scratching when one is confused, considered to arise unconsciously when a conflict between antagonistic urges cannot be resolved - probably a variant
    – lbf
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 1:31
  • @Jeeped pavlov results in a reward. a compulsion is rewardless, & is a vain attempt.
    – lbf
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 1:40
  • @lbf - The rewards are delivered during the initial conditioning (e.g. an elevator arriving in the past). A pavlovian action is responding to similar stimuli in the (possibly vain) hope that a similar reward will be achieved.
    – user150753
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 1:55