Cure Your Bad Habits With "Sludge," the Productivity Tip You've Never Heard Of


Small barriers to negative actions can help improve outcomes.

We’ve all heard of nudge theory, the behavioral science concept popularized by economist Richard Thaler and legal scholar Cass Sunstein in their 2008 book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. In the book, Thaler and Sunstein demonstrate how small actions, nudges, can influence positive behaviors. The classic example is that turning automatic enrollment increases participation in a 401(k) plan. Now, there is also an opposite but complimentary idea that we’d like to introduce you to: small barriers to negative actions can help improve outcomes.

Meet Sludge. Sludge appears to have been concocted by Thaler himself (with a hat-tip to his co-author) on Twitter:

Thaler’s response was a reference to the bureaucratic red tape that undermines the effectiveness of government programs. In this particular tweet, he was responding to the complexity of the US tax code and its impact on tax filers.

This example paints sludge as a nefarious force that should be eradicated at all costs. But what if sludge could be used as a tool for improving our work lives?

It turns out, I’ve been a sludge aficionado for quite some time, particularly when it comes to my addictive relationship with my iPhone. I disabled TouchID and created a really, really long password and have also used Parental Controls to help me tune out the incessantly depressing news flow. Sometimes I purposely leave my laptop charger at home to force myself to focus on my most important tasks first (before the battery dies). In all these instance, sludge acts as a mini-speed bump that forces me to reflect and focus on the task at hand.

Sludge can also be harnessed as an effective workplace strategy. In 2013, Dropbox realized that many internal meetings had outlived their usefulness and declared Armeetingeddon. Overnight, all recurring meetings were deleted from the company’s calendars. Then, after each meeting, employees were forced to consider the meeting’s effectiveness and if their presence was actually required. Furthermore, Dropbox enforced a company-wide embargo on all new recurring meetings for two subsequent weeks, going as far as deleting any rogue meetings aimed at dodging the new rule.

Google, long known for its generous and delicious on-premise catering used some sludge techniques promote healthier eating behaviors. They replaced their self-serve M&M station with individually wrapped packages and placed cookies and crackers further from the beverage stations. And over at Pixar, during his tenure as CEO , Steve Jobs tried inserting some sludge into the the physical design of their office space. According to an article in Business Insider Jobs proposed that:

There would only be one set of bathrooms in the office’s central atrium, and none in either of the building’s two wings. Forcing everyone to use the same set of bathrooms, he reasoned, would force more interactions.

So next time you’re faced with the workplace equivalent of a wintery puddle, instead of jumping over it ask yourself: What can sludge do for you?