The broken windows theory, and why you should clean your room

There is a concept in criminology known as broken windows theory. It says that crime in a community can be significantly reduced by reducing signs of disorder (like broken windows) and policing minor but visible crimes like vandalism. The theory rests on the assumption that an area’s environment has a big influence on the behavior and social norms of its inhabitants. Visible signs of disorder and and criminal activity will set the social norms and trigger more disorder and criminal activity.

While initiatives based on this theory have been controversial (particularly, New York City in the 90s), there is evidence supporting the theory. In a 2008 Science article, researchers from the University of Groningen concluded that, “Signs of inappropriate behavior like graffiti or broken windows lead to other inappropriate behavior (e.g., litter, stealing), which in turns results in the inhibition of other norms.”

I would argue that some version of the broken windows effect is true at the level of the individual. One’s environment has a big influence on one’s habits. If your environment is messy and disorganized, your life is more likely to be messy and disorganized. Your environment (e.g. your room, desk, house) helps set the norms for your behavior.

Think about your motivation to wash and put away a single plate after eating. If the kitchen is already a mess with dirty dishes piled up, what’s one more? If it is spotless, that dirty plate will stick out like a sore thumb, and you’ll be more likely to clean it. The more normalized the mess, the less pressure to clean.

Your environment, at least the parts of it you have control over, reflects some part of your identity. A messy, unorganized house implies a lazy, unorganized person (forget about that distracting trope that geniuses are messy). Even if nobody else sees the mess, you will – everyday. That will have an effect on your self-perception. You will tend to self identify more as a lazy, unorganized person, making it easier to assume that identity in other parts of your life.

That negative self-perception may be small – perhaps you really don’t care if your room is a mess. But maintaining a clean, organized environment will have lasting positive effects, regardless. It helps reinforce an identity of one who is organized and responsible. Having an organized environment increases your sense of control. It is concrete, visible evidence that says, “I am organized, responsible, and in control of my life.”

You don’t have to be the victim of your environment. You can also be the architect of it.

James Clear, Atomic Habits

It took me a while to develop good cleaning habits. One major impediment was thinking of cleaning as a one large, time consuming task – something for future me to handle. A big mess can be intimidating and if you assume it has to be done in one go, you will be less likely to start. The solution: do the minimum, tackle it in small chunks, set tiny goals that you will actually do. Give future you a gift. Save them some time.

For a long time, I had a big stack of papers on my desk. Semi-important documents that I knew I should go through one day and organize. I was afraid to do it, however, because I knew there was more work hidden in there – forms and administrative tasks that I dreaded. So the pile just kept getting bigger. I kept assigning the growing task of sorting through that stack to some future version of me. It became a visible reminder of my procrastination habit. It took up mental capacity somewhere in my awareness as ,“Something I should do someday, but that I’m too lazy to do now.”

A scarily accurate passage in 12 Rules for Life finally inspired me to action:

Maybe there is a stack of paper on your desk, and you have been avoiding it. […] There are terrible things lurking there: tax forms, and bills and letters from people wanting things [….] You could ask yourself, “Is there anything at all that I might be willing to do about that pile of paper? Would I look, maybe, at one part of it? For twenty minutes?” Maybe the answer will be, “No!“, But you might look for ten, or even for five. Start there.

Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules For Life

This point is true of all habits. Your “stack of papers” might be a pile of dishes or clothes, or some other intimidating mess. You have to set your goals small enough that you can actually expect yourself to follow through. Every time you achieve that small goal, it is a vote for a new identity. Those votes will add up over time, and you’ll have changed your behavior for the better.

Once I got through that stack of papers, the habit remained. I kept putting small amounts of time into organizing and cleaning my desk, then my room, then my apartment, then my life. It’s gotten easier. I’m no longer fighting against the norms of a messy environment, I’m maintaining the status quo. Now I can look around at my environment and feel a sense of pride and control. That will carry on into the rest of the day and affect all the things I do.

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