Favorite Things-Day 2: Excel

I promised that Day 2 would be about my love affair with three-ring binders, but that will have to wait. Because yesterday I was reminded how much I love Excel.

I know what you are thinking… Spreadsheet software? She’s kidding, right?

But it’s no joke. Although I am a devoted Mac user and (mostly) right-brainer, I love this Microsoft number-crunching gem. But probably not for the reason you think.

Yes, it is really good at number crunching. I love setting up formulas that allow me to test different scenarios – say, a change in my rates or the number of workshop participants. It actually makes math/accounting fun when you can see how small changes might have big ripple effects in your business (for good or ill). I couldn’t budget or project cash flow without it. (I also use Excel to keep logs – for instance what I write about in this blog.)

But here’s what I really love: the grid. And I don’t really need Excel for this – any spreadsheet or table would do. I use it when I need to plan something out. Other people do this with index cards or post-it notes on a wall or big bulletin board – you write down all the elements of your project and then put them in whatever order or relationship makes the most sense. If you need to make a change, you just rearrange the cards. Easy. Flexible. Visual. Tactile. All the stuff right-brainers love, right? Except, I don’t know… all that writing, all that wall space, all that lack of portability… I just don’t dig it.

So, instead, I type all the elements of my project in the cells of my spreadsheet (these are my “index cards”) and move them about until I’m satisfied with my plan. Additions and changes are a snap. For me, it’s even easier than cards and still visual and tactile (once printed). And it fits in my beloved three-ring binder in a way that a wall of index cards does not.

Here’s the specific reason I was reminded of this great system yesterday:

I learned years ago that I can’t rely on mood to direct my actions when I’m working towards specific goals (unless the goal is to putter about, which is a fine thing to do from time to time). Work goes a lot more smoothly, and actually is less stressful, when I have a detailed plan. I may not need to refer to it often during periods of intense inspiration or motivation, but when that wave passes, if I don’t have a plan in place, I start to wander. I know I’m in trouble when it’s suddenly mid-afternoon and, though I know I have important stuff to do, I’ve spent my day perusing the internet (or whatever – you know the kind of thing I’m talking about).

And that’s what has been happening the last couple days. I knew I had important stuff to do, but I wasn’t getting any of it done. Never mind that I didn’t really have a handle on what that stuff was – some writing, some reading, some marketing… none of it specific and, more importantly, none of it tied to my calendar. (In my experience, a to-do list separated from a calendar never gets done.)

My initial impulse was to draw it out, all these project elements, but I was almost immediately frustrated by the bounds of my paper – just not flexible enough. So I turned to my friendly Excel grid, made myself a calendar for the next six weeks and blocked out just how I was going to get things done. I noted deadlines and broke projects down into smaller parts with benchmarks for their completion (no Gantt charts, though, ew – way simpler than that). I attempted to create some sort of rhythm to repeated tasks (man-o-man is marketing about regularly showing up over and over again). You can’t really doodle in Excel, but I did have some fun color-coding things…

[click to enlarge] Obviously, this isn’t my actual plan, but it gives your the gist of it. The areas I want to focus have row for each week and I’ve inserted the tasks I want to accomplish each day. Trust me, it didn’t start out looking this tidy – there was a lot of shifting about before I was able to create some cosmos from the chaos.

And – voila – now I have a plan that I feel good about. Now all those ideas and possibilities that were bouncing around in my head have a place to rest, to hold still long enough for me to prioritize and tackle them.

And this is why I find at least some structure to be more liberating than constricting. It’s the elimination of the moment-to-moment decision-making that is so freeing. Gone too is the nagging worry that I am somehow behind schedule or should be doing something other than what I am doing. Yes, it took a good chunk of my afternoon to figure it all out, but (except for some occasional tweaking) I don’t have to do that again for more than a month (and it’s not like I was getting anything meaningful done anyway). Ultimately, it’s a huge time and stress saver. And it actually gives me energy: this morning I sat down at my desk ready and eager to dive in. All thanks to a grid.

There is no right or wrong planning tool. Whatever system works for you, use it. Do yourself the favor of giving yourself just enough structure to free your mind for the important work at hand.

* * * * * * * * * *

What favorite tools or systems do you use to plan your activities and projects?


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Third Hand Works

from overwhelmed to ready for anything | organization and time management for people in their "right" minds | administrative guidance for independent creative professionals [more info]



© 2008 Cairene MacDonald, Third Hand Works. All Rights Reserved.

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