WalMartBright and early one morning, I went into a Super WalMart store and was greeted by dozens of shopping carts filled with all kinds of stuff. The carts lined the entire front end of the store and workers were busy moving items from one cart to another.

I wondered what was going on so I approached one of the workers and asked, “What’s up with all these carts?”

She said, “They’re returns.”

Every day, WalMart employees take to the aisles of the store with carts to collect items that were picked up in one place and put down somewhere else. All of these items must be sorted and returned to where they belong.

It reminded me of the broken windows theory.

If you’re not familiar with this theory, here’s a quick excerpt from Wikipedia about it:

The broken windows theory was first introduced by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, in an article titled “Broken Windows” which appeared in the March 1982 edition of The Atlantic Monthly. The title comes from the following example:

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.

I think that’s what happens in stores – shoppers just put down unwanted items anywhere rather than returning them to where they belong. Maybe they (we!) figure it’s someone else’s job to pick up after us.

But what happens when we don’t return things to where they belong at home?

You know what happens!

One thing leads to another until we have a pile of stuff to put away. And when we routinely don’t pick up after ourselves, we create what’s called a norm which, in essence, gives social permission for everyone else in our home to do the same.

Are you in the habit of “returning” things to the nearest empty space?

Next time you start to put something down, ask yourself: Is this where it belongs? If not, stop what you’re doing and go put it away. It’s easy to do and will only take a few moments.

Then watch what happens over time. This one simple change of behavior will go a long way toward decluttering your home, plus save you time, effort, and stress.

Repeat after me: Don’t just put it down, put it away.