Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Metaphorical broken windows

I was unloading the dishwasher, but I was thinking about broken windows.

More specifically, I was thinking about the “broken windows theory,” having just read a short essay about this by Happiness Project author Gretchen Rubin. The original broken windows theory posits that a city block populated by buildings with broken windows is more likely to attract other kinds of litter and eventually more significant problems such as street crime and arson as well. Conversely, if city officials make it a priority to fix broken windows, the likelihood of greater graft and criminal activity on the same block will be diminished.

Gretchen Rubin extrapolates this theory to maintaining a household, and I was thinking about that as I cleaned up the kitchen this morning. Her point is that if you can identify your own small acts of household negligence, you might be taking a step toward forestalling larger ones. Since I started the day with a sense of mild despair about the state of the household, washing the dishes seemed like a good way to test her theory.

I generally have a fair amount of ambivalence toward housework, especially on work days. If I don’t keep the house neat and clean, I start to feel a slightly suffocating sense of overall disorganization and frustration. But if I spend time doing housework, I remind myself that I get paid to write, not vacuum, and no one in my family except for me either notices or cares if the rugs have been vacuumed or the shelves dusted. And I also remind myself that I often use housework as a deliberate diversion when I don’t want to write. I’m definitely not the only writer I know whose furniture is never so well-polished as when she’s on deadline with a complicated story.

But this morning, I decided to test the broken windows theory when it came to my own home. I decided instead of vacillating between the priority of cleaning and the priority of earning a paycheck, I would spend the first hour of my workday cleaning up. Rather than toggling constantly between household tasks and deskwork, the way I often spend my work hours, I decided I would just focus on getting all the cleaning done in one hour that I could.

So I unloaded the dishwasher, reloaded it with breakfast dishes, cleaned all the bathrooms, dusted, and started a load of laundry.

And just as I’d hoped, after an hour, I did not feel an hour behind on deadlines and writing commitments. I felt renewed. I felt happy to be working in an orderly house. I felt more motivated than usual to think about what I’d make for dinner, since I knew I’d be cooking in a clean kitchen rather than trying to prep one meal and pick up from an earlier one at the same time.

True, there are days when I just don’t have the luxury of indulging in an hour of housework before I get to my real job. Sometimes deadlines are tight enough, or projects have accumulated enough, that I just have to forget about the clutter and grime and sit down at my desk instead.

But today, it worked for me. I cleaned, and then started my workday with a clear, dare I say clean, conscience.

I’d taken care of my broken windows, and I knew the rest of the day would have a more orderly feel as a result. Sometimes, fixing broken windows – literally or metaphorically – really is the best approach.

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