The “broken windows theory” of policing holds that when a community tolerates minor examples of disorder and petty crime, such as broken windows, graffiti, turnstile-jumping, or drinking in public, people are more likely to commit more serious crimes.
As a law-enforcement theory, it’s controversial, but whether or not it’s true on a city-wide level, I think it’s true on a personal level.
My “broken windows” are the particular signs of disorder that make me feel out of control and overwhelmed.
- Unsorted mail
- Messy stacks of newspapers
- Shoes in odd places
- Cluttered counters
- Dirty dishes scattered around the apartment (for my husband, as he often emphatically reminds me, dirty dishes left overnight are broken windows; for me, as long as the dishes make it into the sink, life feels under control)
From what I've observed, people's other "broken windows" often include:
- Staying in pajamas or sweats all day
- Eating food straight from the container
- Wearing stained or ripped clothes
- Goofing off at work, even if no one notices
- Piles of laundry or trash
- An unmade bed
About the last item: surprisingly, whenever I ask people what resolutions they’ve tried, and that make them happier, “Make my bed” is the most common resolution that’s mentioned. It’s a very trivial thing, but it makes a big difference. (By the way, a survey by the National Sleep Foundation showed that people who make their bed are more likely to report a better night’s rest.)
Does fixing a broken window really matter? After all, in the context of a happy life, a pile of unsorted mail isn't a big deal. In themselves, perhaps, these broken windows don't matter much. But enforcing small signs of order make us feel more in control--and happier.
What are your "broken windows"? They're different for different people. Do you agree that small signs of disorder can make you feel out of control, generally?
UPDATE: I wrote a new book about how to de-clutter and organize to make more room for happiness. Order Outer Order, Inner Calm here.
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