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The Humble Spreadsheet: A Tool for the True Lifehacker

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.

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    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.

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    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.

    3. Nutrition

    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.

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    4. Productivity

    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.

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    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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    Joel Falconer

    Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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