How Excel spreadsheets can help you make major life decisions 

January 5, 2016

It’s not often that I share common ground with Paul McKenna, the hypnotist and self-help guru. But when it comes to Excel spreadsheets, McKenna and I are on the same page. 

The 52-year-old recently told the Observer magazine that he used the software to help him choose his fiancée – his long-term personal assistant Kate Davey.

“I’ve dated a lot of beautiful women,” he said. “A friend pointed out I didn’t actually like them, and advised me to make an Excel spreadsheet to find out who I really loved. It came down to Kate. We’d worked together for many years; thankfully she felt the same way and now we’re engaged.”

Like McKenna, I’ve long been aware of the power of Excel spreadsheets to help with major life goals. The simplicity of the never-ending grid and its efficient formulas aren’t just handy for maths homework and office data – they’re perfect for distilling complex life-changing questions and coming out with solid answers.

“Spreadsheets give me a quick and easy way to impose structure on everyday life, to make my world tidy and trackable and ultimately, more efficient.”Danae Shell

I was an early adopter – first appreciating the joy of spreadsheets when I was 18 and suddenly had thousands of pounds worth of student loan deposited into my bank account. My inner geek sprang into action and I made myself an Excel document detailing all my daily expenses (there were columns for travel, clothes, food, alcohol) and income (£10 an hour for being a student ambassador, tutoring and my loan).

For the next three years, I filled it in religiously and never slipped into my overdraft. It was smugly satisfying when all my friends were in the red. But the true impact only sank in when I realised I’d managed to save enough money to go travelling to South America.

That was when spreadsheets won my trust and, like McKenna, I began using them to make major life decisions.

Job offers were contemplated via lists of pros and cons, while one very extensive system saw me work out what I really wanted to do with my future by awarding my skills and interests points - and then adding them all up.

I’ve written down seemingly-impossible life goals, and then broken them into achievable chunks – some of which I have gone on to do, and some of which have  ended up deleted, or simply been transferred into the following year’s agenda.

Using Excel can help you order your lifeCredit:Chris Rout/Alamy

As bizarre and calculating as it all sounds: it works. We’re all capable of figuring out what we really want in life and analysing our selves honestly without any help. But it can be hard – even when you’ve got Excel at your fingertips.

When you’re desperately trying to listen to your gut, while making sure you haven’t ignored the harsh realities of life, it can be downright impossible to make big decisions.

That’s when the ordered simplicity of a spreadsheet can make a difference. As Joel Zaslofsky writes on his website  Value of Simple : “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… They’re always available and are organized exactly the way I want. If you want to see their immediate benefits, start by putting just a tiny part of your life in them. Quotes. Recipes.”

He uses them to help with his memory – just like an  American banker once saw his spreadsheets go viral when he admitted to using Excel to record his internet dates. After sending a screenshot to one date, who then sent it on to her friends, he ended up defending himself saying: “I work with spreadsheets a lot.

“It’s a great additional tool. I work long days, go to the gym, go out on a couple of midweek dates or what not, get home late … how am I going to remember them? I’m not. So I made the spreadsheets. My comments aren’t malicious or mean. This was an honest attempt to stay organised.”

A screenshot of his spreadsheet sent to one of his dates

Spreadsheets aren’t always there just to record facts and data. As McKenna found out, they can also help with emotional decisions.

When I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, I underwent cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)  - and spreadsheets were a significant part of my treatment. 

The idea was to write down trigger for your moods in one column (e.g. ‘I just got dumped’), the feelings this presented (e.g. misery, anxiety, sadness, sickness) and then the filter your brain puts on the situation to result in those feelings (e.g. ‘I miss them, I feel lonely, I’m going to be alone for ever, no one will ever love me again.’)

“Forcing yourself to write into these columns and actively challenge your mind’s negative habits can bring solutions to the surface faster and more firmly than anything else.”

This format helps most people become more self-aware. But the real benefit lies in the final column, where you rack up the evidence against those filtered thoughts (e.g. ‘I probably won’t be alone for ever – statistically, people do fall in love again’ or ‘I do miss them, but really it’s better to be without them for a while rather than stay in an unhealthy relationship.’)

So often, the ‘answer’ is pure common sense and something you already knew deep down. But forcing yourself to write your thoughts down into columns and actively challenge your mind’s negative habits can help in a way that mere thinking cannot. 

Spreadsheets, grids, lists, data – whatever you want to call them – won’t work for everyone. Some may prefer to scribble down thoughts randomly, talk things over with a friend, or just figure it out on their own.

But for people who like order and are struggling to come up with simple solutions, spreadsheets may be the answer.

With New Years’ resolutions and goals on our minds, now may even be the time to start.

Thinking about downloading Excel for help with life goals? Here are some tips:

  1. Start small. Don’t try to make a big grid, or make multiple sheets immediately – just figure out what you want to do and start making lists.
  2. If you want to use spreadsheets to achieve goals, try dividing them up into short and long-term.  Fjola  Helgadottir, a senior research clinician at the University of Oxford, suggests having three pages for ‘Now, Finished and Future’. She has a template you can download from her website here.
  3. Use as many of Excel’s tools as you can – when you feel confident, try out the functions for adding things up, and sorting columns. Colour code your lists, and move things around to do different tabs. Consider creating a sheet in Google Drive, so you can access it anywhere and easily share it with people if needs be. 
  4. Don’t just stick to pros and cons – experiment with points systems to figure out what  means most to you.
  5. Remember:  as useful as a spreadsheet it is, it isn’t magic. It won’t solve all your problems, but it can help you figure out your priorities and goals – and even who you want to spend the rest of your life with.


This article was from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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