Ten years ago two desperately disorganized sisters, Pam Young and Peggy Jones, each lived in such hopeless clutter that their laundry routines included spraying deodorant on dirty socks before throwing them into the dryer on AIR FLUFF.
Today Pam Young and Peggy Jones of Vancouver, Wash. -- better known as "the Sidetracked Sisters" -- are teaching domestic organization (even happiness) as part of their million-dollar business.
With disarming candor -- who else would admit spray-deodorizing dirty socks? -- and a quick routine that's as slick as a professional comedy team, the sisters have made American homemakers laugh at domestic desperation on such television programs as "Donahue," "The Merv Griffin Show" and "Hour Magazine." Their best seller, Sidetracked Home Executives, sold over a half-million copies. They've since produced The Sidetracked Sisters Catch Up on the Kitchen and their latest, The Sidetracked Sisters' Happiness File, all published by Warner Books.
"We were utterly and completely disgusted with ourselves," confesses Jones, 38, on a recent cross-country tour promoting, of all things, a fabric softener. The irony is not lost: Ten years ago, she cracks, "We couldn't even get the clothes into the washer."
"Our houses were pigpens and we were totally devastated by the confusion that we lived in," adds Young, 42. The sisters describe their homemaking careers as one long journey from shock to struggle. "With the birth of each child they have three each , we fell deeper and deeper into the sea of clutter and chaos."
"When we were growing up our mother was an ideal homemaker," says Young. "She was a full-time homemaker and didn't have a job outside her home at all. And I can remember coming home from school and wondering what it was she did all day because her housekeeping seemed so effortless."
"When I got married," deadpans Jones, "I thought Mom was coming with me."
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of their lives: Both women wanted to be full-time homemakers. This was their chosen profession. Both had majored in home economics.
"In the beginning," says Jones, "we thought we were alone in our mess, but we're not. Most people who are watching [TV programs they appear on] are in their nightgowns and they have a pile of laundry on the couch next to them and they've got babies in the playpen and unwashed breakfast dishes in the sink and on the counter."
Both women admit that throughout their marriages, the way they kept house -- or didn't keep it -- was a constant source of irritation with their husbands. For the first five years of Jones' marriage, she says, she and her husband Danny fought constantly. Finally, one day he walked out, declaring he couldn't continue to live the way they did.
But after three days he returned and announced, " 'Okay, I've figured out that if I love you I'm going to have to accept the whole package. If you change, that's great, but you're going to have to do it your own way.' "
It took Jones six more years to figure out the way.
Says Young: "In 14 years of marriage we had moved 13 times, and every house we got was a nicer house because it was a promotion, and every time I'd ruin it. Then we'd have to sell it for less because you can't show a house when you're tripping over diapers. You can't say, 'Now just imagine how this would look if it were clean'.
"And so [in 1977] when we moved back to Vancouver, he said, 'I'm buying you what you deserve,' and we moved into an 1,100-square-foot house. He said, 'You're going to live in this dump house for the rest of your life.' We had just come from a house with a three-car garage and a swimming pool, the whole American dream . . . to this. I was devastated." They're now divorced.
Young and Jones hit rock bottom on June 16, 1977: "You can't really make the commitment to change until you are absolutely disgusted with yourself."
They had decided to meet for lunch to sort out what they were going to do. "It was impossible for us to think in the confusion and disorder of our homes. There wasn't a place to sit, we couldn't find paper or pen, the kids were famished and there was no food in the house. A restaurant was the only answer." By stepping away from their problem, they began to see it in a different light.
The sisters continued to meet once a week for six weeks in the restaurant while they created a homemaking system that would compensate for the fact that they were "sidetracked" -- or easily distracted -- personalities.
"What sidetracked people lack is direction, not self-discipline," says Young, which is why they get caught in the muddle of misplaced priorities, half-completed chores and undirected energies.
"You almost get things done. You almost get dressed; you almost get dinner ready; you almost get the laundry finished."
"We weren't lazy," says Jones. "We worked far harder in our slob days than we do now." Sidetracked people, she stresses, may "live in chaos, but long for order. They just don't know how to get from one task to the next."
Young offers this example: "You start to dust the coffee table and you look at it and say, 'Why dust? It really needs to be refinished,' and so you end up in the garage stripping it.
"We have," she sighs, "such good intentions."
But good intentions, the sisters knew, were not enough. Instead, they devised a rotating file card system acknowledging that sidetracked people get distracted whenever they start any project, even ones they enjoy.
Young and Jones' strategy was to write down every chore it takes to run a house -- from grocery-buying to scraping wax off the kitchen floor -- on a color-coded index card and rotate each chore on a daily, every-other-day, weekly, monthly, seasonal and yearly basis. Every day -- before anything else distracted and diverted their attention -- they finished the jobs listed on that day's cards.
The system revolutionized the sisters' lives and in three weeks their houses -- at least on the surface -- were turned around. By six weeks the sisters were ecstatic. "We had never done anything on a routine," they wrote. "At that point we weren't even brushing our teeth or getting dressed every day. To be on a program for six weeks was like a miracle. We were so impressed with ourselves we were like religious zealots."
Very quickly Young and Jones decided they could change other lives, as well as their own, with 3-by-5 file cards. Sidetracked Home Executives (S.H.E.) was born. weeks, the sisters held their first workshop in a Vancouver church; 27 women attended.
"We figured if there are slobs in Vancouver, there are slobs in Seattle, Portland and Los Angeles," says Young. "So we packed the kids in the station wagon and moved on."
At their fifth workshop, in a ballroom at Los Angeles' Disneyland Hotel, more than 1,000 women showed up (they had to turn some away), paying $55 each for a file box ($25 when purchased separately) and an upbeat, motivational day-long workshop designed to help them change their slovenly lives. The response was overwhelming.
"We had never seen so much money in our lives," says Young. "The kids played bank in the hotel room upstairs while we conducted the workshop."
Instead of conducting workshops today, the sisters for the most part let their other materials do the job: books ($6.95 each for the first two and $15.50 for the last), video tapes ($250 for a set of five) and audio cassettes ($55 for a set of five). They are also working a television movie screenplay of their rags-to-riches, chaos-to-control saga.
"It will be about our change first and then our business story," says Jones. "We'd like to see it spin off to a series about two sisters who are basically disorganized who will always be fighting this problem.
"We found out that by being organized, we got happier. But happiness wasn't one of our motives back when we were slobs. Now it is."