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Flying with the FlyLady

Riki Goldstein

Do you rue the fact that your house only looks good for two minutes after candle lighting? Meet Marla Cilley, aka FlyLady, who has helped thousands to get — and keep — their homes neat and inviting

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

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DON’T HAVE TIME? Marla says that the most defeating statement women tell themselves is “I don’t have time.” “I bet you’ve said that today,” she chuckles. “The whole sentence is, I don’t have time to do it right. Or I don’t have time to do it like my mother did. When you hear yourself say that, set the timer for just two minutes, and do the one thing that you said you don’t have time to do. You will have done it. And that can make such a difference in your attitude.”

I was lucky. I had some good habits because I grew up in a home where the beds were made — there was order and structure and a stay-at-home mother,” says Hindy, a Jerusalem-based mother and business owner. “My mother had her family living around her, so if she fell short, someone would step in to keep the home running well.

“But I am not naturally organized. So when I married and moved away, and had one baby and another and another, and one required extra reading time and one physiotherapy — I had no time to think. I started to live from moment to moment. Until, one day, I stumbled on the FlyLady program. It is led by this heavyset woman with a feather duster, and it felt very approachable for someone like me who gets easily overwhelmed. FlyLady changed my life.”

FlyLady, otherwise known as Marla Cilley, is behind an all-inclusive housekeeping system that helps hundreds of thousands of women maintain their homes. The name FlyLady was Marla’s screen name, chosen because she was a fly-fishing fan and instructor. Later, a member of the FlyLady e-mail list created a “backronym” for FLY: Finally Loving Yourself

The basic tenets of FlyLady’s methodology are: daily morning and evening cleaning routines that keep your house generally neat; regular decluttering which involves giving away and throwing out unused items; a weekly straightening up of your entire home, named “The weekly home blessing,” and 15 minutes a day spent deep cleaning one particular area.

For deep cleaning purposes, the home is divided into zones, which each receive the homemaker’s attention during one week of the calendar month. The system is adopted gradually, with 28 days given for each task to become habit, before another task is added.

Marla’s originally from North Carolina, and her no-nonsense, country-girl wisdom is a major draw in the self-help empire she’s established. Her housekeeping philosophy and methods are laid out in the bestselling book Sink Reflections, while a small mentoring group which began in 1999 has mushroomed into an e-mail listserv of over 650,000 women, a website, and several radio shows.

FlyLady’s emails — typically ten (!) a day — cover topics including clutter, the value of routines, weekly and monthly cleaning, increased self-esteem, and letting go of perfection. The first e-mail hits the screens at about seven a.m., reminding readers to get fully dressed and “to lace up shoes.” Shoes are important. In an energizing interview, Marla expands on this early-morning routine, sharing advice with me in her direct way: “If you have a family, get up 15 minutes before them. Get dressed. Shoes, don’t go barefoot. If you’re dressed for work, put on a duster over your clothes. I know there is meditation and prayer involved in your religion, so set aside time for that. Take out the load of laundry you put in after baths the night before. When the kids get up, you’ll be ready to get going.”

Controlling the Chaos

Not everyone needs to be told when to vacuum and how to arrange a weekly cleaning schedule. For some women, keeping the household running smoothly is intuitive.

“I have a sister-in-law who can eat off her floor on the third day of Yom Tov,” Hindy says. “She read Sink Reflections and the systems presented there were like a checklist for her. She was like, ‘Uh-huh, I do that already, uh-huh, I do that. People like her don’t need FlyLady. Rather, the system is for those who don’t have the ability to break down housekeeping into manageable tasks. FlyLady herself wasn’t ‘born organized,’ and that’s why she speaks our language.”

Dena, from Los Angeles, needed the the FlyLady system to get her home in order. “I grew up in a home that was very messy — and that contributed to a lot of shalom bayis issues between my parents. My mother was very capable and accomplished in many ways but simply lacked the skills to keep things neat and organized at home, and things tended to accumulate.

“As an adult, I wanted to be neater but didn’t know how that was done.I knew how to do full-scale clean-ups, like for Pesach, but didn’t know how to maintain a state of general organization on a daily basis. I also inherited my mother’s tendency to buy and keep things I didn’t necessarily need. My home was very cluttered. It bothered me that I needed cleaning help, and also bothered me that my house only looked good on the day that the cleaning lady had been there. Having small children didn’t help!

“There’s no question that FlyLady changed my life. Even though I no longer adhere to the system exactly the way she set it up, following FlyLady for a long time sensitized me to the things that need to happen in order to maintain a state of neatness and organization — as opposed to waiting for a crisis point.”

FlyLady instructs her followers how to avoid “CHAOS,” which she defines as “Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome.” For Dena, this was transformative. “Before I followed FlyLady, I felt a lot of anxiety about people walking into my house; I stressed out cleaning up for invited guests and felt humiliated when people showed up uninvited. It also felt fake because I like to think of myself as an authentic person — not someone who has to ‘pretend’ when people come over.

“The biggest positive change FlyLady gave me was the ability to keep the house in a general state where it wasn’t embarrassing for me if someone walked in. Yes, some people know how to do that naturally, but I wasn’t one of them.”


Flylady’s first instruction to new members, who are known as FlyBabies, is “Go shine your sink!” A strange way to get started in a house brimming with clutter, dust, and grime? Apparently, the 12-step process she details for a deeply cleaned sparkling sink, maintained by a simple wipe every night, provides the impetus for a domino effect. “The sink may seem small — FlyLady is into baby steps,” explains Hindy. “But the point is that it’s a psychological gimmick. I shine my sink every night, and while I’m there, I think, ‘Let me already just clean up and put the plates away.’ ”

As the clean sink is maintained, the positive change spreads to countertops, stove, and floor, and the homemaker’s self-esteem starts to rise. Then another baby step is added, in the form of another tiny chore every night. In FlyLady terminology, this is called “piggybacking habits.”

Goodbye Spring Cleaning

With the FlyLady method, chores strung into routines form a system of home maintenance which becomes second nature. In total, there are 31 daily tasks.

The morning routine includes making the beds, doing laundry, cleaning the toilet, and reconciling your bank balance every day, along with “hitting a hot spot” — clearing the high-traffic clutter dumping ground in your home. The evening requires you to clean the kitchen and living room “for 20 minutes, tops,” lay out your clothes for the next day, and set the table in preparation for breakfast.

Once a week, Fly Lady advises a one-hour housecleaning mission called the “weekly home blessing.” Using timers, followers vacuum, dust, mop, empty trash, change bedsheets, and clean up old magazines. Each task is allocated ten minutes only.

Besides these routines, a home needs concentrated attention. For detailed cleaning, FlyLady divides a house into five sections or zones, which are allocated to the five weeks or partial weeks of the month. Each day the e-mail list will provide a “mission” with a detailed cleaning task in the current zone. Zone 1, which runs from the first day of the month until the first Saturday, includes your front porch, entrance, and dining room. Zone 2, first full week of the month, is the kitchen. Zone 3 is the main bathroom and one other room. Zone 4 is the master bedroom, bathroom, and closet. Zone 5 is the living room. The daily mission to be accomplished in the zone takes about fifteen minutes. Marla asserts that her zone system can make Pesach cleaning redundant. “Just move the tasks around so that you do your kitchen last, before Passover. Finish a few days before, and then you can open your special kitchen with the clean dishes.”

Hindy is dubious. “I didn’t find that the FlyLady system helped me with the huge project of making Pesach. I wish it did.”

Another essential principle of FlyLady philosophy: clutter cannot be organized — it has to be reduced. Marla admits this can be extra challenging for large families, but it is correspondingly even more important. “Get rid of clutter. Families that are large hold onto everything — toys and clothes with no end. This interferes with neatness. I say you can only keep it if you have a system to keep it. And only up to one Rubbermaid bin per clothing size. Have faith that G-d will provide,” she reassures in a singsong voice with rich Southern tones. “Let go of the clutter and bless others with your abundance.”

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