Context: when someone thinks they are in control but they aren’t. Like a captain steering his ship in a storm. The captain is trying to control his ship but it isn’t doing any good because the ship is being tossed around by the waves.

  • What are you actually wanting to know? – DJClayworth Oct 23 '19 at 14:01
  • Possible duplicate of Idiom that means trying to save something that is beyond saving. I'm guessing that all possible answers here will have appeared there. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 23 '19 at 14:14
  • @EdwinAshworth - save something that is beyond saving has nothing to do putting your efforts without results (not because it is beyond saving). Nuances are an important aspect of a language. – user121863 Oct 23 '19 at 14:27
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    Also you’d be surprised at how much a captain has to do with whether a boat survives a storm or not. – Jim Oct 23 '19 at 14:38
  • A fool's errand / Herding cats / A Sisyphean task / A Pyrrhic victory (if you accomplish the immediate task) / To win the battle but lose the war / Tilting at windmills / battling windmills / Banging your head on the wall / Bailing out a barge with a bucket / Biting off more than you can chew (more about the aptitude of the actor than the futility of the task) // polishing a turd / spitting in the wind // like polishing brass on the Titanic / "like rearranging deck chairs ...'. These are all at least closely related. Has OP rejected them all? I don't want to see duplicate answers. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 23 '19 at 15:17

Herding cats is an idiom for describing exactly that mixture of illusory control and pointless effort. A more common idiom for expressing wasted effort though is beating a dead horse, but it doesn't capture the mindset of thinking you're making a difference the way herding cats does.

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    In my experience, herding cats gets used in a situation where you recognise that things are beyond your control, so any illusion of control has already gone. – KillingTime Oct 23 '19 at 14:14

You may use the idiomatic expression in vain

If you do something in vain, you do not succeed in achieving what you intend.


The captain tried to control his ship in vain.

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Pissing into the wind:

To be doing something totally pointless, fruitless, or futile; to be wasting one's time doing something that will not or cannot come to pass.

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