You know those days at work when there are a million things on your to-do list, but somehow, you’re not getting the important stuff done? 

It’s the opposite of the “flow state” – you can feel your cortisol spiking out of control. At the end of the day, you’re left feeling depleted, because you didn’t have the mental space to focus on what truly matters. 

That feeling doesn’t mean you’re lazy or unqualified. According to Stanford Professor Huggy Rao, it could mean the wrong things are demanding too much of your time and attention. Rao calls these blockers “friction,” and they make work less fulfilling and less productive. 

In a new book, The Friction Project, co-authored by Robert I. Sutton, Rao investigates where this kind of friction comes from, how it holds us back, and what we can do about it. 

Friction 101

“Bad friction is the workplace obstacles that overwhelm, infuriate, and de-energize people,” explains Rao. “It holds people back from becoming the most curious, generous versions of their professional selves.”

The infamous “meeting that could have been an email” is a classic example of friction – but it’s not always so easy to spot. Friction hides in sneaky places, from the way you talk to the software you use. 

“There’s one young woman I spoke to whom I’ll never forget,” Rao shares. “She said, I do too much inconsequential work and it takes a toll on me. When I go home, all I’ve got left are the scraps of myself for me and my family.”

There are also good kinds of friction – situations where too much ease is a bad thing, and slowing down helps us do better work. Keep reading, or pick up The Friction Project, for the lowdown on those.

7 sneaky ways friction is holding you back at work

Many sources of friction are intended to make your life easier. But they’re actually harming your productivity, if not your mental health. Here are seven stealthy sources of friction that are making your work life harder. 

1. Paying (too much) attention to your boss

We all feel pressure to be seen as go-getters and self-starters – someone the boss can rely on. It’s tempting to hang onto your boss or manager’s every word, and immediately leap into action. Rao calls this “executive magnification,” and it can lead to massive amounts of wasted resources. 

A classic example from The Friction Project? After the CEO complained about a rude clerk he’d encountered, 7-Eleven launched a multimillion-dollar campaign to improve cashier friendliness. 

But the CEO was just venting – he actually thought fast service was more important than excessive politeness. 7-Eleven’s research backed him up, but resources had already been poured into the hasty campaign. 

Fix the friction: 

We’re not suggesting you ignore your boss, or tell them to go take a hike. The fix is simple – clarify your understanding before taking action. Otherwise, you risk jumping the gun, and sinking too much time into the wrong things. 

This doesn’t just apply to high-stakes situations – executive magnification can distort small daily workflows, too. For example, you may not need to rush a response to that off-hours Slack message. Why not just ask your boss how quickly they expect to hear back? 

2. Double-, triple-, and quadruple-checking every decision

This is how effective teams navigate the decision-making process

Most commonly, leadership is to blame for this one. Too many executives and managers insist on re-evaluating their teams’ decisions – sometimes, multiple times over!

Rao calls this “decision amnesia.” Not only does this behavior waste time and energy, it erodes trust and damages relationships. When people have worked hard to reach a decision, it’s demoralizing when their leaders restart the process, going back to the drawing board because they don’t trust their team.

Decision amnesia can happen among colleagues as well. If your team struggles with making a final decision and moving forward, you’ll need to cultivate shared confidence. 

Fix the friction: 

“To beat decision amnesia, you want to set clear rules for revisiting an issue,” says Rao. “A team could agree that once they’ve reached a decision, you won’t revisit it for two months, barring specific, predetermined extenuating circumstances.”

In The Friction Project, Rao also shares Patty McCord’s, former Chief Talent Officer at Netflix, tactic to beat decision amnesia. Every time she wrapped up an executive meeting, she’d ask the room, “have we made any decisions here today, and if we have, how are we going to communicate them?” If anyone at the meeting didn’t see their decisions as final, those questions would make it immediately clear. 

3. Reinventing processes that are working just fine 

It’s tempting to keep looking for the magic ritual, method, or tool that will fix everything. And obviously, continuous improvement is a great goal. 

But often, our lives don’t get easier when parts of our job keep being upgraded. In fact, you might feel like you’re on a hamster wheel –constantly introducing new systems that add complexity, take time to implement, and deliver marginal returns at best. 

“One of our biggest findings from The Friction Project was that nearly everyone suffers from addition sickness,” explains Rao. “It doesn’t matter which company you work for; we’re all constantly adding things.”

Instead, Rao offers some surprising advice: “not everything worth doing is worth doing well.” In many cases, it’s okay (and inevitable) for some things to be merely “good enough.” 

Fix the friction: 

A super-common culprit in distributed workplaces? Software. For example, a newly hired project manager may push for team-wide migration to her tool of choice. But that creates friction for her teammates, who are forced to re-learn their workflows from scratch.

“If you only think of how tools, systems, and processes affect you, ignoring spillover effects on other people, then you’re barking up the wrong tree,” explains Rao.

Instead, companies should carefully vet whether every single new addition is worthwhile – and make sure everyone has a voice. Before adopting that new PM tool, the company in our example above could have everyone complete a quick survey, asking how satisfied they are with the current system and how critical it is to their work. 

4. Conversely, being afraid to change the way you’ve always done it

New research: How to make time for the work that matters

But on the flip side, there’s a balance here. Sometimes, good enough is fine. But teams should also be comfortable pointing out when a tool or process actually is slowing people down and making life harder. 

At those times, a change is well warranted – and the people who advocate for it are heroes! 

In The Friction Project, Rao explains how management consulting firm Bain discovered a single weekly executive sync was costing their client three hundred thousand hours per year in prep time 😱. Dropbox had a similar goal with “Armeetingeddon,” an initiative that removed all meetings from employee calendars and made it impossible to add new ones for two weeks. 

Fix the friction: 

Watch out for that stressful, frazzled feeling of your time and energy being stolen. “If you feel spread too thin, like peanut butter on toast, you have a problem,” says Rao. “You need to narrow your focus, and identify where you can make a distinct impact.”

That means it’s time for G.R.O.S.S. – Getting Rid of Stupid Stuff! In The Friction Project, Huggy suggests leading teams in group games or brainstorming sessions to identify “stupid stuff,” such as excessive meetings, emails, and performance reviews. 

pro tip

Try our Ritual Reset Play to reflect on and re-evaluate your meetings and processes to create space for what matters.

Even if you’re not in a position to lead a company-wide G.R.O.S.S. campaign, you can remove stupid stuff in your own sphere of influence – or at the very least, let your manager know it’s there. 

5. Over-focusing on your own department or team 

It’s important for your team to be strong as a unit. But it’s equally important, if not more so, to integrate well with the rest of your organization. 

When teams over-focus on their day-to-day, it’s like they’ve got blinders on. They lose touch with their work’s greater purpose – and in the worst-case scenario, impair their ability to accomplish it. Rao calls this issue “component focus,” and it can be especially pervasive on highly specialized teams.

In The Friction Project, Rao explains how a woman being treated for cancer couldn’t get two departments at the same hospital to share information about her appointments. She had to walk her medical files over to the other department herself, still dressed in her hospital gown.

Fix the friction:

One powerful way to help people see themselves as part of something bigger? Storytelling. 

“Stories are a way to create common understanding,” says Rao. “Some studies show that when we share stories in a group setting, oxytocin, or the trust molecule, actually goes up.”

Leaders, managers, and teams can use storytelling to help people connect with the greater purpose of their work. At the hospital mentioned above, the oncology team lead could frame their work as “supporting patients’ healing,” not “applying advanced treatments for specific types of cancer.”

This strategy can be especially helpful as part of the onboarding process, so new hires see themselves as part of one unified organization, not just one team.  

6. Communicating too much while saying too little 

Words are powerful, and communication is the building block of collaboration. But words also have the power to confuse and distract us, or to obscure real and serious problems.

This is what Huggy calls “jargon monoxide,” and it’s rampant in the contemporary business world. If you’ve ever felt your eyes glaze over as you struggled to keep up with an onslaught of corporate buzzwords, you’ve experienced jargon monoxide poisoning. 

Here are a few sneaky ways jargon monoxide sneaks into our workplace language:

  • Using too many words, or overly complicated words
  • Vague or meaningless language, like “leverage core competencies towards key goals”
  • Using specialized terms with people outside your team or discipline 
  • Using words that mean different things to different people, like “pipeline” or “agile”

Fix the friction:

“You don’t need an arsenal of tactics to beat jargon monoxide,” says Rao. “Every time you say something, ask yourself: can a 10-year-old understand this easily? If the answer is yes, it will scale across a company of 10,000 people.”

Another crucial tip? Use concrete, descriptive language. “Say one boss told you to ‘deliver superior customer service,’ and another said ‘your job is to put a smile on the customer’s face,’” says Rao. “Which phrase is easier to understand?”

Spot the Monoxide: Company Values

One common source of jargon monoxide? Those long, wishy-washy company values! According to some research, companies with fewer than four values, described vividly and concretely, produce better work and outcomes. 

An example Rao loves? One of Atlassian’s own core values: Don’t F@#! The Customer! “It scales really well,” he explains. “It means the same thing in Sydney, San Francisco, and Shanghai.”

7. Aiming too high, too fast

Dreaming big is great. But as Rao puts it, “too much speed at the wrong time kills people.” Pushing people to work too fast, or achieve unrealistic outcomes, can yield genuinely harmful results long-term. 

This is where “constructive friction” comes into play. Put simply, sometimes great work can’t be rushed – especially creativity, or high-stakes work. If organizations attempt otherwise, they risk burnout, poor decision-making, and even selfishness, as people feel too overwhelmed by their own overloaded plates to help one another. 

Constructive friction: Friction that helps people slow down at the right times, maintain their sanity, and do better work that will pay off long-term.

Fix the friction: 

The fix here is simple, though not necessarily easy. Slow things down, and add some good friction!

“In Massachusetts, Blue Cross found that physicians may have been overprescribing opioids,” says Rao. “So, they told physicians to write a one-page memo explaining their reasoning for every prescription. The memo took only 8-10 minutes per patient. But by adding this positive friction, they lowered opioid prescriptions by 21 million across the state.”

The Friction Project book, eBook, and audio book are available now from Macmillan Publishers. Learn more and connect with Huggy Rao at his website.

7 sneaky ways friction is making your work life harder