Note: A version of this article was originally published in January 2013 and has been significantly updated since then.
“Honey, this is the year I put it in a spreadsheet.”
She just shot me a puzzled look. Was I joking? Should she ask me to elaborate? Is this weird spreadsheet dude the same guy who asked her out in college?
My wife Melinda responded, “You're going to put what in a spreadsheet?”
I grinned and said, “Everything!” I mean, all of “it.”
After all, I'm a true spreadsheet maniac.
But before we continue, can I get a quick promise? Give me a chance to prove how and why you should put your life in spreadsheets before you say, “Does this guy really expect me to dig spreadsheets?”
(By the way, this is also a great time to download the complete Spreadsheet Spotlight series that I and countless others use to simplify, organize, and be money wise).
The Origins of Spreadsheet Mania
Talk with me for more than half an hour and you'll probably hear me mention spreadsheets.
Maybe it was my Librarian Assistant job in college where I used Excel spreadsheets for the first time. Maybe it was the decade in Corporate America where every fourth email I sent or received contained an Excel spreadsheet.
But I still remember the exact date and magical feelings I had when I opened Microsoft Excel for the first time.
Just kidding. I'm not that nuts.
I don't know the true origins of my spreadsheet love affair. But I do know why I love them now and how they empower simplicity, productivity, and confidence. You see, I use Excel because I have to. As I explain in my book Experience Curating, my natural memory is terrible. It's so terrible that nothing is safe from my forgetful and corrupted leaky brain.
But when you can extract superpowers from weaknesses? That's beautiful. And I've done that by outsourcing my memory to spreadsheets.
Little known fact: I have four brains. The oldest one is the unreliable grey squishy thing inside my skull. Then Melinda came along to be another brain. Shortly after my lovely lady arrived, Google and the Interwebs became another. But the most recent one, and perhaps the most useful brain, is accessed through a handful of spreadsheets.
Ahhh … those precious spreadsheets. They're always available and are organized exactly the way I want. Sure, they can't solve every problem. For instance, they can't document twenty different sets of dietary allergies and preferences when my extended family gets together (trust me, I tried).
However, let's explore why spreadsheets are such unsexy, magical beasts that can do things you've never dreamed of.
Why Grant Is Named Grant
Unsurprisingly, spreadsheets weren't created with you in mind (unless you were an accountant in the 1970s). Yet they have evolved with everyone in mind.
The problem with spreadsheets is they have been primarily marketed as a solution for number crunchers and techies. That's too bad, because my best spreadsheets have no formulas … and some don't even contain a single number!
The possibilities for spreadsheets expand far beyond a calculation tool. For example, think about how many times you wished there was a better solution to:
- Getting information from random sheets of paper at home or at work.
- Organizing your recipe list across many books and websites.
- Remembering when and where you saw that awesome article about super cute puppies.
- Finding a reference to something buried deep inside your journals.
- Sorting and filtering your personal contacts with context for each one (you know, curating style)
The better solution to all these issues is spreadsheets. Pardon me as I get into Spreadsheet Salesman mode, but their benefits include:
- They're easy to format, access, and learn the basics.
- You can see all your information in one place.
- They come free or bundled with software (e.g. Microsoft Office) at no extra cost.
- A simple way to share with others (either as a template or prepopulated with content).
- The best point-and-click sort and filter functions around.
- Flexible grouping and presenting of information (e.g. pie charts, graphs, and pivot tables).
- Anyone with a computer knows at least something about them (except my Aunt Fran, bless her heart).
Do you think it's an accident that any useful software or website lets you export your stuff to a spreadsheet format? No sirree, Bob.
Now, I'm not saying you need to spend weeks putting your life in a spreadsheet. But a tool like Excel is perfect for many needs.
Not convinced yet? Well, just answer this question then: Do you like public libraries?
Of course you do! Libraries are awesome! They're free, well-organized, have tons of resources all in one place, and just about everyone has access to them.
A spreadsheet can be your personal library. A spreadsheet gives you instant access to everything important … without taking up physical space!
Want a personalized grocery list that takes 30 seconds to complete? Put it in a spreadsheet.
Need to track the last time you did maintenance on your car or in your home? Put it in a spreadsheet.
Have to consolidate all your trip details on one simple page? Put it in a spreadsheet.
Want to remove the emotional explosions and end the war in naming a baby? Put it in a spreadsheet.
And yes. It's true. My sons Grant and Clark were named with the spreadsheet I linked to above. (You can thank me and your mama later, guys.)
Now that we've covered some of the “why” of using spreadsheets, let's hit the “how” with some schuper schweet steps.
How to Put It in a Spreadsheet
Fair warning: this is simply an overview of the “put it in a spreadsheet” paradigm. The full version requires much more explanation.
Personally, I use a five-step process when creating a new spreadsheet. Odds are you'll find it valuable, too. Here's how it works (and feel free to customize to your unique needs):
1. Define why you're creating the spreadsheet
Is the purpose to have an external memory or easily locate a set of common experiences? Is it because you don't want to pay for a specialized resource that a spreadsheet could outmaneuver and outclass? Maybe it's because Excel spreadsheets check just about every Experience Curating best practice box?
Defining your spreadsheet's purpose often takes mere seconds and isn't fancy or formal.
2. Determine how many worksheets (a.k.a. tabs) you need
My default is just one tab so that I can quickly see, sort, and filter everything in one place. But decide how many tabs you want however you like. Just be aware that some spreadsheet program formulas or functionalities get harder, slower, or downright impossible with multiple tabs (I'm looking at you, Google Drive).
3. Think about the visual formatting
My minimalist nature seeps into my spreadsheets as I use almost no color and little overall visual formatting. Whether or not you're like me, contemplate the ideal margins, orientation, header, footer, print area, and printed paper size for a physical print out.
I also recommend that you choose an ideal cell format (e.g., text, number, or date), font (I like 11 point Arial), and text alignment (e.g., wrapped or indented) for each column.
4. Identify your sort and filter needs
Knowing how you want to sort and filter a spreadsheet helps decide how many and what type of columns would be useful. Is sorting by category or sub-category essential? Are filtering your tags, notes, or descriptions important?
Whatever columns you need to slice and dice should be required. Everything else can be optional.
5. Consider future modifications
Making a structural or visual change to a digital spreadsheet is normally easy. But your spreadsheets will evolve over time just like everything else. So think about when an optional column might become required instead. Ponder why you would add and delete columns, need to do heavy maintenance, add a tab, or consolidate multiple tabs into one.
A spreadsheet's purpose might change under many scenarios, and with it, the spreadsheet itself. Preparing up front for potential changes will save you future headaches and ensure you don't have to blow everything up and start again.
Want to see two examples of this five-step process and the “put it in a spreadsheet” philosophy in action? Check these out:
- Joel's Excessive Circuit Breaker Control Box Info
- Joel and Melinda's 2009 Japan Trip Travel Itinerary (copy and paste for sixteen days of amazing fun)
For more tools, 1/2 of my popular book, Experience Curating, and the complete Spreadsheet Spotlight line-up, just use the button below.
Your Spreadsheet Journey Has Just Begun …
Now you better understand spreadsheet mania, why spreadsheets are so important, and how to “put it in a spreadsheet,”
If you want to see their immediate benefits, start by putting just a tiny part of your life in them. Quotes. Recipes. Whatever floats your boat. It takes little energy or time and no money. How groovy is that?
Don't feel like you have enough spreadsheet resources or tools yet? Skilledup's 133 Best Excel Resources: Tutorials, Guides, Add-ins, Templates, & Courses has you covered.
Start experimenting with spreadsheets, Excel or otherwise. Have some fun with the nuances in your process. Take the challenge to be creative and use spreadsheets in novel ways.
In time, you may commit to “putting it in a spreadsheet” and realize the full potential of this simple tool. Having a free, always available, and easy way to capture key information – and perfectly organize it – is a true gift.
And that's when your experiences don't just happen to you. They make big things happen for you.
Preferably in Excel, of course.
For the comments: how do you use spreadsheets? Do you have an unconventional or unsexy tweak to my framework to make it even more valuable?