The Humble Spreadsheet: A Tool for the True Lifehacker
When I was very young—I can’t remember how old, but let’s call it six or seven—I was introduced to spreadsheets. It introduced me to the world of statistics, of using data to track progress and predict the future, to work towards tangible, measurable goals instead of lofty, obtuse and too-often forgotten resolutions that people so often make about a month from now each year.
I have my father to thank for this, a mindset and skill I consider vital to the successes I’ve had in many areas of my life, most especially those areas of my life that have to do with business and money. Each evening we’d go for a run, a habit that unfortunately didn’t stick as well as the interest in statistics, and when we got home we’d track the various details on some ancient (well, not at the time) and hefty Apple computer.
I was fascinated to see how the data changed over time. How our best times improved—now doubt they would’ve looked different if a kid wasn’t tagging along!—and progress could be seen, right there, in solid numbers.
The spreadsheet is often looked at as purely the realm of accountants, businessmen, and sometimes, for those smart enough to have one, the family budget. But that’s not the spreadsheet’s only utility. Not by a long shot! You can use spreadsheets in many aspects of your lifehacking and personal development.
1. Budgeting and Expense Tracking
We’ll start off by looking at something that doesn’t veer too far from the traditional domain of the spreadsheet—money. It’s an area that many people are looking to deal with in their lives. Spending gets out of control, bills come in with figures higher than the figure in your bank account, and without proper money management, life is the pits.
But a spreadsheet, better configured to your own circumstances than any watered-down software application, can help anyone solve their money problems. You can see where the income comes in and how much of it there is, track where it disappears, and see how much you really have to spend once both your bills and savings have been taken into account.
If you can see in black and white on your screen that you only have X amount of money left each week after your requisite expenses have been dealt with, it’s easy to stay in control. Figures can and do provide that extra bit of discipline and insight you may need.
2. Exercise & Fitness
As I mentioned, my first encounter with spreadsheets had nothing to do with money, but fitness. It’s great and truly motivating to see how your fitness level is improving in a tangible way. But it’s not just a self-lovefest, either; that insight allows you to plan for increased fitness. You can see how much you’re capable of improving over a given amount of time, and create a plan based on that ability to adapt that’ll take you to the next level.
You’ll be able to determine a goal—whether that’s a best time you’d like to achieve or a certain amount of weight you’d like to be able to lift—and work towards on it on a truly achievable schedule. And as the cycle continues, you’ll reap the motivation to continue your fitness plan by seeing the numbers improve before your eyes.
I’ve heard it said that calorie counting is so eighties, but really, if you throw the stupid fad diets away, what is weight loss if it’s not burning more calories than you take in? You have to put yourself into calorie deficit or loss just won’t occur; that’s a fact. The trouble is often with determining how to put yourself into calorie deficit in a sensible way.
With a spreadsheet, a knowledge of how many calories are in what you’re eating, and the tools available to figure out how much your body burns on its own, you can track your calorie intake and weight loss. By tracking your progress with numbers rather than a mere visual check on your waistline, you can make sure you’re losing weight. Again, you can use that data to make adjustments to your plan so it works better—losing weight the smart way without resorting to extreme and unhealthy measures.
The same goes with gaining weight, or just eating right in general if you’ve got a specific plan that can be calculated with numbers of some kind.
There are so many methods of tracking productivity out there it’s not funny. Some are ridiculously complicated and some are incredibly simple. If you use a GTD system where everything is captured as a task (if you’re doing it properly), you can see how many of those tasks you are completing and how many you’re not. You can tell when you’re getting dangerously close to unacceptable procrastination, or when you’re really on a roll.
If your goal is to get more done in less time, you can track your working hours and see whether your hours-worked to tasks-completed ratio is getting better or worse. This gives you insight enabling you to figure out where your time-wasters are and maximize the productivity of each hour you’ve assigned for working.
Whether you suffer from workaholicism or procrastination, then data can help—many problems occur when you just don’t know what’s going on.
Spreadsheets Aren’t So Boring After All
Where there’s a need for data, a spreadsheet can be your best friend. We’ve just had a baby daughter who sometimes has trouble feeding and data is essential to ensuring that she’s getting enough food often enough, and gaining enough weight, and so far that data has helped immensely; she’s been on an upward spiral. If anything goes to show that spreadsheets are infinitely versatile, as far as I’m concerned, that’s the proof.
At sites I manage like AudioJungle, I use spreadsheets to ensure that we’re experiencing true growth on all fronts and not just getting hopeful over heightened statistics in one category. That data has helped make many smart business decisions before anything bad happened to us. That’s a pretty typical use for sheets, contrary to the unusual one I just mentioned.
I’ve barely scratched the surface. How do you—or could you—use spreadsheets to get better results from life?
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