Why you have to fix broken windows in your life

Updated to Habits on January 21, 2021.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

Got this far? You might also like these posts:

Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

Do you have broken windows in your life?

You, know those unfinished, must-do’s that never slide into “done”.

The broken window theory was developed in the 1960’s by Philip Zimbardo, a Stanford psychologist. To prove test his theory that one bad thing attracts more bad things to happen, he parked a car, with no license plates and the hood up in a Bronx neighbourhood and another one in Palo Alto, California. Within minutes, the one in the Bronx was attacked and parts were stolen. Within 24 hours, everything of value had been removed and then windows were smashed, upholstery was ripped, and children used it as a playground.

Meanwhile, the car in Palo Alto remained untouched for over a week. Next, Zimbardo intentionally smashed one of its windows. Within hours the vandalism started, just like in the Bronx.

This explains why most municipalities rush out to fix broken signs, or remove graffiti. A little attention to what’s broken will reduce the chance of more bad things happening.

I think we have our own broken windows.

When you have something unfinished in your life it excuses more of the same happening.

It could be a repair needed around the house, clutter in your garage, or a conversation that never happened. Every time you try to ignore that missing baseboard, broken lawn mower, or person you are angry with, you weaken your resolve.

Just like litter in the park that attracts more litter, unresolved broken windows attract more of the same.

But, the opposite is also true. When you deal with unfinished work, rocky relationships, or cluttered workplaces you get back in control and build a healthy discipline of being proactive.


Years ago, I would pass a banker box on the floor of my office every time I walked to my desk. banker box

“One day I have to unload that thing” I would mumble to myself. 

“Arrg,” I would think, for the hundredth time. “I need to take a few minutes and deal with that!”

And on and on it would go, all day, every day. 

Every time I walked by my “broken window”, I thought about it. But instead of doing something to fix it, I added to my story. I might as well have put up a sign in big block letters that said: “I AM OUT OF CONTROL!!!”

One day, I stopped, thought about all the time and mental juice I was wasting on a stupid box, bent down and lifted the lid.


Inside were a few books, a brochure stand (broken, of course), a card from my Mom, and some pens. For two years I thought about that box. 

For two years, my “broken window” was dragging me down and adding to a story I didn’t want.


Do you have some “broken windows”, like:

  • conversations that should have happened, but didn’t.
  • a top drawer full of paperclips, dried up pens, and half-used packs of cough drops.
  • cluttered desk (computer cables, sticky notes, business cards, file folders).
  • half-finished goals that have been ignored for months.
  • a computer desktop cluttered with files, ebooks, and downloads
  • unread books by your bed side
  • an email inbox that hasn’t been cleaned since the Victorian era
  • broken: furniture, car, clothing, shoes, computer, phone…
  • lists you’ve made, but don’t follow
  •  _________________________________________ (you fill in the blank)


Typical advice for fixing things in our life might start with making a list. Don’t do that. list

If our goal is to reduce mental load, another list seems counter productive. Instead, develop a new habit.

The new habit is to not think about fixing your broken windows, but to simply fix them. Here are some recent examples from my life:

Two nights ago I was barbecuing in our backyard. As I left the kitchen to go outside, I could feel the kitchen door handle as loose. Normally, I would make a mental note to fix the door, and then forget about it. Instead, I walked to my tool room, grabbed a screw driver and tightened the handle. Done.

Last week, I was going to do some recording for my podcast. But after moving to our new office, the recording equipment needed to be set up again. Typically, I would fuss about, trying to fix it myself, getting more frustrated. Instead, I called a tech, he pulled a few knobs, flicked some switches. Now it works. Done.

After moving to our new office, boxes of books, unwanted book shelves, and some renovation materials still needed to be dealt with. Motivated by my banker box story, I came in one weekend with my daughters, turned on the tunes, and had a great couple of hours doing a final clean up. Done.

Final example. Every day I waste time looking for files on my computer. It’s frustrating. Last week I took twenty minutes and, using the new file-tagging tool on Mac I attached a digital coloured dot to all my slide shows, sample contracts, and files I frequently need to find. Done. Already, it’s been a huge time saver.


Look around your workspace, or living room, or where ever you are reading this. Notice one thing that you consider unfinished. Itmessy desk could be clutter on your desk, old business cards you picked up at some conference, broken furniture, or an unfinished book you are reading. That’s your broken window.

Next, set a timer for five minutes and go to work to repair, remove, or reduce that distraction. 

That’s your new habit.

Your time is precious, so is your energy. Don’t allow broken windows to distract you, suck your energy, or make you feel out of control.

Every time you fix a broken window, you get back in charge. 

Now, set that timer for five minutes, and get it done.

Recommended Article: Stay on track and kill your to do list!

photo credits: broken window:
photo credits: banker box:
photo credits: list:
photo credits: desk: