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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 January 13, 2020

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to Make a Reminder Works for You

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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