Just a broken window but then…

There’s a concept in criminal thinking known as the broken window theory.  Introduced in 1982 by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in an article titled “Broken Windows” it included the following example:

“Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside. Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.”

old abandoned car

A Stanford psychologist, Philip Zimbardo, arranged an experiment testing the broken-window theory back in 1969. He arranged for an automobile with no license plates and the hood up to be parked idle in a Bronx neighborhood. The car was attacked by “vandals” within minutes of its “abandonment”. Zimbardo noted that the first “vandals” to arrive were a family – a father, mother and a young son – who removed the radiator and battery. Within twenty four hours of its abandonment, everything of value had been stripped from the vehicle. After that, the car’s windows were smashed in, parts torn, upholstery ripped, and children were using the car as a playground.

So how does this relate to success in our lives?

I think we respond in the same way.  If our broken window is being late for work each day, allowing email to pile up, clutter to accumulate on our desk, or procrastinating on important tasks, those small indicators of disorder will signal that things are out of control. And we begin to rationalize bigger issues of allowing our life to be out of control.  Those little things undermine our goals because they give us a sense of chaos – that we are victims of circumstances.  Now I can’t break my sales record this month, I can’t get that new car and I can’t prepare for that triathlon. 

Here are other signs you may have a broken window

  • It snowed today so I can’t get to the interview I had scheduled
  • I lost money on my last business deal so I’m going to just settle for the job I have now
  • I failed one class so I’m just going to forget about getting that degree
  • I ate two desserts last night so I’m going to just give up on my goal of losing 20 pounds this year
  • The stain on my shirt is not a big deal – I’m sure no one will notice anyway

But we can break that pattern by fixing the little cracks in our windows:  cleaning up our email, leaving 10 minutes early for work, making sure we look as sharp as possible, and turning in important projects a day before the deadline.  Those little steps will give us a feeling of being in control – I can make my life work.

What “broken window” can you fix today?

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  • Dan, you just blew my mind with this post. I have never heard it put this way. The broken window theory explains why so many times we just get overwhelmed with life and don’t have the mental or emotional energy to make changes. It’s amazing how much power there is in just cleaning up a mess or straightening your office.

    • Kent – cool. I like to write things that wake up parts of our brain. Hopefully you can use that as you continue to help artists on their creative journey. Thanks for your comments.

  • Michael McMillan

    Apparently you have seen my desk. Thanks for the kick in the pants as usual.

  • This is a wonderful analogy.
    I had not thought about it when applied to a person.
    I see it with business areas. It also becomes apparent when an area of homes starts to get renters.
    Thank you for this eye opening perspective.

    • Christopher,
      Ah it’s so true for us as individuals. The little things cause us to justify larger areas of deterioration.

  • Jim

    It also applies to our days. If during that first part of the morning, we can accomplish some small positive activities, the rest of our day always seem to go better. Whether it is exercising, doing some reading (books not facebook or email), or just getting ready for or work.

    If instead we allow our windows to be broken by sleeping in, sitting around in our pajamas checking our Facebook feeds for two hours, or procrastinating about doing exercise or whatever of goals for the day may be, our entire day never seem as good as when we start with positive action.

    My best days seem to be when I am up early in the morning and fixing windows.

    • Jim,
      Yep – rise and shine and polish your windows. Thanks for your comments.

  • Ouch! Been guilty of this…. taking inventory of broken windows now, Dan!

  • Dan,
    I had heard of the broken window theory applied to crime in New York City from Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point. However I never related it to my life. Thank you so much for a new perspective on the small things.

    • Troy – That’s probably where I first heard about this theory. And I too love the application not just to neighborhoods and cities – but to our individual lives.

  • Hi Dan,
    My office needs to be cleaned up and rearranged. Funny how an analogy about broken windows can shake off procrastination and get me motivated. Thanks for the wonderful parable.

    • Matthew – hey I’m delighted it prompted you to see your office with new eyes. Hope it makes your life shine!

  • What a great post! Time to clean up some broken glass and step things up! Blessings – Dan

  • Time to organize! Thanks for the conviction Dan! Great reminder this Friday.

  • k852day

    Cool story but did they do the experiment in the same neighborhood using a car that didn’t appear to be broke down but instead had the appearance of being high class?

    • Not sure what all the experiment involved. But the theory is certainly that a broken window justifies the process of further destruction.

  • Dan

    What can be just as devastating or worse, is letting other people break more of your windows because they see a few in need of repair anyway. I teach this to kids and parents in my seminars. (I learned it from Malcom Gladwell, too. Nice to see it came from as far back as 1969.)

    • Dan – yeah, great principle to teach to kids. Thanks for your work in that area.

  • Great analogy, Dan! I’ve definitely played the ‘I’ll restart my diet on Monday’ card. It doesn’t work out so well in the long run. I always appreciate the wisdom you share.

  • PaulVandermill

    Greetings Dan, Lack of being intentional in all of the key areas in our lives could be seen as “broken windows” as well. You are clear in your teachings that we must attend to all of the key areas of life. As you suggested in a recent podcast episode, I have decreased the number of podcasts I listen to, the number of items which flow into my mailbox, the time I spend with social media in order to take a deeper dive into specific things. I feel, in a word, relief. In addition, I have set goals for the year in a way that I have not previously in order to create focus and intention. Working diligently in the areas of personal relationships, mindset and health for some time, I am feeling pretty darn happy and off to a great start in 2016. Thank You!

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  • company2014

    Really this blog is helpful. I will share this on my timeline let others find it useful.

  • Dan
    What a great perspective!!!!!