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The Science of Habits and Creating Routines

First, let’s define what routine means: A routine is a sequence of actions that you do repeatedly.

Brushing your teeth nightly and getting ready for bed is a routine. Waking up at 6:00 AM and exercising every morning is a routine. Purchasing a bagel and reading the news before you head to work every morning is a routine. Even eating chips while watching Netflix is a routine. They’re all actions that happen again and again, a rhythm in your daily life.

That doesn't make them all good routines—they're simply routines by virtue of being done regularly. Helpful or not, every routine is powerful.

Routines Create High Achievers

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. Aristotle

In his book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Mason Currey writes about the habits, routines, and rituals of hundreds of artists, including Frederic Chopin, Benjamin Franklin, Karl Marx, and Ernest Hemingway. Even though their routines varied wildly, each individual had steps they followed to put them in an optimal state of mind.

After studying the great artists, Currey came to this conclusion:

In the right hands, [a routine] can be a finely calibrated mechanism for taking advantage of a range of limited resources: time (the most limited resource of all) as well as willpower, self-discipline, optimism. A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods.

Productivity guru and experimenter extraordinaire Tim Ferris has five morning rituals to get him into a productive state of mind: making his bed, meditating, exercise, drinking tea, and journaling. Performance coach Tony Robbins also uses a morning routine, which includes a cold shower, breathing exercises, and meditation to prepare him for each day.

High achievers tend to find routines that work for them and then stick to them—it's typically something they credit as a core to their success.

Habits vs. Routines vs. Rituals: Wondering what the difference is between habits, routines, and rituals? Habits are things that we do automatically–things like checking your email first thing in the morning or putting your keys in a specific spot when you get home. Routines are usually a collection of habits or actions you do on a regular basis to bring order to your day—checking your email, then writing your day's to-do list, then checking your team's project management tool as a way of getting the day started. Rituals are like routines. The main difference is the attitude behind the actions: Taking a walk everyday at lunch could be considered a routine if you think of it as something you need to do for your productivity. Or it could be a ritual if you think of it as a way to break out of the mundane and enjoy nature. While we're focusing on habits and routines here, most routines could be turned into rituals with a change of perspective.

Routines Put Our Brains on Autopilot

But what makes the routines of high achievers so powerful? As it turns out, we're creatures of habit and can use that to accomplish whatever we want. In The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business, Charles Duhigg details how habits put our brains into an automatic state where little or no willpower is required.

It works like this:

  • Step 1: Something happens that serves as a cue to your brain, putting it into "automatic" mode. A simple example is waking up. When I wake up, my brain immediately knows that it’s time to turn on the coffee machine. This habit has been ingrained in my brain over years.

  • Step 2: Execute the routine. This is where I actually turn on the coffee machine, wait for it to brew, pour it into my favorite mug, sit in a chair by the kitchen window, and finally drink the coffee.

  • Step #3: Reap the rewards of the routine. The delicious flavor and high-octane caffeine reinforce the routine so that the next morning I repeat it again.

Making coffee is just one small routine, but the daily consistency of it helps keep me going. Imagine if other, more powerful tasks that can empower you to accomplish big things came as easy as making coffee?

This is the power of routines. The small repeated actions can have an exponential effect. By implementing routines in the morning and evening, you can prime yourself for maximum productivity each day.

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FlyLady Cleaning Zones

The next phase in the FlyLady schedule is decluttering. Dividing the home's major living areas into five areas, Cilley focuses on one zone per week for 15 minutes a day, then rotates through all the areas each month:

Zone one always starts on the first of the month and you move on to another space every Sunday. (Depending on how the dates fall on the calendar, zones one and five might not always receive a full seven days' worth of cleaning and organizing.) Every month, you repeat the schedule, which should become more manageable over time. "As one area gets cleaned, it will become easier to do, and you will have more time to face those areas that don't seem to fit in any zone," Cilley writes on her website.

Within those daily 15-minute periods, FlyLady recommends rapid-fire organizing projects such as the "27 Fling Boogie," which involves gathering 27 household items to throw away as quickly as possible, and the "Hot Spot Fire Drill," a strategy for tackling a specific area that attracts clutter, such as the dining room table. These short spurts are designed to divide an out-of-control mess into bite-sized tasks you can tackle over time.

—FlyLady Marla Cilley

And, at least according to her half-million-plus followers on Facebook, the FlyLady method works. One Facebook reviewer writes, "Flylady helped me get a handle on home maintenance and decluttering when I was overwhelmed with homeschooling and part-time work. She has great, supportive and wise counsel. She freed me from thinking I had to do things perfectly and taught me I can do anything for 15 minutes."

That's the idea: making your impossibly long to-do list more manageable through short bursts of activity.

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