Expend effort that maintains one's status but does not make much progress toward a goal, as in He was just treading water from paycheck to paycheck. This idiom alludes to the term's literal meaning, that is, “keep one's head above water by remaining upright and pumping the legs.”
The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
How to use tread water in a sentence
As the music climaxes, he kisses his friend full on the mouth while they both tread water naked.Steve Grand’s ‘All-American Boy’ and the End of the Gay-Panic Defense | Hugh Ryan | July 10, 2013 | THE DAILY BEAST
He seemed to think that after that boffo first debate, he could just tread water.
Democrats will have no mandate to do much besides tread water for four years.Obama Will Probably Win. Here Are Some Reasons For Republicans to be Cheerful. | Megan McArdle | November 6, 2012 | THE DAILY BEAST
And Dick had sense enough to take the advice, and tread water quietly till the boat should come.Follow My leader | Talbot Baines Reed
He began to tread water while he tried to lift his head and gaze across the waves.Polly's Business Venture | Lillian Elizabeth Roy
Margery, seized by a panic, forgot to tread water and went clear to the bottom.The Meadow-Brook Girls in the Hills | Janet Aldridge
He was full of life, he understood how to swim, to tread water, to turn over and tumble in the flood.What the Moon Saw: and Other Tales | Hans Christian Andersen
When you tread water you force the water down with your hands and feet and so send your body, or keep it, up.On the Trail | Lina Beard and Adelia Belle Beard