Broken Windows Theory: Why it Can Cause you to Feel Overwhelmed

Why “Broken Windows” Cause You to Feel Overwhelmed and Out of Control

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If you’re like most people, there are times when you feel overwhelmed and out of control in your life.

You want to take action, but you feel too depressed to do much with your day.

The interesting thing?

There is a specific habit you can develop that will help you minimize the “blue feelings” that often pop up.

And it all starts with a broken window.

Let me explain…

Introducing the Broken Window Theory

I first discovered the “Broken Window Theory” in Malcolm Gladwell's book, The Tipping Point, but it started out as an article by social scientists James Wilson and George Kelling published in 1982.  (See the article here)

The point of this article is that the small cosmetic damages in a neighborhood can lead directly to large negative social issues. In other words, broken windows, trash on the streets and other cosmetic signs of urban blight, lead to increased crime, anti-social behavior and all sorts of other crime and delinquency.

My first experience with the broken window theory came from a few childhood memories of going to New York City.  Being a kid from New Jersey, I was always surprised at the squalor you would see in the Times Square area.  It was rundown and filled with porn shops, graffiti, garbage and people looking for trouble.

Eventually, Mayor Giuliani swept in and revitalized the area in the mid-90s. He fixed the “broken windows” of this part of NYC and it’s now a metropolitan Disneyland.  (Read this article on NYC’s broken windows social experiment.)

How Can Broken Windows Help with Habits?

You can apply the broken window theory to your daily life.  By fixing small cosmetic changes in our personality and routines, you’ll create an atmosphere that helps prevent feeling overwhelmed and out of control.

Recently, Gretchen Rubin, a New York Times bestselling author, linked the idea of the broken window theory to self-help, personal development, and habit change. (See her article in Psychology Today.)

Her theory is simple—most people have a few bad habits that make them feel out of control. By not “fixing” these windows, your day can easily get off track.

Think about it.

What small things cause you to feel anxiety?

Here are a few examples:

  • An unmade bed
  • Unsorted mail
  • Dishes piling up in the sink
  • Laundry piled up everywhere
  • Trash overflowing
  • A cluttered kitchen
  • Clothes on the floor

We all have our own broken windows.   I know I have a bunch.  In fact, to prepare for this article, I sat down and created a list of what causes me to feel disorganized, depressed and overwhelmed.

Here is a small part of this list:

  • Bed not made in the morning
  • Disorganization with my paperwork and folders
  • Getting too many emails and social media updates that require an action
  • Drinking too much the night before (I like beer)
  • Uncertainty about what to do next

If too many of these things happen in a given day, I won’t feel energized or excited about my day.  Instead, I want to crawl back into bed and read a book.

How to Fix Your Broken Windows

Now, even if you have a cluttered kitchen it doesn’t mean you’ll be highlighted in an upcoming issue of Hoarders: Buried Alive.  We all get disorganized from time to time.  But, you should be mindful of how your immediate environment has an impact on your mood.

Just like you can with a real window, you can make a quick fix.  Once you’ve identified your broken windows, create habits that prevent them from happening in the first place.


Before, I listed a few of my broken window problems.  Now let me show you a few solutions:

  • I make my bed every morning as part of an energizing daily morning routine.
  • I’ve developed a great organizational system based off of Getting Things Done.
  • I’m currently working on the “inbox zero” habit, where I single-handle every message and take immediate action.
  • I limit myself to three beers, once a week.

I’m far from perfect, but these broken window fixes have helped me feel less overwhelmed.  You can do the same by understanding how small things affect your mood and then create strategies to prevent them from popping up.

Take Action and Fix Those Windows!

So now that you understand the theory behind broken windows, let’s talk about a few ways you can take action and apply this information.

1. Look for small wins.

Look for ways to achieve quick wins in your life.  “Brush your teeth twice a day” is a lot easier than “quit smoking” or “lose 50 pounds.”  These might not seem important at first, but they build willpower and have a cumulative effect on your other habit changes.  (Read more about small wins here.)

2. Implement basic 80/20 principles.

There are small negative habits that negatively affect your mood.  They might include a small action like making the bed in the morning.  But if you get rid of them, you’ll feel less out of control.

3. Build momentum with habits.

Fixing simple habits builds willpower, which creates momentum.  And with every success, you’ll have more confidence to tackle harder habits.  When you’ve mastered one routine, build on it by trying another.

4. Enjoy the good feelings.

I’ll admit that I’m not a neat freak, but now I actually enjoy making my bed in the morning.  The process itself is irrelevant.  What’s important is this habit acts as a trigger that prepares me for an exciting and proactive day.

Broken window habits may be small, but the cumulative power of changing them small can be quite dramatic. By identifying these limiting actions, you’ll be on the path to feeling in complete control of your life.

Now I’ll turn it over to you.

What do you think of the broken windows theory?  What are YOUR broken windows? How do you deal with them?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

External Sources:
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