boil the ocean


boil the ocean


  • undertaking an impossible chore or task.
  • making a task, an assignment, or a piece of work unnecessarily difficult.

Boiling the ocean is an idiom with a few related meanings. The meaning is as simple as this: Think about when you’re told to boil a whole ocean. How do you start? Where do you start? Undoubtedly, it is a difficult and impossible task.

Therefore, boiling the ocean refers to a task that’s impossible to achieve. It is used to mean something so complex or challenging that it’s hard to know how to do it or where to start.

Example Sentences

  1. Keep it to three to four actionable categories rather than trying to boil the ocean.
  2. Maybe we can concentrate on just a few areas rather than trying to boil the entire ocean.
  3. By attempting to answer too many business questions and hypotheses at once, do not “boil the ocean” in your attempt.

Origin and History

Where did the “boil the ocean” idiom come from?

The “boil the ocean” idiom came about during World War I. When Will Rogers was asked how the US should go about the issue of German U-boats, he simply recommended this: “Let the ocean be boiled.” A reporter asked how this could be done. In response to this, Will Rogers replies, “Man, I’m just the idea.”

The “Boil the Ocean” idiom attributed to Will Rogers, the American humorist, is said to have suggested that boiling the ocean was the only way to deal with World War I’s German U-boats. He said, “You just boil the oceans, and the U-boats will turn pink and pop up to the surface.”

The idiom is used in the book “Penny Tries to Boil the Ocean.” This is a story that’s all about making a difference. It’s a book for the little changemakers who carry big hearts.

The earliest printed record of the idiom “boil the ocean” appears to be from the late 19th century, and the phrase started gaining traction in the early 20th century.

One notable instance is found in an article titled “The Chicago Tribune Book of the Fair: A Treasure of Information Concerning the World’s Columbian Exposition,” published in 1893. The phrase is used figuratively in the context of describing the magnitude of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago:

“The task of director Burnham and chief engineer Root is not to be envied. They must of necessity attempt to boil the ocean and construct a model universe, presenting in miniature the civilization, architecture, and peoples of every nation on earth.”

Let’s take the example of a business scenario.

In a business setting, “boil the ocean” is used as a negative comment regarding how an individual or a team carries out business schemes or projects.

The idea here is that you are concentrating too much on the fine details or trying to be too thorough. It could also imply that you’re trying to make business ideas so complex that you can barely accomplish your goals.

To not boil the ocean, you must ensure that tasks observe the following:

  • Clear guidelines.
  • Set within the available resources.
  • Have regular discussions on progress.
  • Avoid any unnecessary expansion.

That’s why you may hear some people being warned to stop boiling the ocean with their ideas. This makes a whole lot of sense and is applicable to many personal or business situations. If you want to accomplish something, you can reduce the steps towards accomplishing it.

Often, when you focus too much on adding extra details and trying to handle everything or engage in too much planning for many unforeseen matters, you may never see your ideas come to realization.

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