Better Living Through Tracking My Entire Life in a Spreadsheet – Part Two

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…

What worked?

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.

fiction-numbers

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:

meditation-numbers

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”:

failure-numbers

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. 

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Better Living Through Tracking My Entire Life in a Spreadsheet – Part One

“You can’t get clean by continuing to wallow in the mud.”

pig

I may have coined this phrase…or I may have purloined it from another writer – potentially Orwell or E.B. White. I’m not certain. A quick Google search didn’t result in any clear signs of theft, so perhaps only porcine associations I have with each writer makes me think I stole it.

At any rate, I repeat this saying to myself frequently. Too often I forget the necessity of removing myself from a situation in order to see it clearly. It’s vital to admit to and examine a problem before I can ever be equipped to solve it.

This February I flew to the other side of the world with one of my best friends. We spent a week in Vietnam, a week in Myanmar, and a couple days in Bangkok, Thailand, before returning to New York. It was a great adventure, my first visit to Asia, and a chance to get away from the routine of my everyday life. Being thousands of miles away from home, I had time away to step out of the mud and see where I needed to get clean.

How happy was I with my life? In which areas was I doing well? Which areas did I want to improve? Like the many Buddha statues we saw in Bagan, I reflected. I sought enlightenment.

buddhaAnd what “enlightenment” did I come away with? The overarching takeaway was that I wanted to take control of my emotions through action, thereby improving the quality of my life. I felt too often preoccupied with things outside my control, which caused unnecessary distress. I wanted instead to do things that made me happy and helped me focus on what I could control. Doing so would free my mind of worry and anxiety and empower me to be more creative, more focused, more present. 

Which actions did I decide to focus on? For one, also much like the Buddha, I wanted to start meditating. Seems like I see dozens of tweets and articles about its benefits every single day. And I wanted to get back into shape. Following a shoulder dislocation in July 2015, I was finally recovered enough to hit the weights again. And I wanted to practice daily gratitude, something I flirted with late in 2015. And most importantly, I wanted to write a page of fiction everyday.

The writing was priority. I’ve always had talent. What I’ve never had, however, was discipline. Writing papers in high school about Shakespeare and the Renaissance didn’t require much discipline. I knocked them out with only a few minor revisions. My talent carried me. However, I had no stamina. How could I ever realize my dream of writing books without the discipline to work on a story from page one to page n? Wasn’t going to happen.

Discipline is key. I need to write every single day, no matter what. It doesn’t matter whether what I write is good, whether I feel like it, whether it’s sunny or raining outside. All that matters is that I get the page done. The page can be, and probably will be, absolutely terrible, but I can fix it later.

(I attempted to learn discipline specific to fiction in 2014, when I wrote a novel draft in a calendar year. [A draft, by the way, which shall never see the light of day.] This time, though, I needed a system to ensure I wrote that daily page. Given the other things I wanted to implement and track, a spreadsheet would do the trick. After all, “what gets measured, gets managed.”)

I started my spreadsheet after returning from Asia, logging these items on a daily basis:

  • Meditation
  • Gratitude board
  • Daily fiction
  • Nightly journal
  • Run
  • Gym

This is what it looked like:

sheet-2

I started with these seven things and over the course of this year added a few more activities. Additions included:

  • Bike rides
  • Daily blogging for 15 minutes
  • What I eat for each meal
  • Taking my lunch to work

Why focus on these activities as opposed to the multitude of others?

Daily fiction

I’m a writer. It’s integral to my identity. I’ve written my whole life, and it’s key to how I understand the world. Only in the past year or two, however, have I started earnestly pursuing fiction writing. It’s my dream to write and publish books, specifically novels.

The only way to get better at writing is to do it daily. Tracking my fiction writing in my sheet helped me link pleasure to the getting-done of the daily fiction. When I miss a day and have to mark the cell red, I feel bad. I feel like I let myself down. I feel as though I have to make up for it the next day, and indeed I do. By end of year, I will have approximately 270 pages of a novel draft complete. It may not be good, but it’s done. 2017 will be for making it better.

Gratitude Board

I started my Gratitude Trello Board in December 2015 and continued it this year. Here’s a template that you can copy and use. At the start of each month, I have three lists for that month. The main month list has a card for each day of the month. Here’s what it looks like:

trello board 1.png

Each day, I write three things I am grateful for, then move the card to the “Done” list, after which I mark my spreadsheet with an “X.” If I miss a day, I move the card to “Missed” and mark that day’s cell on my sheet red. (Again, red = no fun.)

I linked to the Trello board from my sheet, so I could more easily remember and navigate to that day’s card. At first I missed a lot of days (as you can see above, I only hit 61% in January, whereas I completed 83% in November), but now this is an ingrained part of my morning routine. By focusing on what I had instead of what I didn’t have, I learned to be more cognizant of just how many great people are in my life and how many wonderful experiences I’ve had. I live a privileged life, and practicing gratitude reminded me of that and helped me be less of a miserable son-of-a-bitch.

Running/Gym/Bike Rides

armAfter dislocating my shoulder in the Catskills in what I like to call the Great River Tubing Debacle of 2016 (the aftermath of which is at left), I couldn’t lift weights. My left shoulder and chest muscles atrophied. My belly ballooned. I couldn’t run, either, so I felt both lethargic and anxious to get outside and do something. During this time I realized that exercise is a keystone habit for me. I have to exercise in order to be happy with other parts of my life. For me, it’s non-negotiable. Going to the gym twice a week (early Tuesday and Friday mornings) was an achievable schedule, and paired with running 1-2 days per week, I got back into presentable shape. Bike rides were and are mostly for fun and not tracked too seriously. I log them whenever I get out and cruise around Brooklyn with friends.

Nightly Journal

Similar to my gratitude board and times of large self-reflection, I wanted to institute nightly journaling to reflect at the end of each day. Each night I write three things that were positive about the day, three things that could have been better, and three things I need to do or am looking forward to the next day. The three positives help me focus on what I have and what I am grateful for. The three negatives force me to think about why they happened and to focus on what is within my control and my response to things outside of my control. The three next-day things help me focus on the “to-accomplish” list for the next day, giving me something to work towards as a means of progressing towards larger, long-term goals.

I track each as it makes sense. For example, shooting for one page of fiction a day, I use a percentage of pages completed against number of days in the month. But for bike rides I am only going to get a few in each month, so a raw total is sufficient.

At the end of each month, I calculate how many times I did each activity, providing a snapshot of what’s working and what’s not. Adding new activities is often painful, but I have found that after tracking the activity for a month or two results in high percentage-complete stats and a successfully adopted new habit. There are only so many days I can mark cells red in my spreadsheet without feeling so badly about it that I re-double my efforts to implement the activity in my daily life – or else cut it out altogether.

This is a glimpse into why I started tracking my life in a spreadsheet (a practice that at least one friend and one former lover characterized as “pretty OCD”) and what I decided to track and why. In part two, I’ll dig into what worked – and what didn’t – over the course of 2016, as well as what I’ll keep doing in 2017 and how I’ll tweak my tracking, schedule, and activities to improve the quality of my life.