So what do dishes, making your bed, and the broken window theory all have in common with inbox zero?
Around my house, I’ve noticed that, regardless of the status of the dishwasher, dishes will occasionally collect in the sink. Upon closer observation, I realized a possible cause. Sometimes my wife or I rush out of the house after cooking breakfast and we just dump the dishes into the sink. This appears to signal to our teenagers that the sink is ‘open for business’ and nobody even thinks twice about putting dishes in the dishwasher even if it’s empty.
The Broken Window Theory
You’ve probably heard of the ‘broken window theory‘ in criminology.
Essentially, this theory proposes that a building can be free of vandalism for a long time until the first untidy thing (a broken window) happens. Once the first event occurs, vandalism and additional damage can start to accumulate quickly. Apparently, something in our nature makes it less evil to add to existing damage vs. creating the first damage. With that in mind, it’s imperative that property owners and landlords replace that first broken window as soon as possible to avoid having more problems down the road.
There’s evidence that this works, by the way. At the very least, it’s a solid point in favor of your local homeowner’s association for keeping things in tip-top shape!
Making your bed
As a second example of how one thing can cause a chain reaction for the rest of the day, I’ll bring up the famous ‘make your bed’ speech by Admiral William McRaven. If you want to take a moment and check it out, I’ll add the video at the end of this post.
His idea is that even one small victory can set the tone for the entire day – in this case, it is making the bed first thing in the morning after you wake up. We will always be able to refer back to having had the discipline to do one thing well and to keep that streak going. It doesn’t matter if it’s a relatively trivial task; it’s a job well done. Even if we’ve had an otherwise lousy day, it was an accomplishment.
To follow along with the previous example, NOT making your bed could be considered your first ‘broken window’ of the day – creating a cascading negative effect.
Early wins help prevent future failures
Humans are known to have a little bit of a ‘what the he**’ bias. I’m sure you can fill in the blanks.
This type of bias is most commonly seen in diets and I’m sure you’ve had a couple of these moments. If we blow our diet and have a piece of cake, for instance, it is very likely that we will abandon our new rules for the remainder of the day. We seem to have some pretty binary default thinking; after all, our brains are quite lazy. Perhaps this kind of thinking extends in a more general way, such as, “I’ve already blown my first commitment of the day (making the bed), so what the he**?”
This streak-keeping bias (see Jerry Seinfield or any teenager with a Snapchat account) may also be direct evidence of this default thinking.
We can bring all of this back to our work lives easily. Sure, you should make your bed, do your dishes, and don’t let any windows get broken. But, when we are overwhelmed by our stuff – emails and texts, a never-ending task list, and impatient bosses, peers, and stakeholders – making our bed can seem like it doesn’t matter at all. How could we hold on to the idea “Well, at least I made my bed!” when the world is clamoring loudly for our attention via electronic means?
Inbox zero is another early win
To offer a more relevant idea that might help you put this line of thinking to work for your own goals – consider inbox zero. If we can commit to good productivity practices in one area of our day-to-day, in this case keeping our email box empty and organized, it should leak into other areas over time.
“My email is clean, so I know I can be in control, at least somewhat!” should eventually morph into “I’ve got ideas about how to keep my workspace organized, too!” If nothing else, we can at least say “I didn’t accomplish much today, but my email was empty when I left, so…”
We talk more about this idea in our course Do Busy Right and we’ll have more information coming to our blog soon so be sure to follow up!
Here’s that video I promised: