I have found a great new meaning for the word “sludge”. The usual meaning is a noun referring to an oozy, viscous substance, sometimes a kind of thick, dirty oil. Well, economist and Nobel Laureate Richard Thaler has taken to referring to all the paperwork and administrative tasks we must complete in life as “sludge” and, if you think about the role of this burden in your life, or your family’s life, doesn’t that sound just about right?

Let’s think through some typical situations. If you’ve a young family, you have homework to sign, permission slips, forms for camp or activities. At least once a month, something will expire – a credit card, your driver’s license, a membership – you name one. If you’re a caregiver to a parent, they have a similar set of documents that can expire at any time and you will likely help manage these.

Once you’ve gotten out of the house, you drive through Starbucks and find out that you’ve run out of cash on your prepaid card. You travel on to work and realize that the card thingy that opens the parking gate can expire also. You have a badge to get you into the office that can fall off a lanyard. If you went on a trip last week for work, there’s that paperwork to submit so that you can be reimbursed for gas and parking.

There seems to be no way to live without a bureaucracy. Every job has its own “sludge” hell. I was going to take a moment to vent about the particular “sludge” being a doctor entails, but I realize that this is uncharitable to all other workers who likely have a similar burden. When I consider those people whom I know who live entirely on social security or social assistance, it occurs to me that government benefits always come with “sludge” and so do many charitable benefits as well.

Look around the space in your home to get an idea of the amount of “sludge” you have waiting to manage. Some people have a desk for this, others a filing cabinet – I seem to need an entire office, and the “sludge” is winning. Like me, I’m sure many other people also have an office at work where the paper can pile up.

Google “paperwork” and you’ll notice that there is lots of help to “organize” the documents, but very little on how to decrease it. Even a simple life requires “sludge”.

Today, the idea of all that paperwork tires me out and seems particularly discouraging. I was writing to my daughter, something I love to do, when I remembered that one of the reasons the profession of scribe arose was to support bureaucracies. Now we know why Pharoah’s had all those people buried with them and what the writing on the walls was.

As I write this, I cannot help but remember the excitement my children felt as they learned to write for themselves and realize that their first notes are a balm to bureaucratic despair. Paperwork can compromise mental health, so keep children’s writing and love letters close by so that you always have an antidote.

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