In her book The Lean and Happy Home, Swedish business executive and mum-of-three Eva Jarlsdotter describes her own household as ‘loving but chaotic’ — a phrase that will strike a chord with many people juggling a busy family life with a career and other obligations. But for Jarlsdotter, there came a point when the chaos became too much and she decided to act.
Jarlsdotter, who lives just outside the city of Stockholm, began her career as a journalist before completing an executive MBA and ending up as a vice-president in an international telecoms company. By 2011, she and her husband Mattias had three children and both were working full-time.
She was constantly exhausted, and, as she puts it: “every molehill felt like a Himalayan climb”. So, when she left her job to concentrate on writing, she decided to utilise her business experience in her own household, applying the principles of the ‘lean’ process in a bid to reduce the burden of household admin, declutter her home and tackle the seemingly endless piles of laundry.
“We were extremely reactive and missed a lot of things because we didn’t plan, everything came as a surprise. We don’t talk much in general about how we organise our home and how disorganisation can impact on it,” she says.
‘Lean’ principles are used in business to streamline manufacturing and transactional processes by eliminating waste and optimising flow. The concept is credited to Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of the Japanese Toyota Group, who invented a self-monitoring device for textile looms in the early 1900s that allowed one operator to tend multiple machines.
In The Lean and Happy Home, which was previously published in Swedish, Jarlsdotter outlines how she applied the principles in her own home, using a ‘stream’ technique to channel previously wasted energy into things she really wanted to do, thus giving her a sense of control over her life again.
She says it is important to include all family/household members in the process, as one person can often bear the brunt of domestic responsibility in the home, which can lead to resentment and disharmony.
“Housework tends to fall on one person’s shoulders — often the woman — and that can be really involuntary. This needs to be addressed because if someone really feels that they are taken advantage of, that is a direct threat to the atmosphere in the home. So, in this book, I encourage people to really think about who does what and why — and how it can be done smarter, and in a more fun and creative way.
Jarlsdotter, whose children are aged 16, 14 and 10, focused on things like the amount of time the family wasted hunting for items such as clothing or sports kit.
“I kind of became the time-study woman for a couple of weeks to identify what this kind of waste looked like. So as soon as someone started to search for things, I started my stopwatch. I discovered we were searching for things for 700 minutes a week, just over 10 hours, and I was really shocked.”
Jarlsdotter suggests making a list of the top 10 things you most often have to look for, then decide where to keep them, once and for all.
Another important part of the ‘lean’ plan was reducing waste in terms of what the family consumed across the board.
“In lean living, the largest weight is overconsumption — because we buy things that we don’t need with money that we quite often don’t have, because we have to impress people that we don’t really care about. We try to challenge ourselves to say, does this really meet an important need? Quite often this kind of consumption is because you haven’t met a more important need.”
Jarlsdotter says now more than ever, there is a case to be made for returning to the more frugal ways of previous generations.
“If our grandparents saw how we live today, it is so sad. I wanted to look at how we could use our resources in a way that is kind to the environment. I read some statistic recently that on average, when someone buys a garment here in Sweden, they use it 16 times before it gets thrown away. When we can, we buy something second-hand or pass things down, or we try to mend things that are broken. We also teach the kids how to mend things, we don’t just throw them away. In Sweden, there are a lot more second-hand shops now. Our kids go to school and the other kids will say, that’s a cool shirt you are wearing, and they can say, yes I bought it for 10 Swedish krona, which is like one euro or something. Then they feel that it is something smart to do.”
It is also important, says Jarlsdotter, to empower children when it comes to their schedules, belongings and performing household chores. She suggests putting up a ‘kanban’ [sign in Japanese] board, where the families plans are outlined in detail. She also recommends short kanban meetings to discuss and plan for the week ahead.
“It creates a sense of predictability and expectation around what will happen,” she says. “Sit down together and think about how you can make it all more fun, more creative. For example, we hate cleaning.
“Think about things you perceive as boring, like making the dinner every day, and try doing something different. Make the most of times like that when you can be together as a family.”
- The Lean and Happy Home, by Eva Jarlsdotter is published by (Yellow Kite, €18.20)