Why you have to fix broken windows in your life

Updated to Habits on January 21, 2021.

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: