Ask the Experts

The FlyLady’s Cure for Messy House Syndrome

The FlyLady is here to rescue adults with ADHD from relentless clutter using “baby steps” and the power of daily routines. Before you know it, you’ll have cleaned up your life — one pile at a time.

A woman cleaning her messy couch with tips learned from the FlyLady
Woman with ADHD holds head in hands on couch in clutter-filled, unorganized room

Marla Cilley moved to Transylvania County, North Carolina, to teach fly-fishing in 1999. Now, instead of teaching the rod-and-reel set how to hook a shimmering trout, she is teaching countless thousands how to catch something every bit as satisfying: the neatness bug.

The FlyLady, as she calls herself, sends out e-mail tips — as many as 10 a day — to each of her 233,000 followers, instructing them to dust the ceiling fan with a pillowcase or to clear the breakfast dishes from their kitchen sinks. To Cilley, these tips are medicine for people suffering from chronic disorganization. “Don’t act like the stubborn child that has clenched his jaw shut, refusing to swallow the cure that is going to make him well,” she writes on her Web site, FlyLady.net. “What are you afraid of? A few e-mails in your inbox, or change?”

Go Clean Your Rooms

The FlyLady has succeeded where other organizational entrepreneurs have failed. Why? For one thing, she wraps her daily injunctions in homespun humor and musings about life. She also infuses doing the laundry or shining the kitchen sink with an element of fun. Cilley has coined her own quirky housekeeping vocabulary that instructs as it inspires.

Some of the FlyLady’s classic exhortations include: “You are never behind. Jump in where you are,” “Get in there and get this done,” and “I want you to smile in the morning.” She refers to her followers — most of them busy mothers — as SHEs, for “sidetracked home executives.” And when someone signs up for her free daily e-mail service, he or she is dubbed a Flybaby, soon to grow up into a FlyLady.

Cilley gets away with giving marching orders to adults because she’s a reformed clutterholic herself. “I wanted to change one little thing about my life,” says Cilley, author of Sink Reflections. “I decided that it would be keeping my sink clean and shiny. And because I wanted to keep my sink clean, I unloaded my dishwasher so I could stash dirty dishes. With the sink clean, I wanted the counter to be clean.” Adds Cilley: “I wasn’t born organized, but I learned to be organized with the help of a routine. All of a sudden, you don’t have to think about what to do because it becomes second nature.”

Routines and Baby Steps

It became second nature, as well, for Cilley’s niece, Courtney Wood. She has ADHD, and found that her aunt’s daily reminders functioned as clutter coaching. Wood was, at one point, so messy that she’d buy new clothes instead of trying to exhume her old ones from the piles in her room. Her car was cluttered to the point that no one else could sit in it. Depression set in.

“When you don’t have your surroundings organized,” says Wood, “it makes you feel like your whole life is disorganized. After using my aunt’s techniques, I’m a happier person because my apartment is neater.”

Wood’s favorite technique? “Using a timer to do housework or other tasks a little at a time. I use timers because I have no concept of time.”

The FlyLady’s nostrums appeal to the ADHD mind. They provide structure, repetition, reward, and entertainment. The essence of her system is to divide big jobs into small ones. Take the house, for example. Cilley has carved it into five so-called Fly Zones: kitchen; living room; bathroom and one extra room; master bedroom; entrance, front porch and dining room.

Each week she will send you daily e-mail tips about how to neaten up one of these zones. She doesn’t ask much of your time — just 15 minutes a day. Set a timer, follow her instructions, and, when the timer goes off, you’re done. FlyLady calls these short investments “baby steps.” The next day and for the rest of the week, you will receive more tips — and still clean for no more than 15 minutes a day. Next week the FlyLady will move you into another zone (room).

As you progress through the Fly Zones and witness the transforming power of “baby steps,” FlyLady will introduce you to more cleaning concepts: Daily routines for morning and evening (see below), and timely decluttering raids on the messiest rooms of the house.

Tickling the Brain Cells

The e-mails are the most powerful part of the system,” says Cilley. “The daily reminders use behavior modification to create routines. Eventually, merely reading them changes the way your brain reacts to them. Thinking is half the battle, because, with ADHD, we often forget to think. These e-mails tickle our brain cells.”

While some of FlyLady’s cleaning methods aren’t new, the generous helpings of motivation are. Cilley recognizes the toll that messiness takes on a family and the role that encouragement plays in helping people dig out from their piles. FlyLady never forgets to congratulate her followers for the baby steps they have taken, and even reminds them to stop working and go to bed.

“We all know how to clean,” says Cilley. “It’s the motivation part — to get up and do it — that keeps us on our backsides.” No reason to feel guilty about failing to be the perfect housekeeper, she says. “Housework, even done incorrectly, still blesses the family.”


FlyLady Sampler

Dear Friends,

My foundations are baby steps and routines. It starts with our home — decluttering, then cooking, finances, weight issues, exercise, going back to school, starting a business, redecorating your home, having children, writing a book, but most of all finding who you really are and developing your God-given talents to bless the world.

Are you ready to FLY to a new level of understanding! As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “You don’t have to see the top of the staircase to take the first step.” There is no penalty for staying on a level too long. This is your staircase, not mine! Don’t beat yourself up! This is not an obstacle course; this is your life!

-FlyLady

Morning Routine

Rise and shine: Make the bed; shower and clean bathroom while you’re there, swish the toilet; take a load of laundry when you leave your bedroom.

Kitchen: If you did the bedtime routine, it’s clean. Empty the dishwasher, feed the pets, feed the family.

Think about your day: Check your calendar/to-do list, make a list of what you’re going to do today; thaw something for dinner; balance your checkbook; put the wash into the dryer.

Now think about yourself: Take vitamins and medications, eat breakfast; meditate or reflect, count your blessings; go check your e-mail.

Before-Bed Routine

You don’t have to wait until bedtime to check your before-bed routine.

Lay out your clothes for tomorrow. Have you taken your evening bubble bath?

Do you know where your laundry is?

Is your sink shining?

Look around and put out your Hot Spots!

Check your calendar for tomorrow’s appointments.

Now go to bed at a decent hour.

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