In Defense of Spreadsheets

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve listened to a lot of people freak out about managing their workloads. It got me thinking about how I juggle running my copywriting business, managing the St. Pete branch of Dr. Sketchy’s, editing Jack Move Magazine, and being a wife and a homeowner without completely losing my mind.

This is my system of organization. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

As a left-brained creative, I get a lot of funny looks when I talk about how I get things done. I don’t sit in silence and commune with the universe until its creative energies flow through me. I don’t drink a lot of absinthe and find inspiration in my altered state. I plan. I schedule. I spreadsheet. (Uh yeah, I do it enough that I’m making it a verb. Editor’s privilege.)

I’ve had plenty of people laugh at me for this. It’s not sexy to plan ahead. I’m not an actual artist unless I let my creative urges take over and run my life on their own schedule. But here’s the thing: I have bills. A husband. A mortgage. A dog. If I wait around for inspiration to strike and then ride the wave until it’s spent, I’m going to be broke, divorced, homeless, and my dog will have eaten half of my foot and peed on the sofa. And I remember those times when I’ve let my creative urges do their own thing…I would come to about two days later in a pile of drool and ramen, covered in charcoal and with half my bangs cut off because they were getting in my face.

When I first started working as a magazine editor, I had zero experience. I’d written a ton in college and had an allergy to bad grammar, but practical publishing experience? Not so much. Within just a couple months of taking the job, I was running four monthly magazines and a collector’s edition series, which came out to something like 325 pages of editorial content every month. It became clear very quickly that I needed to get my shit together or I was going to forget, well, everything.

Spreadsheets are the easiest way for me to get a grip on all the pieces of a project. I list everything I need to do and set deadlines for each piece of it so things don’t get out of control to the point where I have to be a crazy person the day before it’s due. They’re customizable, fairly universal, and you can color-code them to see what’s going on at a glance. Red? I talked to a freelancer about that, but we never made it a formal assignment. I’d better get back to them now. Blue? It’s in my hand and looking good. Take a breath.

Before you freak out about The Man micromanaging your life, stop for a second and think of the last big project you had to deal with. Maybe it was a party you organized, or a gallery show you were part of. I’ll bet you made lists on some envelope you found. Grocery lists, reminders to invite your sister’s new boyfriend, a rundown of all the paintings you needed to finish. And I’ll bet you lost that envelope a couple times and freaked out. If you’d spreadsheeted your to-do list, you could have hopped on your computer or your phone, planned out when you needed to get things done, and scheduled time to get lost in making decorations or finishing one last painting for that big, empty gallery wall. I, for one, write best between 1 and 4 a.m. If I plan that into my week, I know not to set a morning meeting for the next day. I can get into the zone, write without forcing it, and then sleep until noon to recover…but only if I plan ahead.

Yeah, I spreadsheet because that’s what lets me lose myself. It’s my safety harness, letting me get all distracted and creative and covered in charcoal or immersed in writing without forgetting to pay the mortgage or finish the project that’s paying the bills. I map out what needs to be done and when, set up reminders in my phone, and allow myself to forget everything. (I like Astrid, because I feel less nagged when it’s a pink octopus reminding me what I have to do. Also, you can send tasks to other people…like my brother, who had Astrid tell me it was time to make him a sandwich in the middle of my Dr. Sketchy’s Grand Opening.) It might sound like micromanaging to some people, but I freaking love forgetting everything and using that extra space in my brain to focus on what I’m doing right now, not what I need to have done by 3:00 tomorrow. At the risk of sounding like the High Priestess of the Church of Excel, spreadsheeting my life lets me be present in the moment. It also keeps me from giving myself micro bangs, which, let’s be honest, only look good on Shannyn Sossamon.

Do you have a system that works for you? Are you a die-hard envelope list-writer? Want to express some spreadsheet solidarity? Tell me about it!

Photo by Flickr user MrsMerryMack, used under a Creative Commons license.

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8 Responses to In Defense of Spreadsheets

  1. Kerry Topjun says:

    Once again you make it all so straightforward and simple… (and made me laugh out loud in the process!). I have to say that the thought of a schedule and a spreadsheet make me cringe a little. But for as many times as I’ve unsuccessfully tried to be more organized, I might just have to give it a shot. Maybe this would finally help to eliminate multiple lists (on scrap paper, index cards, in notebooks) and the piles of “organized chaos” that perpetually reside on my desk (I do know where everything is – for the most part). And it sounds like it might give me more time and space to get lost in being creative… Which is all I really want anyway.

    • Katie says:

      Oh, thanks Kerry!
      If I hadn’t been forced into getting organized at the magazines (talk about a trial by fire), I guarantee I would’ve felt the same way. I mean, I loved spreadsheets for organizing and analyzing data before that, but it didn’t seem like it would transition into my life in any useful sort of way. And yes, I do still have some of that “organized chaos” on my desk…but when things make it to my spreadsheet, I don’t forget to do them, but I don’t have to use my brainspace to remember where I put the piece of paper that’s supposed to remind me. I could never let go enough to be creative and get lost in a project without that safety net.

  2. Pj Schott says:

    There’s a lot to be said for spreadsheets. They even have spreadsheet apps for my iPhone now. Great article … THANK YOU!!

  3. Katie,

    You are an AWESOME writer! #thatwouldbeall

    • Katie says:

      Thanks, Nichole! That’s awfully nice of you to say.

      • Alfitri says:

        Google media tools are definitely very hufelpl. I am starting my journey through social media and I am using Google reader to subscribe to blogs I find interesting. Google docs is a tool I began to use last semester to keep track of all the documents in my team, we also used it as a communication tool. I would recommend for anyone that is not using any of these great services that Google offers, to start using them. They are great to manage time and information and I plan to continue using them.

  4. I really resonated with this post. Spreadsheets are the only reason I stay sane — with bartending, tutoring and writing, every item necessary for success has to be neatly tagged and sorted into a manageable list and corresponding spreadsheet. Splitting the digital and paper divide helps me to concretely sort my life, then entering it on the spreadsheet helps me to organize the details. It’s good to know that others are the same kind of crazy I am!

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