– Ben Martens

Broken Window Theory

brokenwindowtheoryEverybody has their own mental bar denoting what a “clean” house looks like. If you’re happy with the state of your house and the amount of stuff you have in it, then you can probably skip this post. But if you’re not, there are a bazillion different books, websites, and videos giving you ideas about how to improve the state of your home. I’ll make it a bazillion and one by sharing my own thoughts.

I hate cleaning, but even more than that, I hate looking at a mess and knowing that I have to “waste” my time and clean it. So my basic approach is to ABC: Always Be Cleaning. (Every self-help article like this needs a cheesy acronym, right?) For example, when I finish making dinner, I don’t leave the dishes in the sink to greet me the following morning, I take 5 minutes and clean them up. Doing little bits of cleaning here and there feels a lot less painful than ruining two hours of my Saturday because the kitchen turned into a nightmare.

Coupled with that, I also force myself to clean up the area before starting any project. Even if I clean up at the end of a task, the area slowly gets messy again. This is especially true out in the garage. So before I start that next big project, I pick up all my tools, clean off my bench, and organize the piles of wood. Then I’m excited to work in that nice clean area instead of tripping over stuff on the floor and never having room on the bench.

My approach can be neatly summed up by the Broken Window Theory. If you read that linked Wikipedia article, you’ll see the theory summed up like this:

Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.


Or consider a pavement. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of refuse from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.

It’s pretty easy to tell when an area is clean. I feel an emotional response to setting that first piece of junk in the nice clean area. But then I get used to seeing it there and it doesn’t bother me so much. In fact, it gets easier and easier to just throw more junk in that area because hey, I have to clean it out anyway, right? Pretty soon it’s a huge mess and now I have to do one of those big huge cleanouts and my quality of life is negatively impacted because I’m annoyed by the thought of that big cleaning event coming up.

It’s surprising how often this theory applies.¬†For example, we talk about it regularly at work when someone proposes a less than beautiful piece of code. Just take the time to fix it now because your hack will open the floodgates for more hacks until we’re left with a nightmare that we don’t have time to re-architect. If you want to get a little geekier about it, you might propose that messes grow exponentially.

If you’ve already got a system that works for you, then stick with it! But if you need a little more encouragement, remember the broken window theory.