Why KonMari and Dave Ramsey Failed Me, And How I Found What Works

This post is about how KonMari and Dave Ramsey didn’t quite work for me the way I had hoped, and what I learned from the experience. Before anyone gets all defensive about either of these methods, I’m gonna say that I learned things of value from both the individual methods as well my personal failures with them. In fact, I’m happy I tried both of them, failed, and learned what I did. 

If you have ever been on a diet/”cleanse”/”detox” (or many), you probably are intimately familiar with the emotional states that motivated you to overhaul your lifestyle. Specifically, the frustration and impatience. “Why is my life such a mess? Oh god, how did I let it get this bad? I need to change everything right now. That’s IT! I’m making a change.”

And instead of making one change, such as “eating more vegetables at dinnertime” or “going to bed 1 hour earlier,” you decide to make many changes. Maybe you do a Whole 30 or a 21-Day Fix or whathaveyou. You cut out several food groups, count every calorie at every meal, implement a new workout, completely change what you order in restaurants, completely change your meal schedule, try and shop for completely different foods, cook completely different foods, and more…..all at the same time.

Within 3 months, your habits are back to where you started, and the cycle begins all over again. Maybe you have a case of the “fuckits” (as in, “fuck it; I’ll do what I want!”) for a while until the frustration and impatience builds up again. “Why is my life such a mess? Oh god, how did I let it get this bad? I need to change everything right now. That’s IT! I’m making a change.”

And on and on it goes…..

I’m gonna propose that programs like the KonMari method and Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover have much in common with the quick “fixes” of the diet world. Let’s look at some of the similarities:

  • These methods are sexy and alluring. They appeal to the emotional states of frustration and impatience that often come with the desire to make a change. “Why is my life such a mess? How did I let it get this bad? I need to change everything RIGHT NOW. That’s IT! I’m making a change!”
  • These methods come with highly motivational, bestselling books that get you all fired up. You can join forums and online groups and in-person support groups for other people “working the program.”
  • You post on social media about your progress with chucking everything out of your house, or all your budget-friendly date nights and meals and paying down your credit cards. Your friends and followers ooooh and ahhhh and get inspired and try it too, or get annoyed and unfollow your posts.
  • You get amazing results that you LOVE…..for a while…..until eventually some of your old habits creep back in. Maybe you fall completely back into old habits, or maybe some of the results stick, but not all. Maybe you catch yourself thinking “I need to work all the Baby Steps again” or “I need to do another big purge of everything that doesn’t spark joy”…..in the same tone you might say “I need to do another Whole 30 / 21-Day Fix; I loved how great I felt when I did that.”

See? These sexy, change-everything methods are so similar to the quick “fixes” of the diet world. So similar. (Except maybe they have somewhat higher success rates. It certainly would be a very low bar to surpass, but I doubt there have ever been scientific studies on success rates of “financial fixes” and “housekeeping fixes.”)

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you know that I have had a lot of success with slow, sustainable, habit change. (And just to be clear, I am not conflating success with any particular body change outcomes. I’m talking about success with actually changing my day to day habits that affect how I feel). Over the past two years, I have successfully changed many habits that affect my health and well-being.

And I realized that the same mentality of slow, sustainable change was what I needed to make changes in other areas of my life as well.

Habit research shows that if you try to change one habit at a time (just one, like “drinking a glass of water with every meal”), your odds of success are around 80%. But if you try to change two habits at a time (say, “drinking a glass of water with every meal AND eating a vegetable with every meal”), your odds of long-term success drop to around 30%.  If you try and change three habits at one time (say “drinking a glass of water with every meal AND eating a vegetable with every meal AND going to sleep 1 hour earlier every night”), your odds of long-term success drop to practically zero. (By “long-term success”, I mean the behaviors become habitual to the point where they can be done on autopilot without much thought or planning.)

Programs that encourage a quick overhaul of your life and habits inspire action and get you the quick results that feel motivating. But as far as training you to adopt the habits that keep you there – these methods (and others like them) fall short.

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In the case of my finances – they weren’t a mess because of lack of knowledge, inspiration, or motivation. They were a mess because my everyday spending habits didn’t make the most of my potential in my current circumstances. I didn’t know how to apply the inspiration towards creating sustainable habit change – I only knew how to overhaul things, but not to sustain all the changes. In finances, just like in health, there some factors that are beyond the control of the individual, and some habits that are completely within the individual’s control. It is the combination of these factors that determine our current financial health.

In my own personal experience, the value of the Total Money Makeover lies in showing me some outcomes to strive for. Where it fell short was in really teaching me how to get there, with strategies that fit into MY everyday life and circumstances. Sure, they talk about living on the cheap and eating less takeout. But for me, until I addressed the factors that were influencing my food purchasing decisions, I was unable to sustain the habit of cooking at home instead of purchasing takeout. I was focused on the outcome instead of the habits that would take me there.

Granted, I did sustain SOME of the changes I made through the Total Money Makeover. For example, my husband and I stopped using credit cards and were able to sustain that change. However, part of the reason we were able to sustain that change was due to our circumstances (e.g., family members helping us out when we needed to replace our car and our emergency fund went down to zero again. Had we not had family members in a position to help, we may have had to rely on a loan….and the fact that we have family members willing to help us out doesn’t make us superior to those who don’t; it makes us fortunate. We know that).

So, when I say that the Total Money Makeover falls short in terms of the HOW, I don’t mean to say that it has zero value. Just that I needed more guidance on how to make it work for my individual circumstances (economic, emotional, circumstantial).

Now, to that end, I’m working on a project I call “Project Takeout Breakout.” I addressed the needs behind my takeout habit and I’m finding other ways to meet them, thereby freeing up money for other things. Like the fact that my washing machine needed repair today and the fact that the ACLU needs money more than ever.

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Now let’s talk about my experience with KonMari. Like the Total Money Makeover and many diet programs, the KonMari method appeals to the emotions of frustration and impatience and high motivation to “make a change.” And I’m very glad I did it. It’s just that the expectation that I would never relapse into old habits was naive. My house didn’t become a mess due to a lack of desire or motivation for a clean house. It became a mess due to a combination circumstances (hello, small child!) and daily habits. And if we are honest, organization of physical space has never been my strong suit. It feels overwhelming to me, which means I will be more challenged by it than others.

But within my own limitations, I still have opportunities to change my daily habits. Not all at once, a la Whole30 style. But in the same way that I’ve changed some other self-care habits: one at a time.

So I started working on a habit to load or unload the dishwasher.

The division of labor in my household used to be such that I did the cooking and food shopping, and my husband did the dishes. But I could see that the dishes often piled up and my husband didn’t have a ton of time. So even though it wasn’t my previous habit and I didn’t enjoy doing it, I decided to start working on it.

I know it seems REALLY underwhelming. Maybe you are thinking “loading OR unloading the dishwasher? Way to set the bar low…..”

But that is the point. I set the bar low on purpose. I made it so easy I couldn’t say no to it. “You don’t even have to load the dirty dishes. Just unload the clean ones.”

You know what? After I got started, I almost always unloaded the clean dishes AND loaded the dirty ones, though I marked the habit successful for the day even if I just did one of them.

And it was slow going. In October, November, and December, I was averaging 3 or 4 days per week.

But then in January, I started averaging 5 days per week. And some of the days when I DIDN’T do it was because my father-in-law was visiting and he got to it while I was busy doing other things, so when I went to do it, it was already done.

Do I have a beautifully tidy, pinterest-perfect, minimalist home where every object sparks joy, even with a 4 year old trashing the place all the time? No.

But you know what? Now I habitually start unloading the dishes in the morning. I have a consistently cleaner kitchen. I’m able to say yes to cooking at home more because I’m less overwhelmed with the mess. Which means I’m able to feed our family on a smaller budget and have some funds available for other things.

It’s neither sexy nor exciting, but it is sustainable and habitual and happy.

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I still think I derived a ton of value from both the KonMari method and Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover, even though the dramatic life-changing effects were not as sustainable as they would have you think, without addressing the simple, boring day-to-day habits that influenced my daily situation.

But that’s been a wonderful side effect of learning a habit-based approach to health. The lessons I learned about habit cultivation are applicable to other areas in life that benefit from solid habits. It’s not just about moving and eating and sleeping. It’s about making your whole life more easy and peaceful…..without dramatic swings in lifestyle every 3 months.

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