I was hosting an event at my place last weekend – the Smart Start for 2017 event. As fabulously as it went with all of the right people showing up, the creative energy filling the room, with the thought provoking conversations, eye-opening revelations, blossoming friendships and new commitments, something else came up for me as well. It was more of a side observation that I couldn’t help sharing here. What happened was – something as trivial and as untimely as two of my kitchen light bulbs burning out. The first one had gone earlier and the other literally minutes before the guests arrived. What did I do – scrambled through my light bulb collection for the right size to replace what I could. Good thing we have plenty of other light fixtures around the house and no one was left in the dark. So why is it so important you may ask?
The feeling I experienced in that moment reminded me of a concept that always deeply resonated with me, the Broken Windows Theory. In a nut shell this theory tells us that if one window in your house is broken, then the others will soon break too. According to the socio-political movement sparked by this theory in the latest decades, if minor infractions such as breaking a window on private property or dumping garbage in unauthorized places go ignored and unpunished that serves as a green light to the whole neighborhood for committing more serious violations with no concern for the consequences.
I first heard of the Broken Windows Theory in reference to the initiative started by the then-Mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani shortly after getting elected into this role in the mid-1990s. He strengthened police efforts to bring down the crime rates in the Big Apple city through his zero tolerance policy towards any crime. The target of the operation included seemingly insignificant misconducts such as graffiti vandalism, public drinking etc. I learned that the Mayor’s strategy was influenced by the 1982 article authored by two American criminologists George Kelling and James Wilson who in their turn had been inspired by the earlier social experiment conducted by Stanford psychologist Zimbardo. The experiment involved two unattended vehicles left in two contrasting American urban settings and people’s reactions to them. It taught us an important lesson – crimes can and will be committed by seemingly respectable individuals in well reputed neighborhoods when the shared understanding of acceptable vs unacceptable is lowered or removed in society.
The theory of Broken Windows became quite popular and gathered a lot of support for its premise. Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point raised some thought provoking questions on it. According to Gladwell, this theory along with the Power of Context suggest that criminals are highly sensitive to their environments and their readiness to commit crimes is strongly influenced by their perception of the reality around them.
At the same time this concept faced its fair share of opponents as well, questioning the benefits of focusing on minor disorderly acts while every resource should have been expended to fight more serious crimes. The whole correlation between the “Broken Windows” and reduced crime rates has been doubted by the sceptics along with voicing rather justified speculations on whether the application of this theory had gone too far beyond what its authors originally intended for it.
You may or may not believe in this theory, but I see it manifest itself in life all the time. Whether it’s at home, in workplaces or in daily habits it has the ability to affect our long term success and happiness.
Here are three reasons why:
1.Your bar is lowered beyond recognition.
When you have your first broken window in an otherwise well-kept house the “perpetrator” sticks out as a sore thumb. But if you let enough time pass without fixing it, you notice that the second item going out of order doesn’t seem as much out of place anymore. The problem with acceptance of broken things is that gradually you lose whatever eye you had for them to begin with. So, allowing one thing to remain broken or permitting one unwanted behavior to go unquestioned may easily set you on a path where everything in your surroundings eventually goes downhill. Something that starts as innocently as a missing light bulb, stained bathroom mirrors, malfunctioning dishwasher becomes a sign that you have accepted this disorder and it turned into your new reality.
A parent I knew from my daughter’s school used to spend her days in pajamas. I would bump into her quite often running errands around the town, dropping off kids at school, stopping by our common acquaintances’ houses or even saw at her own place on several occasions. And unmistakably every time she was in her PJ’s. Later I started noticing the laid back, PJ mentality demonstrating itself through other things around her. As much as I appreciated the caring generosity she showed in her house to pets (and to other people’s children for that matter), the animal puddles and piles on stairs and floors all over the house, didn’t occur to me as necessary attributes of that kindness. I have to admit, when my child returned home from a play date in that house, her socks would be considered beyond laundry and had to go straight to the trash bin.
It is better to deal with things while they are still of a manageable size and definitely way before you become oblivious to them.
2. Your “broken windows” affect the mentality of everyone else around you.
Try it and see how it works. If you are in too much rush in the morning and leave your bed undone, other household members take it as a cue to stop doing their beds. If you don’t put away your laundry after washing it everyone else feels free to “air dry” theirs in the middle of the house for days. If you leave a few too many pairs of shoes out – next thing you know your hallway starts resembling Carrie Bradshaw’s shoe closet only with various sizes of boots, runners, flats, etc generously donated by your family.
People around you all of a sudden find it normal to contribute to your existing mess. I see it all the time. And it doesn’t end at home either. The exact same thing happens in a workplace. If your office hasn’t been cleaned in a while and the papers on your desk aren’t kept in an orderly manner, in accordance with some unspoken agreement co-workers start dropping off random objects on your office floor and any furniture surfaces. No one doubts even for a moment their conviction of having found a most suitable home for their unwanted stuff.
When the surroundings are conducive to chaos, people basically get the feeling that no one cares and there is no real authority to reinstate the order. This feeling is contagious. So know that when you are staying organized you are doing it not only for yourself but for everyone else around you as well.
3. “It’s not the mess in the bathrooms, it’s the mess in the heads!”
said professor Preobrajensky, the apparent protagonist of “The Heart of a Dog”, a Soviet satirical sci-fi novel of the early 20th century that I see as some sort of a blend between “Frankenstein” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. This catchphrase is telling us that messy bathrooms or any rundown housing conditions are not staying merely in our physical surroundings. They are much riskier than that as they tend to creep into our heads and affect all areas of our lives. As a result we get the sense of being out of control, experience the feelings of helplessness and apathy.
I saw a practical evidence of this correlation relatively early in life: two of my University roommates often left their bras and boots on the living room table of our shared apartment. When approached about this unwelcome habit they would bet that keeping those items in “plain sight” was the only sure way “not to lose them again”. These were, in fact, the kind of people who often walked to school bare foot after failing to locate matching shoe pairs in the jungles of their bedrooms. The real problem was – that chaos didn’t end there. Instead it translated into years of undecided majors, struggles with attendance and school performance, sequences of messy relationships and alcohol abuse problems which lead to college suspensions, DUI and near death situations.
You can easily get off track with many of life’s activities if you don’t deal with the things that go out of order in your house.
Some have accused the Broken Windows theory of glamorizing quick fixes as opposed to offering long term solutions. Others have taken a more philosophical approach of questioning the significance of a little dog pile in the grand scheme of things. But loving our immediate surroundings and being happy with our general environment sets the tone for how we think and act in all other aspects of our daily lives. It influences how energetic and powerful we feel and therefore how effectively we pursue our personal and professional endeavors.
I am not a neat freak, I am fairly organized and like to have things under control in my surroundings and my life. But seeing, how with our chronic busyness things do have the tendency to slide, now I am making a conscious decision to inventorize my “broken windows” and plan to fix all of them in the true spirit of the Smart Start 2017.