The original title of this blog was “How Excel helped me run 4 marathons, climb Mt Kilimanjaro, travel the world, and complete 4 university degrees”, but I thought that was a little wordy. However, there really is some truth to it.
“Really?”, said with an sarcastic undertone, is a common response when I tell people how much I rely on my Excel file. In fact, it’s a running joke with my friends and family. My friend Isgerdur wrote a song for my hen’s night including the line “My Excel file is with you!”. This is true romance in my world. Also, there’s even a crack about this nerdy habit of mine in an article in an Icelandic newspaper, and the Telegraph in the United kingdom here!
Despite the jokes and well meaning mockery, I’ve decided to share my Excel usage with the world. However, before I continue I should point out that there is nothing magical about Excel. You can do this same thing with a pencil and paper, and there’s also lots of iPhone/Android apps for exactly this purpose.
How does Excel planning work to achieve goals?
My Excel file is probably one of the simplest documents you will ever see. Basically, it has three spreadsheets: Now, Finished, and Future.
In the Now part, I write short-term goals, and all my day to day activities. This helps make me feel productive because it feels great to finish a recorded task, no matter how small it is. When a task is complete I move it from the Now page to the Finished page. Nothing is too small. For example, even moving “take clothes to dry cleaner” between tabs gives me a sense of accomplishment.
I find colour coding items useful (adding significantly to the nerdiness of the document). For example, anything related to studies might be purple, work is green, and fun/travel is pink. The colour coding helps me to focus on one thing at the time, and I always have a sense of how much time to allocate to each category, which drives me to get things done and out of the way.
The Future page of the spreadsheet is really the important one. It’s not about your day to day life, but recording what you want to achieve in the medium to long term (e.g. the next 2-30 years). However, by having it in the same file as your day to day activities, it helps to connect the two, and you chip away at your long term goals in small, manageable steps.
I’ve recorded my goals in my Excel spreadsheet for almost 15 years, and when I look back at early versions, it is amazing how it looks like I “predicted” my own future. For example, I included many things that I’ve now done, such as complete a PhD in psychology, travel to more than 40 countries (I’m now at 65), run my own clinical practice, run a marathon in under 4 hours, climb Mt Kilimanjaro before 30, etc. (To be fair, I didn’t reach all my goals – I still haven’t learned Korean, or attended pizza school in Italy. However, there is still lots of time for those things.) I honestly don’t think I would have done all this without careful planning in advance. Knowing what I want keeps me focused and working towards my goals.
The Future page is basically just a calendar. You set a date for a goal (e.g. run my own business by 2015), and set key milestones along the way (e.g. find partners, create business plan, get investors, etc.). That’s all there is to it – I told you it was simple! However, even though everyone knows how important it is to have goals, many people just seem to have them floating around in their head. This whole blog boils down to one sentence: keep a written record of your goals, and a plan about how to achieve them. It is amazing how powerful this little piece of advice is.
A quick disclaimer: There are many things in life that you cannot plan for, such as health problems, or other things that are out of your control. Furthermore, your priorities will naturally change as you get older. Therefore, it is important to be flexible with your planning, and don’t become a slave to goals that no longer make sense. For me, this means that about 3 times every year I sit down and re-evaluate the Future page, and make sure I’m still on the right track.
I’ve put a copy of my Excel file here if you would like to download it. You can use this as a basis to create your own, customized version. I like to keep it in my Dropbox folder, so I can always access it from home, work, by phone etc. I’ve actually given it to a lot of friends and people I meet who have become “Excel life planning” converts.
I’d like to leave you with a favourite quote of mine:
A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.”
Fjola Helgadottir, PhD, MClinPsych, is a clinical psychologist, a senior research clinician at the University of Oxford, and is a co-creator of AI-Therapy.com, an online CBT treatment program for overcoming social anxiety