How to fight "sludge" in the workplace: A conversation with Cass R. Sunstein

Becky Wood
Team Humu

Are your employees drowning in "sludge" — the never-ending glut of bureaucratic busy work that makes it hard to make an impact? 

Our co-founder and CEO Laszlo Bock recently spoke with Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard, co-author of the best-selling book Nudge, and “sludge” expert Cass R. Sunstein, whose Nobel Prize-winning work on nudge theory helped inspire Humu. (And, our first free pack of expert nudges.)

Read on for Cass’ tips on sorting through chaos, using behavioral science to navigate uncertainty, and focusing your teams on what matters most. 

Laszlo Bock (LB): For folks who aren’t yet familiar with nudging, there’s no better person to ask: what is a nudge?

Cass R. Sunstein (CS): A nudge is an intervention that helps people get to where they want to go. Think of it like a GPS device or a calorie label that can help you make better decisions.

In your work, there might be a nudge that can help you enjoy your day better by suggesting you take a break, or by offering a piece of advice on how to do your job better. Other examples: if you’re automatically enrolled in a healthcare or retirement plan but can opt out, or if your printer is automatically double-sided to save paper but you can easily change it, those are both nudges. 

The key is freedom of choice: no mandates, no bans, no economic incentives. Just small nudges in a positive direction. If people are automatically enrolled in something that loses them money every month without realizing it, that’s manipulative. But it’s not manipulative if it's just a reminder, like nudging you to pay your bill to avoid a late fee. 

LB: Can you talk about how the EAST framework can help us design better nudges? 

CS: The “EAST” framework stands for Easy, Attractive, Social, and Timely. 

Easy: The easier a nudge is to act on, the more likely people are to actually act. Think about getting vaccinated, for instance: the easier you make it —with vaccines close to where people live, with a short line, and quick signup process— the more likely folks are to get vaccinated. 

Attractive: If your communication is in small print or ugly to look at, it won’t be as effective, even if it’s otherwise a good idea.

Social: People want to do what’s “normal,” and they don’t want to be on the wrong side of history. So if you tell them what most people are doing, they’re more likely to follow that social norm. If doctors hear, for example, that they’re prescribing a lot more opioids than most other doctors, they’ll reduce their rates of opioid prescription. 

Timely: When you give people information matters. Giving people economic advice on the first of the year, or when they start a new job, for example, can have a much bigger impact than the same information at a less crucial time. 

My little amendment is to add an “F” at the beginning of “EAST” and call it FEAST,  with an “F” for “Fun.” When people find action or change fun, they’re much more likely to do it. 

You can use the FEAST framework to make manager training sessions more impactful and fun: the format of the training session is often at least as important as the content. 

LB: What's an example of a company or governmental program that made something fun?

CS: One example from the private sector is something from Amazon called “frustration-free packaging”: no extra plastic, no wires to cut or scissors to find. It’s fundamentally an environmental or resource-saving initiative, to reduce the amount of packaging Amazon needs to create, but it’s branded as a convenient benefit for the consumer.

Simply asking “Are you sure?” can stop people from making a reckless or impulsive choice, like if your computer asks “Are you sure you want to delete all your files?” or Twitter asks you, “Are you sure you want to send that post with those mean words in it?” Those kinds of nudges encourage people to rethink what they’re doing without actually forcing their hand. 

LB: After Nudge, you wrote a book called Sludge. Can you explain what “sludge” is and how businesses can help fight it? 

CS: Think of sludge as administrative burdens. It’s the time you spend on hold with your cell phone company waiting to transfer accounts. Maybe you’re stuck in an automated system trying to get a permit renewed or a health benefit activated, and the human customer service person isn’t treating you with dignity — that’s sludge. It’s a wall between you and the thing you’re trying to do. For small businesses in particular, the day-to-day sludge can be Kafka-esque.

LB: So is there a distinction between bureaucracy and sludge? 

CS: Bureaucracy is a broader concept. The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, is a bureaucracy, but it's not sludge itself. You can have a bureaucracy that’s sludge-free and easy to navigate, like the Massachusetts DMV that makes renewing a license really easy.

LB: Shifting gears a bit — we’re in increasingly uncertain times. What are some examples of businesses responding well to uncertainty?

CS: One of the productive consequences of the pandemic is bottom-up sludge removal in the private and public sectors. For example, telemedicine. Before 2020, the restrictions on talking to your doctor virtually were pretty close to pointless. 

Now, telemedicine is much more common, and people are realizing just how much they can get done without in-person meetings or pieces of paper. Changing from paper to digital seems like a small thing, but it can have a huge impact.

One way to cut down on sludge is to do sludge audits, where you basically measure the magnitude of sludge informally over as little as two weeks. The goal is to answer, “How much time are our employees actually devoting to sludge?” 

LB: You have a new book coming out called Bounded Rationality. What’s the main message there? 

CS: We used to think that rationality was the foundation of human behavior. If a company wanted to increase productivity or get consumers to do something, they’d appeal to rational thinking. 

But actually, emotions play a huge part. We're not perfectly predictable economically rational actors like Mr. Spock on Star Trek. When we decide what to eat, what job to take, what to buy, or who to marry, we’re guided by our feelings.

Even when it comes to money, we know that people are irrationally loss averse —they dislike losses a lot more than they like corresponding gains. So Bounded Rationality is about the limits of rationality on our behavior and choices. 

Laszlo Bock: Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us! We’re excited to offer a free month-long package of nudges curated by you, all about navigating uncertainty through behavioral science. 

Ready to stop the sludge and focus on high-impact work? Sign up for Cass Sunstein’s guest nudges today.