by Kathie England

Better Than Before – Day 8

Unclutter  is the fourth of the pillars of habits that Gretchen Rubin proposes in Better Than Before. Yesterday I invited readers to look at a video on my website that talks about the tipping point of clutter. Rubin begins her discussion by introducing the “Broken Windows Theory” and how it applies to clutter.  I first learned about the “Broken Windows Theory” in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point. I want to elaborate on Gladwell’s discussion and share how both the Broken Windows Theory and the tipping point apply to clutter.

Gladwell says that three agents of change create tipping points – the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context. My focus is on the Power of Context which is the perspective that human beings are a lot more sensitive to their environment than they may seem. The “Broken Windows Theory” is an example of the Power of Context. Two criminologists, James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, created the “Broken Windows Theory” and applied it to crime. They argued that crime is the inevitable results of disorder.

If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge.  Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a signal that anything goes.  In a city, relatively minor problems like graffiti, public disorder, and aggressive panhandling are all the equivalent of unrepaired broken windows, invitations to more serious crimes. Minor, seemingly insignificant quality-of-life crimes become tipping points for violent crime. 

“Broken Windows Theory” and the Power of Context are one and the same. They are both based on the premise that an epidemic can be reversed, can be tipped, by tinkering with the smallest details of the immediate environment. The Power of Context is an environmental argument.  It says that behavior is a function of social context.  The Power of Context says that what really matters is little things. The Power of Context says you don’t have to solve the big problems to solve crime.

How do these ideas apply to clutter? Just as unrepaired broken windows can lead to an epidemic of crime, uncleared clutter can impact us in subtle and not so subtle ways. What we think of as inner states – preferences and emotions – are actually powerfully and imperceptibly influenced by seemingly inconsequential personal influences.  Our inner states are the results of outer circumstances.

Just as Wilson and Kelling argue that crime is the result of disorder, I propose that lost time, ineffectiveness, and even depression can be the results of clutter. Once papers on a desktop begin to pile up, they lead to deeper and deeper piles and finally a sense of being overwhelmed and hopeless. Once things are thrown randomly into a kitchen drawer, the users of that drawer continue to throw things in randomly until there is total disorder and the sense of “why bother?” occurs. Once a garage is so full that there is no hope of ever putting a car in it, the owners continue to fill that garage with stuff and it becomes no more than a dumping ground.

I propose that today’s clutter in our homes and offices is a symptom of our overabundance and our disregard for the environment.

More tomorrow…