Fix the Broken Windows in Your Life

In Education, Essays, Self Improvement

Like many people, I first read about the Broken Window Theory in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “The Tipping Point“. In it, he discusses the incredible transformation of New York in the late ’80s and early ’90s from a crime and drug ridden city to a modern, relatively safe metropolis. Gladwell attempts to pinpoint the cause of this by exploring a wide range of nationwide statistics but New York manages to consistently be the exception. While crime rates went down nationwide, New York saw a massive reduction in crime.

He eventually proposes that the cause was a new policy that was adapted by the administration called “The Broken Windows Theory“. It goes something along these lines:

A single broken window can have a far greater influence than one may realise. It can spread a certain attitude and create assumptions that it’s acceptable to behave in a certain way or, in other words, “that maintaining and monitoring urban environments in a well-ordered condition may stop further vandalism and escalation into more serious crime.”

Mr. Gladwell wasn’t the one to come with this theory, but he did bring it into the mainstream. It was first formulated in 1982 by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling.

By clamping down on the small stuff, the theory goes, we can actually influence the whole. By patching up the broken windows, we can improve the crime rate of an entire neighbourhood. By concentrating on fare evaders on public transport, we can reduce overall crime in a city. By constantly making sure metro cars are grafitti-free, we can send a strong message out that reaches everyone.

This is very interesting, and it got me thinking. How about applying the Broken Windows Theory to a single individual, to our daily lives?

Is it possible that a small concentrated effort in an area of seemingly little importance can radically change our lives? Well, I am a strong adherent to the 80/20 Rule , where a small amount of work can lead to the lion’s share of results and this theory seems to fit right in.

I decided to investigate.

The first thing that struck me is how often all it takes to improve something in your life is to begin to track it. The act of actively tracking a certain part of your life almost always results in a marked improvement in that area. This may well be accredited to a greater self-awareness due to act the tracking.

In other words, you begin to think.

I came to the conclusion that applying to Broken Window Theory to one’s personal life has the following advantages:

  • Small changes are easier. Large, and especially fast, changes often are not long term. it’s just requires too much effort and willpower. I’ve previously discussed how willpower is actually a resource we can use up and once it’s gone, we are far more susceptible to doing the wrong thing.
  • Doesn’t disrupt your entire existing routine. This links up with the above point. Obviously, a certain amount of disruption is necessary, otherwise nothing would ever change but it’s all about keeping it manageable.
  • You can keep it “under the hat”. Often the advice given about making changes is to go out and tell the world. While this can be a great tool for motivation, it can also be dishearting. Having the choice of not going public and not appearing to be making huge changes help you put less pressure on yourself.
  • Put less pressure on yourself. With pressure comes stress, and when we are stressed we often quite literally stop thinking.
  • Follows the 80/20 Rule (always a plus in my book)

It’s quite possible to make just one simple change to your daily life and everything else may fall into place. I’m not saying that this will happen, but it could. The problem of course, is knowing which window to fix. I think most of us instinctively know which of our daily habits drag us back and which propel us forward.

If you are not 100% sure, then experiment. Simply make one change, and then track the results, if you like how it works out, then stick to the new you routine, if you don’t like how it work out…then don’t!

Now, how should we go about tracking the results?. In fact, what are positive results?

Well, the beautiful thing is that they can be whatever you want them to be!

Personally, I value several things:

  • Life satisfaction
  • Happiness
  • Productivity/Creativity
  • Work/life Balance

So my results are positive if they positively affect any of the above.

Two ways to Keep Track of What you Do

Time Log

One way to go about the tracking progress is to create what is called a time log. This requires you to write down exactly what you are doing all day long. You can then create various graphs and charts based on this data and easily see where you are wasting the most time.

The advantages of this method is that it can really shock one into action, as long as you are honest while you are reporting. Often we don’t realise exactly how much time we waste on useless things that don’t add value to our lives. If “Facebook browsing” is taking 23.4% of your day, clearly it’s time to do something about it.

The problem with keeping a time log is that it’s a slightly pain in the ass because you have to remember to write everything down and some people may be lead astray by it.

What I mean by “lead astray” is that they may go down the path of trying to squeeze every last drop of productivity from each day. While this may sound like a good idea, remember that’s being highly productive is about working smart, not hard. You don’t need to work 120 hour weeks to get a lot done. A time log can make one feel guilty for sitting back and putting one’s feet up after a productive session of work. It’s a good tool, but use it carefully.

Key Goals Tracking

An alternative approach, which I have used with much success in the 18 months, is to just focus on a couple of key metrics. I decided to focus on two things that were important to me: body composition (namely weight, percentage body-fat and total lean body mass) and the number of words written per day. So I weight myself on my Tanita body fat scanner each morning when I get up and write the results down on a page in my moleskine journal.

I rarely have more than 4 goals a day, and never more than 6 or 7.

So, by tracking which goals I accomplish each day and then also tracking two key metrics, I gained a rather large insight into my optimal work habits, especially about my writing ability.

My personal conclusions based on key goals tracking:

  • I am far more productive on the days I wake up at 6am and then go out for an early morning walk.
  • I have switched coffee shops. I get much more work done at the coffee shop where there is no wifi versus a connected coffee shop.
  • Regular exercises and walking positively changes my body composition. This one was quite obvious.

And those were my only changes. That’s quite incredible, by waking up earlier, switching coffee shops and exercising regularly, I have upped my productivity tenfold. I’ve managed to write 27 essays in two months, with an average length of 2500 words.

That’s over three in-depth essays a week for two months.

I’ve also successfully integrated a calisthenics routine in my life. I only workout four times a week for 40 minutes and yet I am getting into the best shape of my life.

’ve drastically reduced my coffee intake and, save for the occasional glass of red wine, pretty much cut out alcohol.

I can confidently say that I feel like a different man from two months ago, yet I made only three simple changes, but they had drastic results.

It didn’t feel like effort.

It just felt right.

I think that’s the Broken Windows Theory working in full force right there. For instance, if I wake up at 6am, enjoy a green tea, write one thousand words and then take a twenty minute walk, I am hardly likely to pick up a whole bunch of pastries on the way home and eat them for breakfast.

It would feel out of context. It would just feel wrong. Just like committing a petty crime in a nice neighbourhood. (Well, personally I wouldn’t commit a crime anywhere.)

I think that’s the really useful aspect of applying the Broken Window Theory to your daily life, it cuts out the difficult choices and decisions. You strive to make small changes, and then follow the habits and routines that naturally lead from that change..

Think of it like planting a seed. All you have to do is it nurture that seed, water it, give it time and you know that given enough time it will eventually grow into a strong oak. It’s much easier to look after a seed and get encouragement from simply watching it grow than to task yourself with looking after a huge tree straight away.