What Is Boil the Ocean?

Boil the ocean is an idiomatic phrase that means to undertake an impossible task or project or to make a job or project unnecessarily difficult.

The phrase appears in business as well as in other group settings.

Understanding Boil the Ocean

The phrase boil the ocean has the additional connotation of going overboard or delving into such minute detail that a project becomes impossible.

It also is sometimes heard as a derisory comment on a written or verbal report that is filled with unnecessary detail, insider jargon, or pompous language.

Key Takeaways

  • To avoid boiling the ocean, focus on the most critical parts of a project.
  • Break a large project into smaller units.
  • Don't set impossible goals for yourself or others.

In the literal sense, boiling the ocean is impossible because there's too much water for it to be feasible. When applied to groups or projects, it can mean merely making something so complicated that the goal becomes impossible.

As with many phrases of this type, its origins are somewhat mysterious. Sources such as Yahoo! Answers and English.StackExchange.com point to Will Rodgers, Mark Twain, and Lewis Caroll. However, no direct attribution has been identified.

For project managers and business leaders, it is especially important to avoid boiling the ocean. Management can accomplish this by focusing on the most critical parts of a project. They can make sure they have the right team and the right resources in place before starting a project. They may break large projects into smaller units, accomplishing steps rather than failing by bounds.

Real-World Example of Boiling the Ocean

Say a manager directed a team to prepare a presentation for an American business client based in Houston. Instead of requesting a straightforward presentation, the manager may insist that the employees prepare versions in Spanish, French, Japanese, Chinese, and Italian as well as English, just in case someone at the presentation prefers to hear it in one of those languages. The manager has taken a simple project and turned it into something which is near-impossible. In fact, the ocean is boiling.

The phrase has been variously attributed to Will Rodgers, Mark Twain, and Lewis Caroll.

Another example might be a six-month-old startup company that has set a goal of obtaining venture capital funding and going public by the end of the year. Such a goal might seem laudably ambitious to the company's founder. The employees who are tasked with getting it done know it's boiling the ocean.