The Broken Window Theory & How to Create Massive Change in Your Life

Self-Help

Can you believe that it’s already the end of summer? How freaking quickly is the year flying by? It seems like just yesterday I was writing down my New Year’s resolutions and determined to create a better me in 2019. Well, if you’re anything like me, then you’re probably nowhere near checking off those resolutions and wondering “Who the hell did I think I would be in 2019? Superwoman?”

I’m not the only one who’s made this mistake over and over, and it doesn’t just happen during the new year. We’re all interested in improving ourselves in some way, whether it’s getting in shape, learning a language, learning how to cook, deepening our yoga practice, reading more, etc. But in our good intentions and excitement from a sudden wave of inspiration, we try to do too much and we set ourselves up for failure. We want to change, but often try to create a drastic change in such a short period of time which inevitably only leaves us feeling guilty and disappointed.

This happens with both the bad habits we’re trying to break and the good ones that we want to adopt. A very popular example would be trying to quit smoking cold-turkey. We all know someone (or maybe we are that someone) who’s always “trying to quit.” Don’t worry, there’s no judgment from me!

One of my latest examples was that I wanted to start keeping my apartment cleaner so Matt would be happier to come home to a clean space and our home would look lovely all the time. I decided that each and every day I would have the dishes done, the laundry done, the counters spotless, fresh flowers in the kitchen, the floors vacuumed, the bed made, and the bathroom cleaned – 24/7. I decided this randomly one evening after a surge of inspiration to tidy up the house. Well, it’s now weeks later, and how beautiful do you think the apartment is looking right now? It’s NOT.

My clothes and piles of laundry are scattered all over the apartment, and there’s no sign of my resolution to keep the house clean. The clothes have taken over yet again. If I ever go missing, you just might find me trapped under a pile of clothes in our bedroom. 

As a self-help and self-improvement junkie, I understand more than anyone that desire to improve oneself and feel that sense of personal accomplishment when your goals are met, the house is cleaned, you’ve eaten healthy, and you’ve worked out that day. There’s nothing better than that feeling of being proud of yourself. But too often, we get so excited about that potential to create drastic change and become a better person, that we try to create massive change in our lives overnight. We try to lose 20 pounds immediately, we try to read five books in a month, or we try to go vegan in a weekend. But ultimately those changes don’t last. Changing one’s lifestyle and behaviors takes time and learning.

The Broken Window Theory

This blog post was inspired by a podcast by The Minimalists who I’ve referenced many times before. If you haven’t heard of The Minimalists, they’re best friends Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus who became popular after releasing their documentary “Minimalism” on Netflix. They’re authors, podcasters, filmmakers, and public speakers who spend their lives sharing how living with less helped them find happiness, freedom, and fulfillment that money and possessions can’t give us.

In one of their “Quickie” podcast episodes, called “How Small Changes Make Big Progress,”Joshua and Ryan discussed how small everyday changes in our lives helps us move toward sustainability because those radical changes just don’t stick. Radical changes are like crash diets – it’s not feasible to keep that going all the time. However, making small healthy changes, one meal or snack at a time is what gives people the results that they want. Over time, those small changes eventually start to multiply. 

In this podcast episode, Ryan talked about an example of this that he witnessed when he was visiting Tokyo. He noticed that the city was so immaculate and clean that whenever he would see a piece of trash on the ground, it motivated him to pick it up! The city looked so clean and perfect that he felt the need to keep it that way. I think that’s really saying something, because how often do we go out of our way to pick up trash when we’re walking around? 

Joshua gave his example that resonated with me so much that it was the part that inspired this post today. He shared that this phenomenon is often called “The Wildfire Theory,” but he thinks of it as “The Broken Window Theory.”

He explains how in the 1990s in New York City, people were trying to make the city nicer and over time the urban planners realized something interesting in their efforts to turn the city around. They noticed that if there was ever a broken window in one building and they FIXED it, other buildings nearby start fixing their broken windows too. However, the areas that they didn’t fix ended up getting more broken windows and eventually would attract graffiti and other vandalism. Of course, they also noticed that whenever there was a little bit of graffiti, this lead to MORE graffiti. This realization prompted urban planners to not only fix windows all over the city but to create a 24-hour graffiti removal service. All you had to do was call the hotline, and someone would be there to remove the graffiti within 24 hours!

I love this example that Joshua gives because it’s safe to say that the majority of us have noticed this with our own eyes, and I think that it’s much easier to grasp the broken window theory than to picturing a wildfire. The other reason why I love this example is that the same is true for our everyday lives. As Joshua says, “We all have our own broken windows.” They take the form of past traumas, household clutter, toxic relationships, financial stress, smoking cigarettes, unhealthy eating, and weight gain. They’re the things in life that we want so badly to fix, but we can’t. Why? Because that’s A LOT of freaking changes.

And the broken windows are often so subtle that we don’t notice them as the start of a much bigger issue. They show up as the pajamas we throw on the ground in the morning; the laundry that piles that we don’t put away; the “to-do” list that keeps growing; the appointments that have to be made; the dishes that stack up in the sink; the Oreos that we ate last night; the toxic emotions we’ve bottled up since childhood. We don’t make the effort to fix the problem soon enough, or maybe even notice it happening, so it creates more and more chaos.

Then when we decide to make a change, we try to take on too much at once. We try to turn over the entire city of New York in one week; we try to clean our entire apartment in one night; and we try to knock out a to-do list that’s been growing since we rang in the New Year. The reality is that these broken windows have to be fixed the same way they were created: gradually. 

The added challenge that we have to take into consideration is that those “broken windows” are years of habits that have become so ingrained in us that we don’t even realize that we’re doing it. It all becomes automatic. We get up in the morning and we throw our pajamas on the ground; we eat dinner and we leave the dish in the sink; we do laundry but we never put it away. So how on earth could we change all of those things at once? I don’t know this for sure, but I’m pretty sure it’s impossible.

How to Create Massive Change in Your Life?

Don’t worry, I’m not gonna leave you on THAT note – by saying it’s impossible, that nothing can be done. So I put together a list of seven ways that you can fix your broken windows in a way that’s gradual AND reasonable, and that have the potential to actually stick long-term. I recommend trying all of them and then picking the one that you find the easiest to incorporate in your life. 

1. Fix one broken window at a time

My first piece of advice is to fix one broken window at a time. If you want to get in shape and focus on your health, maybe don’t declare to the world that you’re going to do P90X every day for the next 90 days, give up all the foods that you love, and stop drinking. Side note: I saw someone do this before and he looked MISERABLE… and also went back to his bad habits once he was done. Just as quickly as he got a six-pack, he lost it. 

Instead make the decision to exercise for an hour 3-4 days a week, or to run a 5k, or get 10,000 steps in. Then, after you’ve made one change and adapted to it, make one dietary change every couple of weeks. Maybe give up that one thing you eat WAY too much of. I met a woman once who lost 25 pounds because she gave up Pepsi! PEPSI! That’s all she did!She didn’t throw in an entire exercise regime and dietary changes all at once. She worked on ONE broken window: her soda addiction. I met her after she had lost all that weight and she talked to me about what her next healthy change would be. She was in the process of trying to decide how she would incorporate exercise next.

So pick one “broken window” and do something that is actually going to work for you in your everyday life. Fixing that window will help you gradually fix the other windows, and in the end, it will last.

2. Set the bar low 

If you find yourself not being able to accomplish those big things you set out to do, set goals that are so ridiculously small, that it would be impossible to NOT do them. Set the bar extremely low! Don’t put pressure on yourself to quit smoking immediately, instead, say I’m not going to smoke after ___ pm. Or I’m not going to smoke more than ___ amount of cigarettes a day. Or I’m only going to get ___ packs a week. Set the bar low and give yourself a chance to adjust.

Here’s another example: You know how much it sucks to unpack after a trip? You know how you have to unpack that suitcase, but it sits there on the freaking floor for days, sometimes weeks, overflowing with clothes that you never want to put away? Ok, maybe it’s just me. I REALLY hate laundry in case you couldn’t tell. Whenever I catch myself doing this… which is anytime I go anywhere, I make the decision to put away ONE item in the suitcase every time I walk by it. Once I decide that I’m able to tackle the suitcase in no time, but if I tried to do it all at once, it wouldn’t happen. 

Set the bar so stupidly low, that you have no reason and no excuse to not follow through. If you want to accomplish something BIGGER, like a bigger goal or lifelong dream, not just unpacking a suitcase, plan out each of the steps that you’re going to be taking. Decide each low bar that you would have to set for yourself in order to finally actualize that dream. Decide to enroll in a course tomorrow, or research your target market, or write one page of your business plan, or finally register as a business, or write ONE page of your book. Write down each low bar you have to set for yourself and accomplishing the bigger things in life. It will make it far less scary, far more reasonable, and it will finally get you moving in the right direction.

3. Gretchen Rubin’s One Minute Rule

If it’s a matter of the little things accumulating and getting out of hand, try using a trick that I learned from happiness expert, author, blogger, and podcaster Gretchen Rubin. She came up with this “One Minute Rule” that’s become incredibly popular with her audience. The idea is that if you can do something in one minute or less, you should do it right away.

This trick helps to tackle countless broken windows throughout the day and prevent them from spiraling into a bigger issue. For example, a plate can be rinsed off and put in the dishwasher in about 5-10 seconds, so you should do it right away. It gets little tasks out of the way and keeps them from boiling up. For that reason, it takes you a few seconds to do something, rather than letting dozens of simple tasks get out of hand. At that point, it would take you an hour, or even several hours of running around trying to do so many things at once. We’ve all been there when we’re trying to clean up a room that we let get messier and messier for the last month, which means that we have to spend the next half a day cleaning to get everything done. It takes so much more time and energy to tackle all of it than it would to chip away one task at a time.

It’s a great trick to adopt as far cleaning and putting clothes away if you’re like me, but it could also be used in everyday life. Because I’m writing this post right now and was reminded of this rule, it finally prompted me to call someone back that I’ve been putting off for two days, even though I knew it would only take me 60 seconds. If you have to do anything that takes a minute or less, like write a quick email, then write the damn email! Otherwise, all it does is add to the collection of broken windows you have going and weigh on your mind. 

4. Set a power hour

This next tip is also one that I learned from Gretchen Rubin. (I really love her in case you couldn’t tell). The idea is that if you have a lot of tasks stacking up – maybe they take a minute or maybe they require a little bit more time and energy – you should set an hour aside each week to tackle them.

You know those tasks that aren’t necessarily hard or difficult, but it requires you to do a few steps, or make a couple of calls, or research something first, or dig through your filing cabinet, so you just keep not doing it? The thought of spending those next 10-15 minutes working on this random annoying task that you don’t want to have to do, keeps you procrastinating and not doing this thing for weeks. I do this to myself whenever I have to go looking for a new doctor. For example, when I decided that I wanted to see a therapist, it took me several weeks to finally start making calls and searching for someone because I knew I’d have to spend at least 20 minutes, researching places in the area, calling people, repeating my insurance information, setting up appointments, and then going to consultations with different therapists.

This task wasn’t hard, but it felt annoying and inconvenient. It took more time and mental energy than putting away some dirty dishes, so I continued to put it off. I’m sure you have some task like that you really don’t want to do! For things like these, it’s a good idea to select a day of the week and set aside one hour to power through these random tasks that you’ve been setting aside. It forces you to finally get it done and make some progress, and it finally eliminates that task that’s been weighing on you and making you unhappy and anxious.

5. Decide 1-3 things you want to focus on the next day

One way to tackle your broken windows, eliminate bad habits, or even accomplish larger goals, is to decide the night before what you will focus your energy on tomorrow. I like to incorporate this whenever I feel myself losing focus on my work and getting stressed out. Each night before bed, get out a notebook or a post-it note and reflect on what you would like to focus your energy on the next day. Remember to only pick one to three items.

I find that this works because otherwise, it’s easy to look at the mountain of tasks that you need to get done in order to be successful or reach a goal, and think to yourself, “Where the f*ck do I even start?” For example, sometimes my list looks something like: 1) Create welcome email 2) Edit new video 3) Start ____ post. Or 1) Publish post 2) Choose quotes for Pinterest graphics 3) Brainstorm ebook ideas. It’s a short list of goals that you know you can reasonably get done the next day and provide some direction and support so you stay on track.

You can use this trick with work, with getting in shape, or with breaking bad habits. It’s even been helpful for me in the areas of spirituality and self-improvement. If you’re trying to lose weight, your list might look something like: 1) Go to the gym for 20 minutes 2) Make dinner at home 3) No snacking after 9 pm. Or maybe 1) Look up ab workout ideas 2) Get some healthy snacks at the grocery store 3) No chips. The beauty of this list is that it varies every day, so you don’t make the same mistake of making a drastic decision or lifestyle changes at once. 

6. Say no

I felt the need to mention saying no on this list as well because too many people try to take on more than they can handle. Not only is it a way that we self-sabotage, but it’s also a reflection of our culture now. It’s a culture where we treat each other like computers that are meant to be productive, to perform, and to function all day long, rather than connect, love, and LIVE.

It’s a culture where high school students feel as if their self-worth is defined by how many AP classes they’re in and if we’re not making six figures, we’re not good enough. I believe that we won’t be able to create massive change in our lives and fix our broken windows unless we learn to first slow down and cut back. Otherwise, our physical and mental energy is drained, while more windows break in an effort to keep all the balls in the air. But here’s the thing, while we desperately need to learn to say no to other people, we especially need to learn to say no to OURSELVES.

We’re our own worst critic and nobody expects more from ourselves than we do. Which is when I get 10 new ideas for blog posts, I expect myself to be able to do all of them. When I have an idea for a video, an email, a graphic, a book, I think that every idea I have to say yes to in order to be the superhero version of myself I want to be. I do this with collabs, with my website, with challenges I make up for myself, and with classes and programs that I learn about. It’s the reason why Matt is always having to have an intervention with me at our kitchen counter and say, “You’re trying to do too much. You’re gonna stress yourself out. You can’t do it all.” While we may have thousands of epic and wonderful ideas, it’s impossible to say yes to all of them. By saying yes to every idea, you’re not even able to see one through completely. So learn to slow down, and say no. Say no to family members who demand too much from you, say no to friends who treat you more like an assistant than a friend, say no to coworkers that try to pass off their responsibilities onto you, and above all, say no to yourself. You can’t do it all. 

7. Remind yourself that it’s going to take time

Last but not least, when it comes to creating massive change in our lives, it’s important to remind yourself that it’s going to take time. I’m so guilty of this because I want everything done, perfect, and completed right away. I’ve very impatient when it comes to my progress and I have to remind myself of this almost daily. And I know I’m not the one human being in the world who does this to themselves. I see it in my friends and family too.

We put a lot of pressure on ourselves and create expectations that we would never expect from anyone else. And we expect that we should be able to get things done immediately. We go to one CrossFit class and immediately think we’re weak and bad at it because we can’t deadlift 200 lbs. Or we take one yoga class a year and get frustrated with ourselves because we can’t do a headstand right away. When it comes to ourselves, we think we should make progress far faster than is reasonable, which is why it’s so important to remind yourself that things take time. All you can do is to try your best, and eventually, you’ll get there. 

Thanks for coming to Lost Online!

I hope this post was helpful for you by highlighting the biggest pitfall that millions of us make every January – we expect to make a massive change in our lives overnight. When it comes to accomplishing lifelong goals, breaking bad habits, or creating healthy change in our lives, for some reason, we feel as if we should do it instantaneously. The problem is that many of us have our own little “broken windows” that have to be fixed before we can do that. Like sleeping in too late, eating unhealthy, holding ourselves back, or staying in toxic relationships. But if you take small steps, and make one change at the time, that effort begins to spread like wildfire.

As always, let me know what you think in the comments! Have you noticed that you’ve made this mistake before? Or maybe are making it right now? What are some examples where you’ve done this to yourself? Have you thought of any of your own broken windows? How do you think you could create massive changes by using some of these tips I mentioned? Do you have any other suggestions that you think might help people create massive change in their lives? Let me know in the comments!

If you like what you read here, remember to go down to the bottom of the page, click that”+” symbol, and type in your email where it says “follow blog via email.” You’ll have all future blog posts sent right to you! Thanks for coming to Lost Online!

Photos by Ray Reyes @rocketsciencephoto.

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