“Honey, this is the year I put it in a spreadsheet.”
That’s what I told Melinda in January 2012.
She just shot me a puzzled look, part hoping I was joking, part wanting me to elaborate, and part questioning how the guy who asked her out in college became this weird spreadsheet dude.
She responded, “You’re going to put what in a spreadsheet?”
I grinned and stated proudly, “Everything!”
There were many intentional and unintentional victories I achieved in 2012. The most resounding success – except for starting Value of Simple – was my determination to “put it in a spreadsheet.”
And by “it,” I mean all of “it.”
What the hell am I talking about?
This is the 81st piece of content I’ve created at Value of Simple and I’m embarrassed not a single one has been about spreadsheets.
After all, I’m an Excel spreadsheet fiend. A true freakin’ spreadsheet maniac.
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 stop and say, “Does this guy really expect me to read an article about spreadsheets?” After all…
2013 will be the ‘Year of the Spreadsheet.’
Oh. Wait. That already happened in 1993?! Then we’re going retro and spinning this record again, baby!
The Origins of Spreadsheets Fanaticism
Listen to me talk for more than half an hour and you’ll probably hear me reference 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 of having every fourth email I sent or received containing an Excel spreadsheet.
Regardless, I remember the exact date and feelings I had when I opened up Microsoft Excel for the first time.
Just kidding. I’m not that nuts.
I don’t know the origins of my love for spreadsheets. But I do know why I love them now and how they enable personal productivity, confidence, and amazement.
I use spreadsheets because I have to. You see, my natural memory is terrible. Like so terrible I can forget any piece of information that doesn’t have a number in it.
Shanna Mann knows something about extracting superpowers from weaknesses and I’ve done that by outsourcing my memory to spreadsheets.
I’m quite serious when I say I have four brains. One of them is instantly accessed through a network of spreadsheets anywhere Dropbox is available. For me, that’s pretty much everywhere.
The other three are:
- The unreliable grey squishy thing inside my skull
- Google / The Interwebs
Melinda is my preferred secondary brain, but she doesn’t experience everything that I do and isn’t permanently around. Google and the Internet are useless in many ways and make a poor substitute brain for most of my needs.
But Excel spreadsheets. Ahhh…those precious spreadsheets. They’re always available and are organized exactly the way I want.
I’ll admit they can’t solve every problem so I don’t seem like a raving madman. For example, 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 start with why spreadsheets should be used in magical ways you’ve never dreamed of.
Why Grant is Named Grant
You’re at Value of Simple which means that organizing and simplifying are important to you.
Spreadsheets weren’t created with you in mind (unless you were an accountant in the 1970s), but 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 don’t have a single number in them and are as simple as can be.
As your possibilities for spreadsheets expand beyond a complex calculation tool, 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.
You’re forgiven if you’ve never thought of or have forgotten about some of the best benefits of spreadsheets Even I periodically forget about benefits like:
- Easy to format, access, and learn the basics
- See all your information in one place
- They come free or bundled with software (e.g. Microsoft Office) at no extra cost
- Simple to share with others (either as a template or pre-populated 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)
I’m not saying you need to dedicate days to putting your life in a spreadsheet. I mean, who in their right mind would combine information from their RSS reader, Evernote, bookmarks, Word documents, and Post It Notes into a single spreadsheet?
Don’t make me answer that.
All I know is it’s no accident that any useful software or website allows you to export your stuff to a spreadsheet.
Still not convinced a spreadsheet is the perfect tool for many needs? Fair enough. Just answer this question.
You like public libraries, right?
Libraries are awesome! They’re free, intuitively organized, have tons of resources all in one place, and just about everyone has access.
Notice any similarities to spreadsheets yet?
A spreadsheet can be your personal library. A spreadsheet gives you instant access to everything important from the time you create it to the time you delete it…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.
Must see all your Japan trip details on one simple page? Put it in a spreadsheet.
Have to decide the name of your first child through a weighted nine point baby name scoring system because you want to call the kid Frank and your partner wants to call the kid Ezra? Put it in a spreadsheet (and thank us later, Grant).
Now let’s cover how to use spreadsheets in some frickin’ schweet ways.
How to Put It in a Spreadsheet
Consider this an overview of the “put it in a spreadsheet” paradigm. The full version requires much more explanation which I’ll be providing over time.
Personally, I find reviewing a checklist valuable when creating a new spreadsheet and you might too. This can guarantee you get the most out of it and that it doesn’t become quickly obsolete.
My spreadsheet creation checklist looks like this:
- Define why I’m creating the spreadsheet. Is it because I can’t otherwise remember important experiences or because I couldn’t easily locate the information in another way? Because I don’t want to pay for a specialized resource that a spreadsheet could outmaneuver and outclass? This isn’t fancy or formal and often takes seconds. But if I don’t instantly know or can’t explain why I need a spreadsheet, I may think about it some more or – heaven forbid – meet my need without spreadsheets.
- Determine how many tabs (a.k.a. worksheets) I need. My default is one tab for the simplicity and being able to see everything in one place. We’ll cover the many valid reasons why you would need multiple tabs some other day.
- Think about the visual formatting. Most of my spreadsheets are minimalist with few colors and sparse visual formatting. Each column header name is extremely literal so that someone else can easily understand its purpose and how it relates to the other parts of the spreadsheet. Although I rarely print any spreadsheet except the grocery list, contemplate the ideal margins, orientation, print area, header and footer, or paper size if you plan to print it. Considering each column’s cell format (e.g. text, number, date), the text alignment (e.g. wrapped, bottom aligned), and font (I like 10 point Arial) is a good idea too.
- Identify my sorting and filtering needs. This tells me whether I need to add columns for stuff like categories, tags, notes, descriptions, or anything else I might want to sort and filter by. If you’re highly visual and have a spreadsheet program that allows sorting and filtering by text color or cell background color (e.g. newer versions of Microsoft Excel), take advantage of this little known feature.
- Consider future modifications. Making a structural or visual change to a spreadsheet is much easier than modifying the infrastructure of a house. Regardless of what you build though, it’s best to be aware of how it might evolve. Considering future changes at the beginning will save you time later by not having to blow up the spreadsheet and start from scratch.
Want to see two examples of spreadsheets I created based on this “put it in a spreadsheet” philosophy? 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)
More Will Be Revealed
By now you understand the origins of my spreadsheet fanaticism, why spreadsheets are so important, the philosophy of how to “put it in a spreadsheet,” and immediate benefits to putting some of your life in them.
I hope this is enough for you to start experimenting with spreadsheets, Excel or otherwise. This blueprint is intentionally incomplete, leaving you to have some fun with filling in the blanks. I want to see how you take this challenge to be creative and use spreadsheets in awesome ways I’ve never thought about. When you do, make sure to let us know why you did it and how we can do it too.
In time, you may commit to “putting it in a spreadsheet” and realize the full potential of this simple tool. Having another free, always available, and simple way to capture key information – and perfectly organize it just for you – is a true gift.
So share with us: how do you use spreadsheets and why are they the right tool for your needs?