1. Parenting
Laureen Miles Brunelli

Fixing the Broken Windows in Our Lives

By January 2, 2013

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Reading Malcolm Gladwell's 2000 book The Tipping Point recently, I was reminded of the "Broken Windows" theory. This is not a new idea for me. In fact, I wouldn't call it a "theory" but rather a powerful force in my community and my life.

The "Broken Windows" concept posits that disorder in an environment encourages crime, while fixing seemingly unimportant things, like graffiti or broken windows, will make a disproportionately positive change. In The Tipping Point, Gladwell counts these small positive changes in environment among the factors that can tip an "epidemic" (not as in illness but as in escalating force of social change) into motion. In my community, I have seen the amazing transformation that can take place in the wake of seemingly small but positive changes.

And so as I was reading, it occurred to me that this phenomenon is not limited to social science but that these kinds of small changes in your own life and immediate environment can yield positive changes in a greater proportion.

But before we begin pinpointing the broken windows in our lives, let me first illustrate the power of this phenomenon.

When we moved on to our block, we felt optimistic at its prospects for urban renewal, though it was undoubtedly a risky proposition. The larger neighborhood was making a comeback, but most of the houses on our block were boarded up. However, the community developer who rehabbed our house owned--and had plans to fix up--nearly half the other houses on street. Unfortunately, though, there was a pair of burned-out buildings on the corner that its owner just wouldn't sell to him.

To say these tumbled-down, rat-infested shells were an eyesore was, well, an understatement. They absolutely attracted problems. People would come from all over the neighborhood to dump their old mattresses and smashed TVs in the alley next to them. And a lot worse.

Over the years, the developer finished rehabbing his other houses, and do-it-yourselfers fixed up many of the others. The street took on a much more prosperous look and a strong sense of community. But the burned-out buildings still stood, and dumpers still piled the alley with trash.

Eventually, the neighbors petitioned the city demolish the buildings. But still they dumped, and we cleaned it up. We planted trees and roses in the now empty lots. But still they dumped, and we cleaned it up. We obtained sod, and the lot was transformed in to a green urban oasis. But still they dumped, and we cleaned it up.

Finally, we made one more small change. We planted six barrels with flowers and put them in the alley exactly where the dumping occurred. And the dumping stopped. Just like that.

Now, "Broken Windows" is meant to explain dynamics in a larger community, not necessarily individual lives, but as people who work at home, we don't live in a vacuum. We live and work in a home--a type of community--probably full of a lot of other people (some of whom may be small and have lots of distracting needs).

At its heart, the theory is about how environment affects behavior. So it's worthwhile to consider our work-at-home environment and its effects on our behavior.

In our own lives, most of us probably don't have such intractable dumpers or anything as blighted as a pair of burned-out rowhouses. But we likely do have dumpers our lives--family members who pile our desks with papers or interrupt us on the phone or friends who don't understand that we actually work at home.

And again, none of us (at least I hope) have blight in our personal environment on the level of dilapidated houses. But what about that pile of papers you have to step around to get to your desk, the pile of mending that never gets mended, those things that we can never move off our to-do list? Those are broken windows.

Though the changes needed to fix them may be small, they aren't effortless, as certainly the example of my block shows. You have to keep at it. And as Gladwell explains in his book, just one kind of small change isn't going to start an epidemic. (Read the book (Shop Now) to see all the things that can make a "tipping point.") But it's a start.

Work-at-Home Resources:

C. Voss

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