Advertising
Advertising

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.

    Advertising

    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.

    Advertising

    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.

    Advertising

    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.

    Advertising

    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?

    More by this author

    Joel Falconer

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

    How to Master the Art of Prioritization The Importance of Scheduling Downtime How to Make Decisions Under Pressure 11 Free Mind Mapping Applications & Web Services How to Use Parkinson’s Law to Your Advantage

    Trending in Featured

    1 Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) 2 5 Steps To Move Out Of Stagnancy In Life 3 The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work) 4 How to Master the Art of Prioritization 5 40 Top Productivity Apps for iPhone (2020 Updated)

    Read Next

    Advertising
    Advertising
    Advertising

    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

    Advertising

    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

    Advertising

    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

    Advertising

    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

    Advertising

    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

    Read Next