The Broken Window Theory of Productivity

The broken window theory: “Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. [Such visible signs of crime] create an urban environment that encourages further crime and disorder, including serious crimes.”

The same happens to your productivity once you let the first metaphorical window break or unrepaired.

The broken windows of productivity are small guilty pleasures like mindlessly scrolling Twitter or Instagram on your phone for just a short moment. It’s watching just this one short YouTube video or browsing Reddit for five minutes.

In itself, these activities don’t seem very harmful. Just five minutes were wasted and everyone needs a break every now and then, right?

The real danger, as with the nonmetaphorical broken windows, is that they create an environment that encourages further harmful behavior. Each broken window has the potential to start a cascade that spirals out of control. Before you know it, there are whole days with barely any productive work at all.

You certainly didn’t plan on spending hours of your time watching Netflix, playing video games, or mindlessly scrolling on social media platforms. Somehow it just happens. The guilty pleasures, just like crime in cities with broken windows, have slowly taken over control.

And it always starts with just a single broken window.

Repairing broken windows

Now how can we use the broken window theory of productivity to our advantage?

The most obvious measure is that you should make sure that each time a window breaks, you repair it as quickly as possible. Something that works wonders in my experience is that each time I find yourself mindlessly scrolling Twitter or watching a YouTube video, I stop immediately and do a simple mindfulness exercise like focusing on your own breath for a minute.

While mindfulness exercises have become increasingly popular recently, they’re usually restricted to a single 20 or so minute sitting each day. From a broken window point of view we can see that this is like waiting until lots of windows have broken and then repairing them all at once. While this is certainly better than doing nothing, oftentimes “crime” has oftentimes already taken over at this point. It’s far more effective to repair each broken window immediately.

A second important thing we can learn from the broken window theory of productivity is that it makes a lot of sense to purposefully create an environment that discourages window breaking. If it’s possible to create an environment that encourages harmful behavior, it’s also possible to do the opposite.

Website blockers like Freedom.to or Cold Turkey can be immensely helpful to avoid that windows break, but there are also lots of other environmental changes you can try. For example, setting your phone to black and white, uninstalling all apps and games, working at a standing desk, are all measures that make window breaking harder.

Arguably even more important is to develop habits that discourage window breaking. For example, if you start your day with your phone in your hand, you’ve already lots of broken glass at your feet. Hence, it makes sense to develop a new habit and start the day, for example, by reading a book or by writing morning pages. Similarly, the broken window theory of productivity helps us to understand why reserving hour-long blocks for deep work is so powerful.

A final takeaway is that you can also use the broken window phenomenon (or, that is, its opposite) to your advantage. Analogous to how it’s possible to create a downwards spiral through broken windows, it’s possible to create an upwards spiral, for example, by planting a single flower.

If you don’t feel like doing some productive task, tell yourself that you will try it for just five minutes. If after five minutes you still want to do something else, you’ll stop. Most of the time, these initial five minutes is all it takes to get into a productive mode and continue working on the task.

For both, the upwards and the downwards spiral, there is an initial barrier of resistance. Once you’ve managed to overcome it, you’ll almost automatically spend more time in that direction. And it’s always your choice whether you want to break windows or plant flowers.

The importance of Neighborhoods

The broken window theory of productivity not just has important implications on a personal but also on a social level.

If you live in a neighborhood where no one repairs broken windows, it’s much harder to do the opposite. Similarly, when you live in a neighborhood where everyone has a beautiful garden, you’ll be motivate to create one yourself.

For productivity this simply means that if you surround yourself by people who do unproductive things, you’ll be encouraged to do the same. But if everyone around you is super productive, you’ll find it easy to be productive too. This is why working in libraries or co-working spaces can work wonders.

The broken window theory of everything

The broken window phenomenon is, of course, not just restricted to productivity and crime. In any human activity that involves a struggle between harmful and beneficial behavior, thinking in terms of broken windows can be immensely powerful.

For example, let’s talk about the broken window theory of diet.

We all know what happens after we eat a single potato crisp. Once you’ve started, it becomes impossible to stop. Hence, the key is to avoid that even a single window breaks. And if it does, try to repair it immediately. In this case, good ways to repair a broken window is by brushing your teeth and doing rope jumps for a few minutes.

In addition, you can again make sure that you create an environment that encourages the right kind of behavior. The most powerful measure is to never store any kind of unhealthy snack at home or at your office. This is analogous to installing a website blocker on your computer and phone.

The broken window theory of diet also explains nicely why fasting (in-between real meals) works. As soon as you eat a single snack, it becomes much harder to resist the urge to eat more. Hence the key is to develop a habit of not eating anything in-between meals.

In summary:

  • Repair windows as soon as they break.
  • Create an environment that makes sure windows rarely break.
  • Proactively plant flowers to spark an upwards spiral.

I’d love to hear if you apply the broken window theory to some area of your life!

Written on July 28, 2020
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