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In a Slump? It’s Just the Broken Window Effect

It’s been your typical bank holiday in the UK. A bonus day off, a little light daytime drinking, and a whole lot of relaxing. It also means an additional day of my child and husband creating chaos, and me, quite frankly, not being all that bothered to do anything useful. I have piles of laundry that have come out of nowhere, dried-on toothpaste on the sinks, clumps of cat-floof on the floor, crumbs covering the kitchen, several days’ worth of dinner debris under the kitchen table… you get the message.

Worst of all, I’m also feeling a mess. I’ve eaten waaaaay more chocolate than I should have done, I’ve napped when I’d have normally been cooking dinner, I’ve forgotten to buy cat litter, and I’m feeling demotivated. Is this the power of the bank holiday? No. It’s the broken windows theory in action. Yes, I’m totally justifying my lack of cleaning and questionable food choices, but stay with me.

In 1982, Wilson and Kelling put forward the broken windows theory. This was used to explain how low-level crime and disorder could lead to more serious crime occurring. As the name suggests, broken windows in a street could imply that no-one is in charge or policing the area, therefore more serious crimes could also go unreported. Now whether this theory holds up in modern day society as an explanation of crime is debatable, but I think that on a general psychological level, this is something.

Now I’m not suggesting that leaving that leaving a pile of laundry unwashed is a criminal act, but it could be a metaphorical broken window. Leaving a pile of laundry could then turn into a pile of washing up, a stack of unsorted papers, dust-bunnies on the floor… or my house this weekend. So while this in itself is No Big Thing, if you’re the sort of person that likes to keep stuff tidy and organised, this could be a path to overwhelm, or even just a vague sense that you’re not doing that great.

I’ve heard many say that “mess begets mess”; this is the broken window theory in action. If you’ve got an area of your house where things seem to gather, you may recognise how the pile of homeless items seems to multiply before you know it. It’s worth pointing out here that this doesn’t just apply to clutter; this could apply to other areas of your life, such as your job or even parenting. Ever had one of those days where you’ve not tackled something you normally would and it’s just spiralled from there? It’s worth being mindful of them and realising their power on your mental and emotional wellbeing.

7 Ways to fix the broken window effect

Identify your own personal broken windows, and keep a close eye on them. It may be that you need to prioritise some tasks over others. We’re all different; if you’re not someone who is bothered by mess, you’ll have a equivalent. It’s worth giving a little consideration to what your own personal broken windows are, and how they affect you. These could be…

  • Dirty kitchen counters
  • Out of date food in the fridge
  • An unmade bed
  • A bulging inbox
  • A pile of unsorted papers
  • Toys on the floor after the kids are in bed
  • Lack of social contact
  • Missing a planned workout
  • Having a non-healthy ‘treat’
  • Empty cups on a coffee table from the night before

Make sure everything has a home; a convenient one. This will avoid the clutter building up so much in the first place. It’s not easy to put things away if they don’t have a home. If you have kids, they’re not going to learn to put things away if they don’t have an easy to remember, and convenient place to put things. Do you always lose your keys? Give them a permanent home, even if it means not keeping them in a bag or pocket and keeping them somewhere safe by the door. Embrace the psychology of routine and get used to picking them up and dropping them down in the same place.

Have a power-hour to tackle the mess head-on. If you’re bothered about mess and you suddenly find your home in a state, just fix it. Don’t procrastinate. Avoid feeling overwhelmed by giving yourself a timed, focused tidying and cleaning session. Tidying gradually (or trying to do too much at once) makes it seem like you’re never going to finish. Try not to ruminate and procrastinate. Why not stick some headphones on and listen to your favourite playlist or audiobook?

Have an area by the front door where you can dump stuff. Talking of keys… what else do you tend to come home with and leave by the door? Shoes? Mail? Bags? Coats? Do yourself a favour and create them a home by the door; somewhere organised where you can easily put things away where they naturally get dumped. Do you get inundated with junk mail? Put a small paper recycling box by the door.

Have a super-quick evening tidy up. I know… this doesn’t fill me with joy either, but it’s a good one. If you’ve had a total write-off of a day, you don’t need it to extend into another. Push the reset button before bed by having a quick whip-round to address all of those bits that are going to make you feel bad in the morning. This could just be doing the washing up, wiping the kitchen surfaces, or straightening any sofas and cushions you’ve crashed on. Whatever is going to give you a vague sense of horror in the morning… do that.

Be wary of the knock-on effect to the rest of your habits. The psychology of habits is one of my favourite topics, and one I’ll come back to in another post, but you’d be surprised at how seemingly unrelated behaviours can be linked. Does watching one more episode on Netflix mean that you’ll have an unproductive day at work the day after? Does missing a workout mean you’re more likely to get a takeaway? Does sleeping in late mean you’re also more likely to eat unhealthily? Changing our habits tends to have a knock-on effect on our state of mind and makes us more likely to engage in behaviours we’d not always want to do. How does this work for you?

Cut the shame; it’s not you. If you have an outspoken inner-critic, you may be sensitive to those times when you’re just not your best self. You may have a tendency to feel like you’ve failed, you’ve let something slip and it’s time to give up. This is catastrophising; a cognitive bias where we lose perspective of the big picture and see things as worse than they really are. I bad day, a slump, a general funk could just be due to your broken windows; it’s not you. Just pay attention to your needs, and address them. You’ll feel better.

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