2016-06-30
Ten years ago, Marla Cilley married a North Carolina district court judge, a blessing that came with an instant complication: how would they combine two households that were full of accumulated stuff? In a Beliefnet interview, Cilley recalls, "We put two housefuls of clutter together, and then we went to estate auctions and bought more!"

Their house, Cilley admits, got so messy that no one could walk in it. Her husband would meet sheriff's deputies on the front porch. An embarrassed Cilley was determined that no one learn the "dirty little secret" that her house was a disaster. In January of 1999, she turned over a new leaf, one task at a time. As she got her house in order, people began asking for her help and advice with their own home organization troubles.

The FlyLady was born.

FlyLady is the nickname of that North Carolina maven who started an email list in 2001, which now has more than 300,000 members in 65 countries. The list keeps growing like Carolina kudzu: just six months ago, there were fewer than 250,000 members. The vast majority of these are women, who are drawn to FlyLady’s no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners approach to home management. FlyLady describes herself as part fairy godmother, part cheerleader, and part drill sergeant, shaking her finger at women even while she’s encouraging them to let go of their crippling perfectionism and move toward “Finally Loving Yourself,” or FLYing. (FlyLady is very into acronyms. She defines CHAOS as "Can't Have Anyone Over Syndrome.")

To FlyLady, home org involves far more than just putting things away. It’s about creating peace and a pervasive spiritual atmosphere in the home, and “blessing our families” with cleanliness and familiar routines. That peace, she says, begins when women let go of the crippling perfectionism that has prevented them from even starting to clean and organize their homes. “I’m fighting the perfectionism monster and the clutter monster all the time,” says Cilley, who admits that she struggles with not just home management but also body image issues. “We have to figure out ways not to beat ourselves up if we’re not perfect.”

FlyLady’s domestic views may strike some as a 1950s gender throwback. Indeed, she calls her followers "FlyBabies," a possibly irritating sobriquet. And her advice sounds some traditional bells: Have dinner as a family every night. Wear a smock for housework. Scrub that sink. But she also recognizes that today’s American family is very different from that of fifty years ago. Most women work, and it feels impossible to balance it all. “As women, we all have the same needs and desires for our homes and our families,” FlyLady declares. “From the day we’re born, we’re taught that we can have it all as women – the wonderful career, the family, the wonderful husband, the polite, gorgeous children. And that we’ll look like a million bucks. We can bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan. But no one ever told us how to do it.” That’s why one of her mantras is that housework is more fun when the whole family does it together.

Despite her upbeat nature (she is working on a book of daily affirmations), FlyLady can be tough. “Whining is not allowed,” she warns. Her system is based on fixed daily and weekly routines, rituals that give a sacred rhythm to housework. When she started getting organized herself in 1999, she had an epiphany (which she refers to as a “God breeze”) about why no other system had ever worked for her before. “I didn’t have routines,” she explains. “I decided I couldn’t do it all at once, and had to establish one routine at a time. My first habit for January was to keep my kitchen sink clean and shiny. And then the countertops get cleaner too. And then the stove says, ‘clean me too!’ and before you know it, the whole kitchen is clean and sparkling, and you don’t mind going in there and cooking dinner.”

Part of FlyLady’s routine is to dedicate one hour each Monday to vacuum, dust, and wash down the house. That’s right--just one hour of swift action. No more, no less. FlyLady calls this a “weekly home blessing” ritual, and it's clear that it's just as important as, say, an hour spent in a worship service the previous day. Each Monday, women become priestesses of order and grace, blessing each room of their homes with harmony and organization.

FlyLady considers herself "a strong Christian" and in her daily round of emails, she will sometimes mention God or ask for prayer. Some of her FlyBabies respond in kind, such as a new member in California who recently described herself on the list as "a religious and spiritual person" who is now able to have a restful Sabbath because FlyLady’s routines have helped her eliminate the clutter. "Discipline and routine can bring peace," she wrote.

Despite her own Christian beliefs, FlyLady is adamant that her list is nonexclusive. "I try my best not to push my religion on anyone," she says. "We have every form of religion and non-religion as part of our 300,000 members. My basis is love, and that’s what God and Jesus preached--loving everyone."

This message of universal love, coupled with concrete daily tasks and a cyber-community of likeminded fellow travelers, has made FlyLady a spiritual leader as much as a home organizer. Her community is about therapy, the kind where people air both their literal and their figurative dirty laundry out to dry. In the cool obscurity that is cyberspace, they confess details about the chaos that has come to define their homes and their lives.


Ordinary objects are often invested with extraordinary significance. One woman wrote to say that during a decluttering session she encountered a bent old frying pan that she kept under her bed. This was the frying pan that her Navy-officer ex-husband used to beat her with, and after their divorce she held onto it as a reminder of the fact that she was a survivor, not a victim. FlyLady understands that her devotees' clutter isn't just stuff; it represents their stories. And people don't simply toss their stories without a backward glance. "One day she will be able to get rid of it, because she won't need it as a reminder of her courage. She'll have it inside her all the time,” FlyLady predicts.

FlyLady's reach is about to extend far beyond her email network and into a wider audience. One of her self-published books, "Body Clutter," has just been picked up by Simon & Schuster for a January 2007 national release. Her speaking engagements are booked well in advance, her weekly radio show is now the top-rated program on WorldTalkRadio.com, and a FlyLady doll will make its debut in September. Cilley is excited about the opportunity to reach out to women who have not yet heard her message. "What I've done, with the help of a lot of people, is to teach people the beauty of routines. We can have it all if we just stop beating ourselves up about not doing everything perfectly."

Five Things I’ve Learned from FlyLady

Here are some tips I've gleaned from my six months on FlyLady's email list. Some of them may work for you too.

1. Do it now. Procrastination is a symptom of perfectionism and needs to be overcome. Do what you can, when you can, the best you can. Then let it go.
2. Set a timer for 15 minutes. Set your timer, work steadily at one task for 15 minutes, and then stop, even if you're not completely finished. The next day, pick up where you left off and do another 15 minutes. Trying to tackle an entire room or project all at once can be overwhelming.
3. Go shine your sink. When FlyLady was moving from chaos to order, the first thing she did was shine her sink. Go ye and do likewise. It is amazing what a clean sink can do for your spirits. You’ll feel inspired to spread that sense of order throughout your home.
4. Clear your "hot spots" every day. You know what they are: the kitchen counter that collects all the mail and school flyers; the bedroom chair that would be great for reading in, if only it weren't covered with laundry. Clutter always attracts more clutter.
5. Start where you are. We’re all going to have periods where we fall off the wagon. FlyLady wants us to just dive in wherever we are. Our houses did not get messy overnight, and they won’t be cleaned in just one day.

Three things FlyLady teaches that I will never, ever do:

1. Wear lace-up shoes every day. Not a snowball's chance in hell, FlyLady, despite your promises that I’ll be more productive. Sorry. My "mules" are comfortable and functional.  
2. Do at least one load of laundry a day. FlyLady wants us to keep the laundry moving, but I've found a twice-a-week schedule to be more efficient and environmentally friendly.
3. "Swish and swipe" the bathroom every morning. Let's get real. I'll feel great about myself if I scrub the toilet once a week.