Positive perspectives and practices for personal growth.

Overcoming Broken Windows & Bottlenecks

Have you ever read an article, or watched a documentary, about some poor, dysfunctional soul who’s allowed masses of rubbish to pile up inside their house; so much rubbish in fact – accumulated over countless years – that they’ve had to move a mountain of bin bags just to get in and out of their own front door?

What on earth possessed them to let their lives fall into such disarray? Why don’t they do something to put it right?

There’s a theory in social science called the ‘broken windows theory’. When it was first put forward in 1982, the authors of the theory, James Q Wilson and George L Kelling wrote:

‘Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.

Or consider a pavement. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of refuse from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.’

The broken windows theory suggests – as you’ll have gathered from the above - that in any given society, where decay gets a foothold, deterioration quickly spirals out of control. Apathy sets in, substandard becomes the norm, lack of order and structure is seen as an excuse or validation to exacerbate the problem further.

Each of Us Has Broken Windows Too

You’ll know yourself that the broken windows theory doesn’t just apply to societies; it applies to me, it applies to you, it applies to all of us on a very personal, individual basis.

If we neglect certain things – even seemingly trivial things – our lives can quickly deteriorate:

You don’t do the dishes one day, a week later you find yourself staring at pile of washing up – complete with is own unique, newly evolved ecosystem – that can probably be seen from space.

You forget to pay a single bill on time, and before you know it your finances have fallen into greater disarray than the Icelandic banking system.

You miss a few exercise sessions in a row, and within a few days pizza, beer, the sofa and TV have won you over with their seemingly irresistible charms.

You fail to confront a simple, easily solvable problem – at home, at work, in your relationships – and soon, a seemingly trivial issue has become an insurmountable, all consuming problem.

Each Broken Window Starts With a Bottleneck

The seed of every broken window is a single omission. One act, that had it been done, would have prevented a problem from arising.

You wash the dishes up straight after your meal, you don’t find yourself staring at that mountain a week later. You spend 10 minutes exercising a day, you don’t find yourself six months later a neglectful sloth, several stone overweight; who’s only exercise is waddling back and forth to the fridge. You pay the bill when it comes in, and at the end of the month you don’t find that all your finances have been eaten up with interest and penalty charges. You consistently hit each small deadline you set yourself at work, and you don’t find yourself overwhelmed, pressured and brimming with stress.

In each case, just a small, consistent, well placed act of proactivity prevents those broken windows from appearing, and as a consequence keeps your life running smoothly and on track.

Figuring Out the Bottleneck

One thing I have found is that there is always a simple strategy that you can implement – if you’re prepared to take the time to look for it – that will fix any recurring problem, and prevent those proverbial bin bags from piling up into an overwhelming mess.

It’s simply a case of figuring out that strategy, and then having the self-discipline to make it part of your routine.

If there’s an aspect of your life that you never seem to be on top of, or is always falling into disarray, you just need to ask yourself one question:

What one thing, that if I did it consistently and at the appropriate time, would prevent this recurring broken window from escalating out of control?

The Importance of Habit

Routines are a wonderful thing; they neither require mental effort or willpower.

If you’re able to incorporate into your routine an effective strategy for overcoming a potential bottleneck, you can all but guarantee that you found a long term solution to your problem.

As Aristotle said:

We become what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.

The hard part of course, is to form that habit – to consistently do that thing you’ve identified that will always prevent those bottlenecks and broken windows from occurring.

Easy Habit Formation

Personally, I have a very simple strategy for turning activities into habits:

I make them simple to do; I make them short and sweet; and I make sure that I do them every time, by reminding myself of the deleterious consequences if I don’t.

It’s as simple as that; and it’s a very powerful strategy.

The less willpower you have to engage to do something, the more consistently you’ll do it. And the more consistently you do it, the more likely it is to turn into a habit.

Give yourself 30 days of doing something consistently, and you can guarantee that whatever new behaviour you introduced will have become an entrenched part of your automated routines.

And if you’ve strategically chosen those habits specifically to address the bottlenecks and broken windows that consistently hold you back, your life will very rapidly improve.

To this day, I have a very simple morning routine that I employ with ruthless efficiency, because I know that if I don’t I do probably quickly revert to sitting in front of the TV in my dressing gown all day – a potentially fatal vulnerability that any fully autonomous homeworker can empathise with.

That simple routine is to get up, have a cup of tea, exercise for a quarter of an hour, shower and then have breakfast, before starting work.

That’s one of the core routines that keeps my life firmly on track. It doesn’t sound like much, but without it I’d probably be living out on the streets. It forms a bedrock of proactivity that ensures I start the day positively and with a clear focus, and propels me on go on to make the most of the rest of the day.

I wash the plates immediately after I’ve finished every meal, not because I have some crockery cleaning fetish, but because I know that if I don’t, the knock-on effect will be the slow, but inevitable transmogrification of my house into a cesspit that wouldn’t look out of place in the poorest of shantytowns. Something which is again, a bit of a problem when you working from home.

I work on my main goal for at least an hour every day. I keep the skills I have and which are important to me by practising every day – writing, music, reading – for a minimum of 15 to 20 minutes a day.

I set up my day so that those things are easy to accomplish. My training gear for example, is always at hand so that I can quickly go for a run; if it’s bad weather I have a plan B exercise routine that I jump into without thinking. My guitar is always in tune and ready to play. I have a dedicated time set aside for writing, as I do for reading.

All these things help to remove those hidden forces that for some reason always seem to interfere with our plans.

Goal Bottlenecks

The above are all examples of bottlenecks that arise out of seemingly trivial omissions, but which rapidly spread like a cancer, infecting and undermining other areas of your life.

But bottlenecks can be far more subtle – leading not necessarily to a downward spiral of deterioration, but instead to slow or limited progress towards the things you want to achieve in life.

I’ll give you a personal example.

A couple of years ago I wanted to sell my house. It was in pretty good state of repairs, it wouldn’t have taken much to put it on the market.

And yet I didn’t do so for months. Why? Simply because there was a room full of junk that needed sorting through.

That single room of junk represented a bottleneck that held up my plans for months. Nothing else got done in preparation for selling the house, simply because of that one room. It was if that single roomful of junk had gained the power of veto over my future plans.

And yet when I confronted that bottleneck, and removed it from my path - something which only took a day - everything else quickly fell into place. I was propelled along by sense of empowerment from having addressed that key problem, everything else I had to do seemed easy by comparison.

Like many bottlenecks in life, that bottleneck was relatively insignificant, but it has a disproportionately negative impact on my life. Likewise, it’s effective removal had a disproportionately beneficial impact.

Here’s another little example:

We all have major constraints that hold us back, bottlenecks that interfere with our productivity, and hinder our potential.

I find keeping a diary very helpful. Yet despite that I never seemed to keep it up for long. What was the problem? I simply found it labourious, distractingly fiddly and time consuming tapping away at my iPod’s small virtual keyboard. As for keeping a paper diary; well, you haven’t seen my handwriting…

The bottleneck there for me was the actual mechanical process of inputting my thoughts. Yet it was simple to solve: I found out how amazingly accurate Apple’s speech to text recognition software was. And since going to the effort of removing that bottleneck; and substituting speech for text, I’ve routinely recorded all my thoughts.

The smallest thing really can, for better or for worse, have an exponential effect on the rest of your life.


There is always a limiting factor- a bottleneck – that’s holding you back. Either that bottleneck is causing you a recurring problem that negatively impacts other aspects of your life; or alternatively, it’s stopping you, or slowing your progress from reaching a goal.

Find that bottleneck, find an effective strategy to counteract it, and you’ll be amazed at the positive difference it makes to your life.

The questions you need to ask yourself:

What stops me from functioning at my best?

What aspects of my life – at work, at home, in my relationships – need improvement? What one thing could I specifically do that would make the biggest positive impact? 

What goals do I want to achieve? What single thing, more than anything, is holding me back, preventing me from achieving those goals?

What activity can I incorporate into my routine regularly, to prevent a bottleneck from occurring?

In each case it’s simply about finding that key obstacle that is holding you back.

That’s your bottleneck. That is the thing that you must address straightaway if you going to get anywhere. Subconsciously, we often know what’s holding us back, but we refuse to consciously acknowledge it. Asking yourself the above simple questions forces you to confront your key obstacle, which in turn gives you the impetus you need to tackle the problem head on.

If you found this post helpful and you think others will too, please consider sharing the link on Facebook, Twitter or whatever other site you use. Thank you, Gareth