Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project has written about the importance of identifying and fixing the “broken windows” of our lives. These are the small signs of disorder that tend to cause us to feel stressed and overwhelmed.
Because these are usually small things, they are also habits that are relatively easy to fix. It may be as simple as getting into the habit of making the bed every morning.
She takes this term “broken windows” from the broken windows theory of policing, which states that an atmosphere that tolerates unrepaired vandalism (like broken windows on buildings that are not repaired) and urban disorder (like excess litter) leads to greater rates of vandalism and to more serious crime. By curbing these tendencies as soon as they appear, it is possible to reduce the future crime rate in that area.
There is some controversy about this theory and how it is used in police work, but I can clearly see how this dynamic plays out in my own day-to-day life.
I certainly have these kinds of “broken windows” that affect me—habits and situations that, once triggered, tend to lead me into spirals of increasing bad habits or negative outcomes.
When it comes to overwhelm, some of my broken windows include piles of clutter on surfaces, unwashed dishes stacked on the counter, un-vacuumed floors (and I really hate vacuuming!!), and the inability to quickly find tools I need to do a job.
Once these things start piling up, I become more and more likely to continue contributing to the piles since I’m already overwhelmed by their presence. As the piles continue to grow, the stress continues to mount, and it becomes a vicious cycle.
When it comes to my struggles with depression, I have other bad habits that I easily slip into that have similar negative outcomes. As my energy level shrinks, it’s easier to over-sleep in the mornings so that I don’t engage in my usual morning self-care routines, I stay in my pajamas all day when I don’t need to leave the house, I let the piles of clutter mount, I let usual chores sit undone.
All of these things leave me feeling even more hopeless and depleted, which can sink me further into depression.
In my creative life, skipping my morning pages is a big “broken window” sign for me. I quickly find my creative spark dimming when I neglect that habit for more than a day or two.
Over time, I’ve learned to notice when these broken windows start appearing so I can put a halt to them faster. An occasional lazy day in my pajamas all day is a treat, but as soon as I start noticing it happening with frequency, it’s time to make myself get dressed first thing.
Between having a full-time job, keeping up a house and yard, and running my own business out of my home, clutter is a constant around here most of the time because there just aren’t enough hours in the day to get it all done. But when it is starting to get to that point where I can’t find things and am noticing that it is causing me stress, it’s time to do what I can to clear the counters again.
Noticing and addressing these signs early when they appear reduces my stress level and improves my happiness considerably. More importantly, when I can nip these bad habits in the bud as soon as they appear, they are still small enough to address relatively easily before they grown into much larger issues.
I’ve been in the process of moving my working area for my art from my dining room (where it had taken over the entire dining room table and several other areas as well for many months) into a newly re-purposed bedroom. In the process, I’ve been reorganizing my supplies and finding ways to store much of it in drawers and closet spaces to reduce the clutter.
I had not realized how much stress the constant overwhelm of the mess in my dining room had been causing me until it was gone. With the neater, cleared space in my new working area, I am already feeling much more productive and inspired because I have the space to work and the ability to easily find things.
My creative spark feels renewed and refreshed!
This has reminded yet again of how easy it is for me to get caught in bad habits that slowly take over before I realize it. It’s got me watching to see what other “broken windows” I may have allowed to sit unrepaired that may be weighing on me and keeping me from doing my best work.
What are the “broken windows” in your life? What early warning signs do you watch for to help you notice when you’ve started down an unhelpful trajectory?
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