Want to Keep Your New Year’s Tech Resolutions? Embrace Sludge

This article is part of our special issue “Connected State of Mind,” which explores the impact of tech use on our behavior and relationships. View the complete issue here.

Two weeks into 2018, many of us are still valiantly striving to keep to our New Year’s resolutions. For some of us this means exercising regularly. For others, it’s saving more for our kids’ college or to buy our first home.

I’m struck by how many people I’ve talked to over the past couple of weeks whose New Year’s resolution is to spend less time on their phones and tablets and more time connecting with friends and family. This is not entirely surprising, given that the average American spends five hours a day on their mobile devices—that’s about a third of our waking hours, glued to a screen.

But as often happens with resolutions, our aspirations for our future selves conflict with our present impulses. This tension, between future hopes and present desires, is particularly pernicious with mobile devices, which by their very design demand constant engagement. The chirps and vibrations from text messages and social-media notifications are near-intoxicating in their enticement. So too is the social validation we seek from social media likes and reposts.

Nudges—One Side of the Behavioral Science Coin

Nudges have gained national prominence—especially following Richard Thaler’s Nobel Prize—as a strategy to help people follow through on their intentions. Nudges have also been used to connect people to resources and opportunities they might not otherwise have been aware of or have accessed. Nudges have been successfully applied across numerous dimensions, from saving more for retirement to getting flu vaccinations to reading more to our children.

We’re most familiar with behavioral science insights being applied like these nudges—to make it easier for people to follow through on actions and decisions that lead to outcomes they desire. But it’s also possible to apply behavioral insights to make it harder to stop doing something that’s important to us, like a New Year’s resolution to spend less time on social media.

The term “sludge” has emerged as a way to characterize a process that is unnecessarily complicated and cumbersome and that impedes people either from following through on their intentions or from making informed decisions and investments. One recent example is a dramatic increase in the share of students the United States Department of Education requires to verify the income and asset information they provide on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This policy change makes it that much harder for students to complete what is already a complex financial aid application process, and it may further reduce the share of eligible students who receive financial assistance to pursue postsecondary education.

Using Sludge for Good

The same insights that make effective nudges can be harnessed make strategic use of sludge: We can use the power of defaults, hassles, and social norms to make it less likely we’ll drift from our resolutions. Sludge is particularly easy to apply—and likely to be effective—for people who are trying to use technology less.

Ready to embrace sludge to reduce your daily hours on mobile devices? Here are a few ideas to get started:

Make It Harder to Use Your Phone

Delete apps from your phone. In many cases (Mail, Twitter, Facebook), we can do the same thing on our phone’s browser as we could do on app—the apps just make it easier. If you’re trying to spend less time on your phone, you can probably make a big dent by removing these apps. If you need to check or send important messages, you can always go through the browser.

Turn off your phone. Another simple way to reduce the time you spend on devices is to power down your phone or tablet. After all, notifications can’t distract you if they’re not delivered in the first place. Think about times when it’s most important to you to dial out and connect to the people around you (dinner time, when you’re putting your kids to bed), and use the start of those routines as cue to turn off your devices, at least for a little while.

Throttle down your cellular data. Another way to reduce app use is to turn off cellular data for all but the most essential apps. This way your phone is much more likely to stay in your pocket when you’re in motion—walking, on the bus, and most importantly when you’re driving.

Change your digital status quo

Make tech-free the meeting norm. At any given meeting in modern America, most people are at best paying partial attention—with just as much if not more attention focused on the devices in front of them. Especially if you’re running the meeting, set a new norm that the meeting is device free (save, perhaps, for one device that is being used to project meeting content). People can always step out of the meeting if they need to check something urgent, but if the norm is that no one uses tech in the meeting, you’re likely to find the time more productive and efficient.*

Get your phone charger out of the bedroom. Phones have become the alarm clock of choice for many people. This also means, though, that the phone is an arm’s-width away—and hard to resist even if we’d rather be reading or sleeping. Simple solution: Get a cheap alarm clock and move your phone charger outside of the bedroom. If the phone’s not within easy reach, you’re much less likely to use it at night.

Send your phone back (at least for a little while). You might be on of the iPhone users flocking to Apple stores following a December announcement that the company would reduce by $50 the cost of replacing phone batteries. Another option, though, is to send your phone in for repair. That’s about a five- to nine-day commitment of being phone-free. Doing so requires some advance prep (like making sure your kids’ school has a work phone number and email in case they need to reach you), but also provides a great opportunity to fully disconnect.

Set new expectations for email responsiveness. Feel like you’re drowning in email traffic? Use the start of 2018 as an opportunity to set a new status quo for email communication. This is something I’m trying, with a new out-of-office message that prompts people to schedule short phone calls (or longer meetings if necessary) to resolve decisions that in the past we would have tried to address solely through email. I think this will make project work more efficient—and I’ll certainly enjoy the more frequent connections with my colleagues on the phone and in person.

These changes would take 20 minutes tops to implement—but would probably sludge up the works enough that you could realize a meaningful reduction in your technology use and, hopefully, a much deeper engagement with the people around you.

And if you find some of these ideas compelling and intend to try them, put at least one into practice now (like deleting apps from your phone), before the temptations of your phone become stronger, yet again, than your intentions to give the device a rest.

*Credit goes to Todd Penner from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation for modeling this approach during a meeting.

Further Reading & Resources

  • Castleman, B. (2017). Fifty Cents or Five Thousand Dollars? Behavioral Scientist. (Link)
  • Thaler, R. & Sunstein, C. (2008). Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. (Link)