Rachel Nenner is a 30-something Boston social worker who spends her days helping troubled adolescents live responsible lives.
When she comes home from work, though, she gets her own life lessons from an Internet drill sergeant named FlyLady.
FlyLady orders Nenner _ and nearly 200,000 other e-mail subscribers, most of them women _ to perform some of life's most mundane and elementary household tasks, and to do them on the double. She tells them to shine their sink. She nags them to fold the laundry, clean under the bed, return the library books, straighten up the stuff under the kitchen sink.
She sends out some 15 e-mail commands a day.
"It is time to fling some socks and pantyhose today," Nenner and her fellow subscribers were informed on a recent Tuesday. "Take 15 minutes and toss, toss, toss!"
For those unfamiliar with her command post, www.flylady.net, FlyLady is the uberorganizer.
These days, professional organizers abound, and FlyLady is flying high. New subscribers from around the world are signing on to her e-mail list at the rate of nearly 1,000 per week. She has become to the chronically disorganized what the South Beach diet is to the chronically overweight.
"I'd tried everything to get organized," says Nenner, a self-described lifelong slob. "I've had charts. I've had plans, I've tried to put myself on my own behavioral program with stickers and stars, the kinds of things I do with kids. But nothing has worked."
After six months of following FlyLady, she says, the change has been "miraculous." No more unwashed dishes. No more rolling dust bunnies. No more random papers cluttering the house, like birthday cards dating to when she was 12, or bank statements from 1994. Her closet is pared down, clothes organized by season. Her papers are in order. She has even taken up jogging, "mostly because of FlyLady. I jogged my first mile because she sends around e-mails saying, "Move for 15 minutes.' "
Despite her superhero moniker, FlyLady is a real person named Marla Cilley. She's 47, a county commissioner who enjoys fly fishing (hence the name FlyLady), and lives with her husband in the mountains of western North Carolina. In a recent phone interview, she said that her organizational skills, empathy, innate bossiness and commonsense approach to domestic tasks have convinced her "my whole life has been about being FlyLady in the making."
Her "FlyBabies" (FlyLady buzzword for new members) call her a hero, a godsend, a fairy godmother. They credit her with saving marriages, sanity, lives and even inspiring world peace. When she took a train trip to Boston a couple of years ago, a contingent of FlyBabies was waiting at the station for her, "with feather dusters waving," Cilley recalled with pride.
"She was the answer to a prayer for me," said Beth Govoni, 38, a Medford, Mass., mother of five, ages 1 to 4. FlyLady's methods are "incredibly life-changing. I feel so much more in control. I'd bought all kinds of books and totes and all that kind of stuff trying to get things organized, when what I really needed to do was . . . view my stuff in a different way."
You might think the fundamentals of housekeeping would be obvious to adults who are otherwise high-functioning, but apparently they aren't, judging from the despairing e-mails FlyLady gets at the rate of 4,000 a day. It's hard not to conclude that American domestic life is in a pretty depressed state. We may be living in a post-feminist world, but feedback from FlyBabies suggests it's still the woman's job to organize the household. A lot of women, though, don't know how to do it or don't have time to do it.
Take, for example, Marianne Palmer, 26, of Quincy, Mass., a stay-at-home mother who became a FlyBaby in April and said she's already liberated from her CHAOS (FlyLady acronym for "Can't Have Anyone Over Syndrome").
"I'd always get sidetracked," said Palmer. "I'd get the mail out of the mailbox and sort it on the table, but then I'd end up cleaning the table, and then I'd go to the bathroom and have to shine the sink and by the end of the day, I didn't finish anything. I never learned how to clean. My mom didn't teach me; she just kind of did it. I was doing stupid things like cleaning the grout in the bathroom, when taking the Pop Tarts out of the rug was more important. The seal in the fridge doesn't need to be cleaned if there's moldy food in the fridge."
FlyLady hears stories like this all the time; she has been there herself. A few years ago, while going through a divorce, she slumped into a depression and neglected her home to such an extent that "there was no place lower than where I was," she writes in her book, Sink Reflections (Bantam, $14.95).
She said she hit rock bottom in 1995, the day a sheriff's deputy escorted her back to her house after she'd come to the aid of a neighbor who'd been in a car accident. When they got to Cilley's house, the officer "looked inside and drew a gun," she said. "He thought the house had been ransacked."
It took until 1999 for Cilley to get herself organized, and she spent the better part of a year getting it done. The key, she discovered, was making sure she didn't get overwhelmed, "not trying to do a list of 30 things a day." She gave herself permission to do one manageable task a day _ cleaning her sink _ "and soon it spread through the whole kitchen, the clean did," Cilley said, in her nurturing Southern drawl.
That whole year, she frequented a message board for other disorganized people, passing along housekeeping tips so popular that another member asked her to start an e-mail group to mentor others.
The e-mail group took off (she now has a staff of 22), and in December FlyLady celebrated her fourth anniversary. Joining the FlyLady mailing list is free; Cilley's profits come from an online "FLY Shop," where she sells "tools to make housekeeping no longer a chore," such as calendars, feather dusters and kitchen timers to limit cleaning binges to 15 minutes.
Cilley has several explanations for American domestic chaos, including ignorance of basic housekeeping skills, perfectionist tendencies that keep people from tackling their chores, and an overabundance of clutter.
Cilley defines clutter as "things that do not bring you joy, you do not love, or you don't need." She believes clutter has insidious psychological effects. It keeps us living in the past, or reliving the past, and thus prevents us from moving forward. It resists organization, making us feel like failures. And it's both a reflection and a byproduct of an unmanageable lifestyle.
However, Cilley's main concern isn't analyzing the state of disorganization in America, but fixing it. Her system is pretty simple: Develop cleaning and organizing routines _ which she supplies, in abundance _ and follow them every day. Do a little bit each day to avoid burnout. Use a timer ("You can do anything for 15 minutes," she says). Do periodic "room rescues" (intense, quick cleanups) and "27 Fling Boogies" (run around your house with a trash bag and chuck 27 items).
Above all, keep your sink clean and shiny (it gives you a sense of accomplishment and inspires you to keep cleaning), and always, always wear laceup shoes. You'll accomplish more and feel better about yourself.
The FlyLady's 11 Commandments
1. Keep your sink clean and shiny.
2. Get dressed every morning, even if you don't feel like it. Don't forget your laceup shoes.
3. Do your morning and before-bedtime routine every day.
4. Don't allow yourself to be sidetracked by the computer.
5. Pick up after yourself. If you get it out, put it away.
6. Don't try to do two projects at once. ONE JOB AT A TIME.
7. Don't pull out more than you can put back in one hour.
8. Do something for yourself every day, maybe every morning and night.
9. Work as fast as you can to get the job done. This will give you more time to play later.
10. Smile even when you don't feel like it. It is contagious. Make your mind up to be happy, and you will be.
11. Don't forget to laugh every day. Pamper yourself; you deserve it.
A gleaming sink is pivotal to the housekeeping system devised by Marla Cilley, 47, a.k.a. the FlyLady, who practices in her Brevard, N.C., home what she preaches to nearly 200,000 e-mail subscribers.