This is the second part of "75 common business idioms", sorted by category so you can master the American workplace jargon.
The next business idioms are related to time.
28. Work against the clock
Related: No time to lose
“Working against the clock” means you are rushing to meet a tight schedule. You are working as fast as possible to complete a task that needs to get done ASAP. Relevant words include “urgent” and “time sensitive,” which your superior may use to describe the task when she assigns it to you. She may also mention that there is “no time to lose,” which means the company does not have any time to spare because the task needs to be done in a short amount of time.
“Downtime” is the spare period of time that you have to rest. This can occur between projects when you are not busy at work. For example, you may have worked against the clock to finish an important project, but now you have some downtime to relax and not work at such a fast pace until your next project. The word originated from when people used to call a period when a vehicle or machine was down or out of service “downtime.”
30. Round the clock
The phrase “round the clock” means all the time, continuously throughout the day and night. Your CEO might be working round the clock to perfect a pitch deck to present to potential investors. “Round the clock” is short for “around the clock,” and the two can be used interchangeably.
31. On the dot
The idiom “on the dot” means right on time. If you are working a nine-to-five job, you would be coming to work right on the dot if you arrive exactly at 9:00 AM. “On the dot” comes from the hand of an analog clock pointing exactly to a certain tick mark.
32. Call it a day
The expression “call it a day” is used when you go home for the day after work. It signifies the end of the action of working. For example, you may be working rigorously with your coworker on a task together when she sees it is time to go home and says, “Let’s call it a day and go home.” This means the two of you will stop working for that day and continue on the next working day.
Making Plans and Strategies
Here are some expressions related to making plans and strategies in the workplace.
33. By the book
Related: By ear
Going “by the book” means following rigid rules and predetermined standards. Suppose your team comes up with two advertisement ideas, and one of them is daring and risky while the other is conventional and safe. Your manager who is in charge of the team may want to play by the book instead of taking risks and opt to go with the second idea.
In contrast, to play something “by ear” means to go about it instinctively rather than by rules and standards. Say you were to attend a meeting regarding hologram technology, which you know nothing about. Instead of spending hours researching to become an expert on the topic, you could play it by ear and intuitively follow along during the meeting, learning as you go.
34. Game plan
“Game plan” simply means a plan or strategy. It is just a fun way of saying “plan.” When a coworker asks you about the plan or strategy for a certain project, he might say, “Okay, what’s the game plan?”
35. Rule of thumb
A “rule of thumb” is a standardly accepted guide but not a hard-set rule. For example, in a resume or CV, there is no fixed rule for how many bullet points you need for each job, but the rule of thumb is to have three to six bullets. The idiom “rule of thumb” dates back to the Middle Ages when thumbs were used as units of measurement.
36. Safe bet
A “safe bet” is something that is for certain. Say you are not sure how to format a proposal at work. A coworker may tell you, “It’s a safe bet to use the format of the previous project’s proposal.”
The phrase “safe bet” does not only apply to choices or methods. Suppose you have a coworker named Kurt who tends to take sick leaves on days when there are important meetings. On the morning of an important meeting, you could say, “It’s a safe bet to say Kurt is going to call in sick today” because you are almost certain Kurt will not show up that day.
37. Think outside the box
The expression “think outside of the box” means to think creatively and not be limited by standard ways of thinking. Your team may have come up with several safe ideas for a project, but a team member may say, “Why don’t we think outside the box?” which means she is suggesting that your team should think of more original ideas that are not all that conventional.
38. Off the top of someone’s head
The phrase “off the top of one’s head” means without long thought or pondering. This usually means the first thing that comes to mind. For instance, you could be in a meeting when someone asks how much it would cost to hire an agency to create a simple 30-seconds advertisement. You could say, “Off the top of my head, maybe $1,000 to $4,000.” When you use the idiom “off the top of my head” here, you are not sure of the exact cost and just making the first guess that comes to mind. If you do not know even the estimated cost, you can also say, “I don’t know how much it would be off the top of my head.”
39. Two cents
Related: Weigh in
Your “two cents” are your thoughts on a certain topic. The phrase is used often when the opinion was not asked for or if it is for something that does not have direct influence on you. For example, you may be chatting with another team’s employees who are talking about two ideas for their team’s next project. You can give your unsolicited opinion by saying, “I think the first idea is more realistic. That’s just my two cents.” You are chiming in your opinion about another team’s project that does not have any direct relevance to you; whether that project does well or not will not affect you. You are simply stating your opinion as a third-party entity. Another way of saying the phrase is “my two pennies’ worth.”
When you “weigh in” something, you are establishing your influence on it. This is quite the opposite of when you give your two cents. For instance, suppose another team is struggling with a project they are working on. The CEO could have your team weigh in and help the other team. This means your team will directly influence the other team and their project to aid them.
40. Bring to the table
What someone “brings to the table” is what they are contributing. For example, you may have a coworker named Sherry who is the MVP of your team, bringing an abundant amount of value to your team. You could say, “Sherry brings a lot to the table” which expresses how Sherry makes a large contribution to the team.
41. Drawing a blank
The idiom “drawing a blank” means you cannot think of or remember something at the current moment. Suppose your manager asks you who designed last year’s brochure for an annual company event. You can say, “I’m drawing a blank” if you do not recall who designed it right away.
42. On the mark
Related: Miss the mark, way off the mark, hit the nail on the head
The phrase “on the mark” or “hit the mark” means exactly correct or accurate, whereas “miss the mark” means not correct or accurate. “Way off the mark” means not even close to the correct answer or direction. For example, suppose your manager asks your team to guess the location of your team’s next business trip, which is taking place in Tokyo, Japan. Suppose a coworker guesses, “Moldova” to which your manager jokingly responds, “You’re way off the mark.” Then you say, “Tokyo” and your manager replies, “Bingo! You’re right on the mark.”
The expression “hit the nail on the head” is used when someone says something that is exactly correct or true. Let’s say your manager asks you to guess the type of product the CEO chose to be the next product to be promoted. You might guess that it involves holograms to which your manager would reply, “You hit the nail on the head! The next product will be a hologram projector.”
43. Long shot
A “long shot” is a far-fetched guess or idea that may or may not be correct or successful. For instance, you and your teammates might come up with a far-fetched idea for a project. Your coworker may comment, “Well, it’s a long shot, but I think we should try it out.”
“Long shot” is not to be confused with “long haul” or “long run” which mean over a long period of time.
The informal phrase “no-brainer” refers to something that is obvious or requires little thought. Say your manager is buying your team lunch and asks if you all would prefer salad or pizza. Your teammate may respond, “That’s a no-brainer. Pizza, of course!” Your coworker is expressing that the answer to your manager’s question is an obvious one which is most likely because people tend to prefer pizza over salad for a meal.
45. Cut corners
To “cut corners” means to skip steps or ignore some rules of a process to complete the process faster. It can also mean the easiest and fastest method. Suppose your coworker who is a fellow reporter tells you, “I think we have to cut corners by not cross-checking the facts with an expert because the deadline for the article is in a couple of hours.” In this situation, the two of you are working on an article that is due in only a few hours and unfortunately do not have sufficient time to double-check the information in your article with an expert. The two of you cannot be as thorough with your work and are prioritizing turning in the article on time.
Related: Give and take
A “trade-off” is an unwanted byproduct of a choice that is made. In other words, it is a compromise or balance between two factors of a choice. For example, your team may have been allocated a certain budget for a project. If you outsource one part of the project to a low-cost agency, you can save time, but the trade-off is that the quality of the outsourced work may not be exceptional. It is a compromise between saving resources and maintaining quality.
The phrase “give and take” also means a compromise. You could say your relationship with your superior at work is a give-and-take. Your superior gives you guidance and direction while you provide them with your compliance and output. “Give and take” is not to be confused with “give or take,” which means about or approximately.
47. It’s not rocket science
Related: It’s not brain surgery, in the ballpark
The expression “it’s not rocket science” is used when something is easy and not difficult to understand. It can also be used when you want to express that something does not have to be precise to the decimal. For example, your coworker may tell you that writing a business proposal is not rocket science and that you just have to follow a template. Another variant of the expression is “it’s not brain surgery,” which has the same meaning.
The phrase “in the ballpark” means approximately correct. You may have estimated that your team would make $100,000 in sales in February. If your estimate was at least somewhat close to the actual figure, you can say that you were in the ballpark.
48. Lots of moving parts
If something has “lots of moving parts,” that means it is complicated with multiple components or elements. If a partnership with another company has lots of moving parts, it means the collaboration is complex and has many different factors.
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