Are Broken Windows and Clutter Related?

Are Broken Windows and Clutter Related

Have you heard of the broken window theory? The term “Broken Windows” was proposed by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in 1982 that used broken windows as a metaphor to describe this concept: “If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge.” This theory says that the little things matter.

Prior to the development and implementation of various incivility theories such as broken windows, law enforcement scholars and police tended to focus on serious crime; that is, the major concern was with crimes that were perceived to be the most serious and consequential for the victim, such as rape,robbery, and murder. Wilson and Kelling took a different view. They saw serious crime as the final result of a lengthier chain of events, theorizing that crime emanated from disorder and that if disorder were eliminated, then serious crimes would not occur.

Basically, the theory is: if there is a building with a broken window, it will “invite” vandalism, which will escalate to more serious crimes.

The same is true in our home: If there is a pile of miscellaneous clutter on the counter, it will “invite” us to leave more things on the pile.

When you have something in your hand – say, a piece of mail – it’s very easy to put that item on top of a pile of clutter. You might think, “It’s already such a mess, one more piece won’t make much of a difference.” On the other hand, you’re less likely to put that item onto a clean surface. In that case, you might think, “I’ve worked so hard to make this area neat; I don’t want to mess it up now.” ~Buried in Treasures: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving, and Hoarding

And then, the clutter piles multiply, until one day, we look around and the amount that has accumulated is overwhelming and affects our stress levels and our mental and emotional wellbeing.

Allowing the dishes to sit for days or papers and miscellaneous to accumulate on flat surfaces, gives the impression that it’s acceptable.

When we routinely don’t pick up after ourselves, we create what’s called a norm which, in essence, gives social permission for everyone else in our home to do the same.

Typical household “broken windows”:

  • Dishes in the sink
  • Unsorted mail
  • Overflowing trash
  • Leftover food prep on kitchen counters
  • Laundry piles
  • Loose change around the house

People follow; if you want your home to be tidy, set the example. Make it important to you.

  • Declutter your own items.
  • Develop routines.
  • Include children in chores and putting things away after they are used.

Taking care of the little things, helps you accomplish the big things in your life:

People get a real lift when they put things in their place, tackle nagging tasks, clear surfaces, and get rid of things that don’t work or aren’t used. This surge of energy makes it easier to ask more of ourselves, to use our self-control, and to stick to a challenging habit. Also, accomplishing small tasks boosts our sense of “self-efficacy.” The more we trust ourselves to follow through on our own commitments, the more likely we are to believe that we can keep an important habit. ~Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives

Dealing with all the “broken windows” means there won’t be that nagging thought: “I need to get that done” in the back of your mind all the time. It allows you to be present in the moment.

I know, as a mom, I’ve often heard the expression “Housework will always be there- spend time with your children.” Yes, housework will always been there, but knowing the challenges I’ve had to go through in my own life, dealing with clutter and depression, the biggest gift I can give to my children is teaching them how to keep a tidy home.

That doesn’t mean that I slave all day keeping the house immaculate or follow them around picking up after them.

Part of living minimally means I have less stuff that needs to be cleaned/sorted/organized/put away. It simplifies the task of keeping house. It also means that is easier for me to include the children in daily routines.

The housework will always be there,but if we let it sit, it becomes an unbearable burden.

The housework will always be there for our children as well, let’s teach them how to take care of it, so they won’t have to struggle with it.

What are your “broken windows”?

A note to new moms and those with chronic health issues: If you need to rest, please do! Seek outside help: when people ask if there is anything they can do, take them up on it. Have them do the dishes or fold laundry. Hire help to take care of the little things. Get rid of everything except the essentials. With chronic pain and fatigue, it’s difficult to wash a full sink of dishes, but it’s do-able to wash one plate and one fork. When you have limited your possessions, it takes less work to maintain a tidy home.


Photo was adapted and used by permission from Blondinrikard Fröberg

About the author, Rachel

Hi there! I’m the Joyful Space Specialist. it’s my desire help others create a joyful space of their own and enjoy their time spent at home.


  1. Jill on 08/13/2015 at 1:44 PM

    Oddly I actually have a broken window in our home. It is an indoor door. It has multiple panes of glass in it. One broke some time ago. We have taped it, but neither I, nor my husband know how to repair it. It isn’t like a normal window. I hate looking at it. It makes me sad.
    But my book shelves and my computer desk and oddly on top of the dog crate are my terrible areas.
    Thank you for this post. I need to repair that glass!

  2. jen on 08/13/2015 at 5:22 PM

    When I was living with my family for a brief period after graduating, I noticed that while I am not normally the kind of person who leaves my belonging around the house, I started doing so often. I tried talking with my mom about it, saying we ALL needed to keep our things in our own room because one person’s messiness seemed to draw others to do the same. I felt bonkers while I lived at home again because it was always SO messy and there was nothing I could do about it.
    Thank you for this post, it confirms my thoughts 😉
    But, WOW, regarding the crime. It sounds so logical to me.

    • Rachel on 08/13/2015 at 10:44 PM

      Isn’t that interesting Jen?!

  3. Catherine on 09/03/2015 at 6:11 PM

    This is a really interesting post and I can definitely identify some of my ‘broken windows’ – the loft stairs, the kitchen table, the table in the bedroom.

    I wrote a post recently, about my daughter (at 13 months old) putting her apron away. I have however been wondering about the balance of tidying as while I do agree it is good to learn how to tidy, sometimes it seems she’s worried that things have not been put away (usually before they’ve finished being used). I’d hate for her to develop anxiety (or OCD tendencies) about tidying. I guess it’s about finding awayvto teach our children to look after their environment while tolerating imperfections.

  4. Donna Smallin Kuper on 05/18/2016 at 1:01 PM

    Thanks for quoting my blog article on this topic! I love that you are “nourishing minimalism” and encouraging others to do the same. My husband and I sold our home and most of our belongings (except the stuff we loved and needed) about three years ago and have been on the road ever since as full-time RVers. Many people say we are living their dream. I like to think of our lifestyle as the new American dream. Less truly is more.

    • Rachel on 05/19/2016 at 6:57 PM

      Absolutely! I agree with you- I think you do have the new American dream! 🙂

  5. Elle C on 10/11/2016 at 11:07 PM

    I love this analogy and it will forever be etched in my mind. When I think about laying the junk mail down instead of sorting it, or hiding something in the infamous junk drawer I will see it as an ugly broken window aND ask myself if it’s really worth it to avoid the task.

    I will say 2 years ago we finally had the courage to do a joy based home cleanse, since then keeping up with the house and kids has actually been possible! One of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Leave a Comment