The Year of the Spreadsheet

Or, how I learned to stop freewheeling my personal life and finally get my shit together.

2018 began for me with a simple goal: I was going to buy a house.

That was it. I’d been renting for two years and wanted to buy a place of my own. Two things happened in January that made me leap into action faster than expected: the apartment I was renting was being sold and I had to move by the 31st March. By pure awesome dumb luck, my old house was suddenly agreed for sale. If the stars aligned, it was possible with grit and determination that I could have a new house by March. I knew roughly what I needed to do, so I started jotting the steps down.

And then I realised this was a bigger task than I imagined.

Enter the Spreadsheet

If you’ve ever bought a house you’ll know there’s a lot to do. Sorting mortgages, insurance, moving vans, boxes, moving your broadband service. What’s more, I was doing this alone, so I was the single point of failure.

I needed a simple list of tasks to keep me on the right track, so I created a basic tracker in Google Sheets. I wrote a basic list of tasks that I assumed would need to be handled. These were ordered by when they’d need to be completed. Whenever a new concern or activity popped into my head, I jotted it into the spreadsheet and by some miracle it got dealt with. It just worked, and I finally moved into my new house in March 2018, much earlier than I’d anticipated.

Yes, I realise this is an article about spreadsheets…

After running the spreadsheet for a while, it hit me that this could accelerate a bunch of ambitions I’d been sitting on. If I could use it to make one goal a reality, what else could I use it for?

Immediately after the house move, I used it to project manage redesigning my living room. Again, I jotted out all the tasks - selling old furniture I no longer wanted, redecorating, reflooring, buying new furniture. I built a little script into my Google Sheet that allowed me to mark an item complete, then it would automatically grey out and move to the bottom of the list. A little tweak, but so satisfying when you’re marking something done!

Goals, Projects and Activities

So here’s how it’s broken down: The main tab of the spreadsheet contains my goals for the year. These are broken out into career, fitness, creative, personal goals. They’re tagged high/medium/low priority and I try to define why the goal exists and what the outcome should look like. No, I haven’t gone into full scale S.M.A.R.T. metrics!

Some goals are simply habits I want to cultivate - like becoming an early riser or increasing the amount of vegetables in my diet (I hate them, but I hear they’re good for you).

If a goal is more complex or has a number of steps and a finite endpoint, I’ll make it a project. As with redesigning the living room, it gets a tab of its own. Every action is broken into an activity, a step in the process, and it gets managed from there.

It’s been successful for a bunch of things I’ve wanted to achieve but have been procrastinating about. Back in March, I set two major professional goals for myself and wrapped them both before the end of October.

How does it work?

It’s not magic. At its most basic, writing things down means they don’t get forgotten. It’s a functional thing. A glorified shopping list.

When you break down a plan like that, you’re essentially writing yourself a set of instructions. All you have to do is follow them. It’s really that easy. It takes all the thinking out of the equation!

From a strategy perspective, the Goal -> Project -> Activity sequence is critical. Dreaming is easy. Making the dream a reality is where most people fall down. Hell, it’s where I constantly fall down. Planning is just the unsexy part of dreaming - it’s where you map out the steps you need to take and JUST DO THE FUCKING WORK.

Define your goals. Categorise them as high, medium and low priority. Put more detail into the high and medium goals. Give yourself a timeframe where you can. A goal without a deadline can drift on forever. If it’s important to you, then an end date can help make it real. In the case of my house purchase, I needed to move by the end of March, so I moved heaven and earth to make that happen.

What have I learned from letting a spreadsheet run my life?

In no particular order:

  • It makes seemingly complex tasks much easier: You know that old saying “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” An insurmountable task can suddenly become achievable if you break it down and deal with it one job at a time.
  • It can be all-consuming: Don’t let the spreadsheet own you. It’s just a tool to keep you on track. There have been times where I’ve been obsessed hitting all the marks, and that kind of takes the fun out of it.
  • Don’t be afraid to drop goals: Not all dreams are equal. So it goes for goals too. A goal you define today might not suit tomorrow. Don’t be afraid to ditch it or de-prioritise it.
  • I struggle to celebrate success: This came as a shock. I’ve achieved a lot this year, but once something is done, I don’t break out the champaign. I move on to the next thing on the list. It’s odd, and I want to understand more about why this is.
  • Goals for next year will be different: I feel like this year was focused on Big Things: moving house, getting where I wanted to be professionally, becoming better at budgeting and investing. One of the things that’s suffered has been creativity and connection. I feel like my circle has contracted somewhat, so next year’s goals will definitely address that.

Needless to say, I’m working on the 2019 version of the spreadsheet. It’s been fun to review the 2018 list and see what’s been completed and what’s being carried over to next year.

Do you use something similar to track your goals? Talk to me about it on Twitter.

Gerard McGarry Written by:

Liberal, humanist type. Optimist. Lover of life. Tryer of new things.