A broken-down washing machine in a busy household is a nightmare. So it's worth spending a little bit of effort to try to avoid a breakdown. Here are some tips I elicited from a great washing machine repair guy I came across. He says the main cause of breakdown is a blockage in the pipes.
Always check all pockets for coins, hairclips and stones - anything that might cause a problem. Pipes also get blocked by grease and detergent residue, so once a month put half a pack of soda crystals in the tub of the machine and a do a boil wash cycle.
Regularly clean out the detergent drawer to stop build up. It should pull out easily so you can rinse it in the sink.
Never overload the machine. When you've got a mountain of washing it's tempting to get through it as quickly as possible by filling the drum to the max. The problem is that once the water comes whooshing in, it will put too much weight on the drum and stress on the mechanisms. Eventually something will give out.