An image showing progress

20 Idioms to Describe Progress

In today’s article, we will take a look at some useful idioms for describing various stages of progress. There are plenty of idioms in the English language we can use to talk about starting, working through, and finishing up a project. In addition, we will include idioms related to both encountering and solving problems during these projects. 

Progress idioms can also be a very handy tool to change how we deliver our statements. We can downplay the size of issues while exaggerating the positive advances we make. This can be crucial in business situations, as well as in our personal projects, to change the narrative and keep a positive attitude. No matter how big or small the tasks you face in life are, we are sure these idioms will become a daily part of your English vocabulary. Are you ready to get the ball rolling on expanding your idiom knowledge? 

See also: 40+ Idioms About Communication

Starting a project 

To lay the groundwork

Laying the groundwork is an idiom that references building a foundation on the ground upon which a house will be constructed. You need a solid base in order to guarantee a strong and sturdy structure in the future. Similarly, the groundwork of your project will be all the preparations you do prior to starting. These are the initial tasks that will help you make faster and smoother progress once you officially begin. For example, if your goal is to learn a new foreign language, you might begin by buying some learning materials and finding movies or music in that language that interests you–that is the groundwork. 

E.g., “I want to start my own business next year, so I am laying the groundwork now by doing market research.” 

E.g., “I am hoping to go on a three-month backpacking trip next year, but I have to lay the groundwork first and save up some money.”

To be off to a good start

When we say that our task or project has gotten off to a good start, we mean that we have started successfully. This sets a positive tone for the entire project ahead. For example, a sports team that has won 3 of its first games in the new season is off to a good start. 

On the other hand, we can also replace the word “good” with “slow” to convey the opposite meaning. Getting off to a slow start means the project is not progressing as quickly as you had hoped. However, the connotation of this phrase isn’t necessarily negative. It can simply be an acknowledgment of the rough start and an encouragement to focus on the road ahead.

E.g., “Our new website has already received 20,000 visitors in the first 24 hours, so we’re definitely off to a good start.”

E.g., “Our sales figures have gotten off to a slow start this quarter, so let’s try our best next month!”

To gain momentum

“To gain momentum” is an idiom that refers to how quickly or powerfully your success is growing. Occasionally, your project will have a period of slow progress or none at all. However, if you suddenly find that it is becoming easier and easier to cross off tasks on your to-do list as you work through them, you are gaining momentum. 

E.g., “When I first started yoga, none of the poses made sense to me. However, after 3 weeks, I started gaining momentum in my flexibility and confidence.” 

To gain ground

Gaining ground is very similar to the previous phrase, “gain momentum.” Both reference a bigger and bigger increase in speed or size. However, gaining ground is best used in a competitive context. For example, if a company’s goal is to outsell their competitor and they can see the sales of their new rival product growing faster day by day, we can say that they are gaining ground. In addition, we can also use this idiom when a new idea starts to become more popular in society, threatening to overtake current beliefs (this is a less obvious but still competitive context). 

E.g., “We have to work to gain ground on Coca-Cola if we want to become the top global soft drink firm.” 

E.g., “The legalization of same-sex marriage is gaining ground across the world.” 

To pick up steam

Very similarly to gaining momentum, picking up steam implies a faster and faster increase in progress over time. We can use this phrase almost identically to “gain momentum.” The one small difference in nuance is that picking up steam focuses more on the fact that there was a slow start at the beginning. 

E.g., “The startup’s sales finally began to pick up steam after the company’s CEO was interviewed by the local TV station.” 

To get the ball rolling

Another phrase similar to “gain momentum” is “get the ball rolling.” When you push a ball from the top of a hill, it starts to roll slowly but then gains momentum, hence why these two phrases have almost the same meaning. Nevertheless, there are certain times when it is better to use one phrase over the other. “To get the ball rolling” is most commonly used to refer to the actual starting point (as in the moment you push the ball) and not the momentum that follows later. 

E.g., “After months of careful planning, we finally got the ball rolling by holding our first official meeting for the new advertising campaign.” 

See also: How to Make Polite, Indirect Suggestions

Encountering problems in your project

To hit a few bumps (in the road)

This idiom is a common way to express that you have encountered some problems while working on your project. Think of a bumpy dirt road in the countryside—driving on it will not be as smooth as driving in the city, and you will come across some obstacles. These obstacles are the issues you face that slow down your progress when moving forward. A great reason for using idioms is that they can soften the delivery of negative statements. “We’ve hit a few bumps” sounds much less severe than “We’ve had some problems.” 

E.g., “All was going well in my studies, and then I hit a few bumps in the final chapter of the textbook.”

To hit a snag

Just as we can hit a bump, we can hit a snag. A snag is a sharp object that visibly sticks out and represents a sudden problem. While hitting a few bumps on the road is expected and not a cause for concern, hitting a snag is a bit more problematic. It implies a bigger issue that might take more time and effort to clear up. 

E.g., “Me and my fiancé hit a snag in our wedding planning when our booked venue canceled on us.”

A hiccup 

Have you gotten the hiccups after drinking soda too fast, making you jump up every couple of moments, completely interrupting whatever it is you were doing? You can think of minor issues in your project as little hiccups that temporarily slow down progress. Out of all the idioms related to problems, this is the softest way to express difficulties. A hiccup is nothing major and can be solved quickly–no worries! 

E.g., “There were some hiccups with the holiday planning regarding hotels, but, luckily, the trip itself was perfect.” 

A work in progress

If we describe something as “a work in progress,” we mean that it is not yet finished. The basic connotation of this phrase is indeed neutral. However, we can change its meaning to a more negative one if we use the right intonation. If you sound unsure or hesitant when delivering this idiom, the listener can catch the sense that your project is not yet at the level it should be. 

E.g., “I’ll admit, the project proposal is still a work in progress. We are missing quite a lot of important information.” 

Rough around the edges

Describing your work as “rough around the edges” means that it needs more improvement. We can use this idiom to refer to a piece of work that is unsophisticated or unfinished for the time being. This idiom doesn’t necessarily imply any big issues but simply points out that more work is required. 

E.g., “The draft of my annual report is a little rough around the edges. I need to go back and correct my mistakes.”

To work out the kinks

A kink is a bend in something that is meant to be smooth. Imagine a metal wire that is bent and then immediately unbent. While the rest of the wire remains smooth, the point at which the bend was made will leave a kink. These kinks in our project are similar to the “bumps in the road” that we previously covered. However, with enough effort, these kinks can be smoothed out or “worked out.” Like bumps, they represent small issues that can be easily fixed towards the end of the project.

E.g., “The new software system is complete. We just need to work out the kinks with the user interface.”

To go round in circles

Going round in circles can be a very frustrating part of trying to make progress. This idiom refers to us trying new solutions or existing options over and over again without ever moving forward–hence, going round in circles. No matter what we try, the less-than-ideal result seems to be the same each time. 

E.g., “The neighborhood committee went round in circles for hours when trying to solve the issue of the recent increase in crime in the area.”

To hit a wall 

This idiom signifies the biggest possible stop in progress. If you run into a wall at full speed, you will come to a complete stop. Hitting a wall during your project means that you cannot possibly go any further and are stuck. This is the most serious and negative way to describe your progress and is reserved for the biggest of problems and obstacles. 

E.g., “The team had hit a wall when they discovered that they had already used up all the available project funds halfway.” 

E.g., “When the scientist hit a wall in his research, he decided to go back and redo the experiment using a different method.” 

Dead end

Similar to hitting a wall, coming to a dead end symbolizes the end of progress. Like a dead-end road where going forward is impossible, reaching a dead end in your project means that there is no way to proceed. The connotation of this idiom is very negative. However, worry not! You can always reverse your car out of the dead end and instead search for alternative routes on your journey to progress. 

E.g., “The young gymnast’s Olympic dream came to a dead end after she broke her leg during an unfortunate practice.” 

See also: Idioms About Communication: Practice Exercise

Solving problems

To have a breakthrough

A breakthrough is a sudden solution to a problem that has been unsolved for a long time. For example, let’s imagine you have been trying to lose weight for months. No matter what diet you try or how much you run, you cannot shed those kilograms. One day, you decide to start weightlifting instead of running, and in a few weeks, you notice that the weight finally starts going down! You have just had a breakthrough. 

In addition to personal or professional projects, breakthrough is frequently used in a scientific context. There are many unanswered questions about the universe, human beings, and the world around us that are waiting for their breakthrough moment. 

E.g., “After months of struggling to come up with an idea for her new book, the author had a breakthrough and thought of the perfect storyline.” 

E.g., “No scientist has had any breakthroughs regarding the question of what happens after we die.” 

Smooth sailing 

This boat-themed idiom means that there are no problems at all. Your project is going as smoothly as a ship sailing on calm, wave-free waters on a sunny day. This is the most positive progress-related idiom we can use to update others on our project. It is a great idiom to use with your boss as it instantly calms any worries about your ongoing tasks. 

E.g., “So far, my recent journey of learning how to cook has been smooth sailing!”

Almost there!

To be on the home stretch 

In this idiom, the word stretch refers to a piece of road. This would make the home stretch the piece of road you are traveling on right when you are about to reach your house. Therefore, being on the home stretch symbolizes almost reaching your final destination—you are almost done. In the context of progress, being on the home stretch simply means that you have come to the final portion of your project. This idiom is usually used for long, time-consuming, or difficult undertakings. For example, if a marketing team is finally ready to launch a new product next week after months of development, running ad campaigns, and holding press releases, they are on the home stretch. 

E.g., “After 6 months of working on writing my thesis, I am finally on the home stretch of graduating with my postgraduate degree.” 

The finish line 

As you might imagine, the finish line is the ending point of a sports race. Think of this as the ultimate final point you must cross to mark your project as completed. Being close to the finish line is similar to being on the home stretch. We frequently use this idiom as words of motivation or encouragement when we want to support someone approaching the end of their lengthy task. Of course, it can also be used in the literal sense when referring to sporting events. 

E.g., “Come on, team! Let’s give it one final push. We’re almost at the finish line!”

E.g., “The runner was exhausted, but he knew that the finish line was close.”

To put the finishing touches on 

The finishing touches are the final little adjustments or additions that perfect your overall work. For example, after finishing up a school essay, a student might go back and change a couple of fonts or sizes to make the title and headings stand out more. The majority of the student’s work is done. They can now focus on making the last tiny changes that will really finalize his project. As these edits are small, this idiom implies that not much time will be needed until full completion. We frequently use “finishing touches” on projects that require a visual element or editing, such as art or cooking. 

E.g., “I finished baking and assembling the cake. Now I just have to put some finishing touches on it with decorations.” 

E.g., “I’ve entered the information into the presentation slides, but I still need to put the finishing touches on it.”


That’s a wrap

This is a wonderful phrase to mark the end of what you have been working on. To wrap up means to finish all remaining tasks. Saying “That’s a wrap” is very common when addressing your team, your friends, or whoever else has been helping you on your journey to signify that you are done. 

E.g., “That’s a wrap on this article, English learners! I hope it was smooth sailing for you.”

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