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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?

    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.

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    Last Updated on September 10, 2019

    How to Master the Art of Prioritization

    How to Master the Art of Prioritization

    Do you know that prioritization is an art? It is an art that will lead you to success in whatever area that matters to you.

    By prioritization, I’m not talking so much about assigning tasks, but deciding which will take chronological priority in your day—figuring out which tasks you’ll do first, and which you’ll leave to last.

    Effective Prioritization

    There are two approaches to “prioritizing” the tasks in your to-do list that I see fairly often:

    Approach #1 Tackling the Biggest Tasks First and Getting Them out of the Way

    The idea is that by tackling them first, you deal with the pressure and anxiety that builds up and prevents you from getting anything done—whether we’re talking about big or small tasks. Leo Babauta is a proponent of this Big Rocks method.[1]

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    Approach #2 Tackling the Tasks You Can Get Done Quickly and Easily, with Minimal Effort

    Proponents of this method believe that by tackling the small fries first, you’ll have less noise distracting you from the periphery of your consciousness.

    If you believe in getting your email read and responded to, making phone calls and getting Google Reader zeroed before you dive into the high-yield work, you’re a proponent of this method. I suppose you could say Getting Things Done (GTD) encourages this sort of method, since the methodology advises followers to tackle tasks that can be completed within two minutes, right there and then.

    Figure out Your Approach for Prioritization

    My own approach is perhaps a mixture of the two.

    I’ll write out my daily task list and draw little priority stars next to the three items I need to get done that day. They don’t need to be big tasks, but nine times out of ten, they are.

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    Smaller tasks are rarely important enough to warrant a star in the first place; I can always get away without even checking my inbox until the next day if I’m swamped, and the people who need to get in touch with me super quickly know how.

    But I’m not recommending my system of prioritization to you. I’m also not saying that mine is better than Leo’s Big Rocks method, and I’m not saying it’s better than the “if it can be done quickly, do it first” method either.

    The thing with prioritization is that knowing when to do what relies very much on you and the way you work. Some people need to get some small work done to find a sense of accomplishment and clarity that allows them to focus on and tackle bigger items. Others need to deal with the big tasks or they’ll get caught up in the busywork of the day and never move on, especially when that Google Reader count just refuses to get zeroed (personally, I recommend the Mark All As Read button—I use it most days!).

    I’m in between, because my own patterns can be all over the place. Some days I will be ready to rip into massive projects at 7AM. Other times I’ll feel the need to zero every inbox I have and clean up the papers on my desk before I can focus on anything serious. I also know that my peak, efficient working time doesn’t come at 11AM or 3PM or some specific time like it does for many people, but I have several peaks divided by a few troughs. I can feel what’s coming on when and try to keep my schedule liquid enough that I can adapt.

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    That’s why I use a starred task list system rather than a scheduled task list. It allows me to trust myself (something that I suppose takes a certain amount of discipline) and achieve peak efficiency by blowing with the winds. If I fight the peaks and troughs, I’ll get less done; but if I do certain kinds of work in each period of the day as they come, I’ll get more done than most others in a similar line of work.

    You may not be able to trust yourself to that extent without falling into the busywork trap. You may not be able to tackle big tasks first thing in the morning without feeling like you’re pushing against an invisible brick wall that won’t budge. You might not be able to deal with small tasks before the big tasks without feeling pangs of guilt and urgency.

    My point is:

    The prioritization systems themselves don’t matter. They’re all pretty good for a group of people, not least of all to the people who espouse them because they use them and find them effective.

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    What matters is that you don’t fall for one set of dogma (and I’m not saying Leo Babauta or David Allen preach these things as dogma, but sometimes their proponents do) until you’ve tried the systems extensively, and found which method of chronological prioritization works for you.

    And if the system you already use works great, then there’s no need to bother trying others—in the world of personal productivity, it’s too easy to mess with something that works and find yourself unable to get back into your former groove.

    “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

    In truth, this principle applies to all sorts of personal productivity issues, though it’s important to know which issues it applies to.

    If you thought multitasking worked well for you each day and I’d have to contend that you are wrong—multitasking is a universal myth in my books! But if you find yourself prioritizing tasks that never get done, you might need to reconsider which of the above approaches you’re using and change to a system that is more personally effective.

    More About Prioritization & Time Management

    Featured photo credit: Sabri Tuzcu via unsplash.com

    Reference

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