2016 is over. Let’s all rejoice. Only Chance the Rapper had a truly fantastic year.
While I think New Year Resolutions rarely work, what can work is using 2016 data to inform the future. Now, onto the data…
Thanks to spreadsheet tracking, I successfully completed a novel draft this year. It’s around 270 pages, as I mentioned in Part One, and while I am proud the end result, I’m more proud of the daily work I put in.
Each day I held myself accountable to write one page, feeling a sense of accomplishment as I marked it off in my sheet. I saw daily that I was making progress toward my long-term goal. Without the spreadsheet to see daily success in black and white – and without the occasional pain of seeing a red cell when I missed a day – chances are I would not have done the work to get to 270.
Below are my month-over-month fiction completion rates for 2016. Except for small dips in November and December, which can be attributed to holiday travel, my completion rates grew each month.
Similarly, I ingrained meditation into my daily schedule. It took a month to make meditation a habit – which is about average – but after the first month I never fell below 70% for the rest of the year. Now if I go more than 2 or 3 days without meditating, I feel edgy. My focus fades. I’m less able to separate my thoughts from reality. I am more irritable and less patient. By tracking meditation in my sheet, I made it a habit, carving out space each morning for quiet “me” time. Meditation has paid me huge psychological, emotional, and spiritual dividends, and I wouldn’t stop doing it even if you paid me monetary dividends. Below are my completion rates:
Going to the gym: I’ll count it as a success, with the caveat that there’s lots of room for improvement. Tracking gym visits got me into a rhythm of getting up early two days a week to lift weights. Although my gym success rates varied each month way more than writing or meditation, I went to the gym a lot more last year than in 2015. (Sometimes just showing up is over half the battle.) Now that I’m in the routine of going 2-3 days each week, I have a foundation to build on.
Keeping a nightly journal and a daily gratitude board were dynamite successes. My completion rates were high for both – so high that I won’t bore you with them – but the real benefits are less tangible. The true benefits of writing down things I’m thankful for, of less than 5 minutes of daily reflection, can’t be seen in a spreadsheet. The spreadsheet helped me make these practices into habits, but the habits themselves have more qualified rather than quantified results. I’ve mellowed out and am more able to concentrate on the good in my life. I’m more aware and appreciative of my loving family, great friends, and an overarching sense of purpose. My life is chock-full of privilege that so many people may never experience. Appreciating what I have, and not worrying about what I don’t, helps me focus on how I can help others.
What didn’t work?
I fell short on blogging every day. My goal was to write for my blog 15 minutes each day, but it was easy to not do the work, perhaps in part because of the several ideas I had going at any given time. With too many early drafts floating around, it was easy to work on nothing due to lack of focus. A timed approached – as opposed to a daily page allotment like I instituted with fiction writing – could have also been partially responsible for my failure.
I also never got into a regular running routine. I only tracked running on an ad hoc basis, with no established specific race or distance goal. I’ll be gunning for a spot in the Brooklyn Half this year, and if I get in, I’ll use the May 20 race date as the obvious achievement to inform a weekly running schedule.
Last, I failed at taking my lunch to work. I’d like to implement this to increase cost effectiveness of Blue Apron and other meals I cook at home, but I know why I didn’t make it a habit. The thing is, I love the daily novelty of leaving my office with coworkers to buy lunch. I enjoy the camaraderie that comes from debating Shake Shack versus Sweetgreen each day.
To keep myself honest, and in case you are interested, here’s the data for these “failures”:
Why did the spreadsheet help – or not?
I’m fascinated by the psychology behind tracking all these items in a spreadsheet.I touched upon this in Part One. Why did a spreadsheet help me implement activities that help me live a more fulfilling life? By accounting each day for each activity with a “Yes” or “No” reinforced whether I was actually doing the activity or not. This is what Tony Robbins has written about linking specific behaviors to Pleasure or to Pain.
Robbins states, and I agree, that all of life boils down to two things: Pleasure and Pain. We do things to either gain pleasure or avoid pain. Prior to tracking daily fiction, I wanted to write, but I wasn’t actually doing it every single day. Facing the blank page and the blinking cursor each morning was unpleasant, so I linked pain to writing fiction. My anticipation of that pain made it easy to put the work off. Days of putting the work off added up, and soon months had gone by and I hadn’t written a word of fiction.
In contrast, after I started tracking daily fiction progress in my sheet, I made it a habit by changing the emotion linked to the action. Was it difficult? At first, yes, it was very difficult. But after several weeks of marking “X” in my sheet on the Daily Fiction row, I felt rewarded. It was pleasing to see all the Xs all neat in a row, pretty as ducks. My brain sought the pleasure of the daily X, and it was no longer a question whether I would write a page each day. It started to feel too good to not do it.
Similarly, when I skipped a day at the gym I had to mark that day’s cell red. Marking these cells red felt bad. Say I skipped working out because I wanted another hour of sleep. At first sleeping longer was linked to pleasure, but later, when I forced myself to look at my sheet and fill in the cell with red, I regretted it. Sleeping later and skipping the gym made me feel like I was undercutting my goals. Hitting snooze = giving up on myself.
Soon, when the alarm went off at 6:00 am on a cold, dark morning, I thought less about how good it would feel to stay in bed and more about how bad it would feel to mark that day’s cell red. (I skipped the gym the morning of this writing, by the way, and typing this section feels makes me prickle with disappointment.)
Someone once told me that “even false motivation is motivation.” (This someone went on to become an Army Ranger, so I give him credence.) Tracking activities I want to implement in my life has been the most effective way of forming new habits, changing behaviors through the Pleasure-or-Pain principle, and making myself happier because of these new behaviors.
What will I change in 2017?
This year I’ll have to change my daily fiction work. Since the novel draft is done, I now need to let it sit for a while before editing it. My daily work won’t be writing but rather redlining, reconfiguring the narrative arc, and other ancillary necessities to move the project forward. I’ll still mark my sheet “Yes” or No,” but I’ll need to better plan ahead to know exactly what I need to accomplish each day.
I’ve changed my exercise schedule to allow for more running days. Providing I get a spot in the Brooklyn Half, I’ll run three days each week, balancing it with a couple gym visits. Now that I’ve proven I can get out of bed for the gym two days a week, changing my regular gym days won’t be as difficult as going from zero to two last January.
I’m proud of the work I did last year to take charge of my schedule as a means to a more fulfilling life. I realized that I’m responsible for my life – my happiness, my health and fitness, my contentment with my career, relationships, and finances. No one is going to make these changes for me. Ownership was a key theme for me last year, and as 2017 starts, I feel more grounded, more sure, more equipped than I was a year ago.
Which is all to say I think the spreadsheet works.