If your life were an Excel spreadsheet, what would be in its columns and its rows?

This question occurred to me while volunteering in an administrative position at a local non-profit agency for the aging. The organization had recently sent out an appeal letter asking for donations to help support aging well in our island community. As is the case with any sort of bulk mailing, letters were returned for incomplete or incorrect addresses, changes of residence, and, in some cases, deaths during the previous year.

Upon arriving at the center this day, I was handed a hefty stack of envelopes that had been returned for the various reasons mentioned above. It was my assignment to edit the organization’s mailing list on an Excel spreadsheet so that future mailings would have a lower return rate from the post office. It wasn’t until I got to the bundle labeled “Delete” that I realized that a sizable number of the previous year’s elder members and donors had passed away.

A variety of notes were scrawled across the face of the returned envelopes to denote a person’s passing: Deceased . . . No longer alive . . . Departed the planet . . . My father transitioned in July . . . Bertie died this year. This sort of thing. One envelope was as succinct as it could be: This person is dead.

My task was to find each person on the spreadsheet, delete the contact information from the mailing list, draw a line through the address label on the face of envelope to indicate the edit had been taken care of, and then build a new stack of envelopes to my left to be deemed “Done & Entered.”

As I deleted, crossed out, and placed envelopes on the “Done & Entered” stack, something overpowering came over me, amplifying my awareness of what I was actually doing. As I highlighted a row with someone’s name and clicked on the Delete Sheet Rows in the top ribbon of commands, I felt like I was dishonoring an important and essential life with the irreverent blitheness of a keystroke. It was reducing someone’s lifetime contributions to a thoughtless Delete command.

I stopped. I looked at the stack of envelopes already piled in the “Done & Entered” stack and started over with my handling of each envelope with a different sense of care. As I read each person’s name and address, I wondered what kind of life he or she had experienced. Were they musicians, artists, welders, teachers, truck drivers, writers, baristas, chocolatiers? Public figures, homemakers, philanthropists, grocery clerks? Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, husbands, wives?  Did they have families and pets who missed them?

As I looked at each envelope in the stack, I sent their families, friends, and loved ones my sympathies and hoped that they were coping with their grief from losing a loved one. After each of these mini-celebrations of life, I would draw a big heart around each address label with a pink highlighter and put the envelope back on the stack that I was now labeling “Honored.”

Delete Sheet Rows . . . During my walk later that afternoon, the Excel entry work from the morning stayed with me. I started to wonder: If my life were an Excel spreadsheet, what would be in its columns and its rows? Later that evening when the house was quiet, I pulled up Excel on my laptop.

How to Journal with an Excel Spreadsheet

Across the top row of the spreadsheet, I randomly labeled boxes with my priority categories: people, dreams, goals, favorite activities, work, projects, etc. There was nothing organized or prioritized with this labeling. I just tabbed and listed what was near and dear to me across the top row. I eventually had to rein myself in as I realized how impossibly far my columns were stretching to the east. Having to tab ad infinitum to the right was not going to make future journaling fun, so I started to organize columns into broad categories.

As I categorized my columns, it became clear that the spreadsheet was turning into a focus wheel – only in the form of a graph. Eventually, by condensing the number of columns to eight, I was able to really focus on what I want to prioritize this next year.

After skipping the first column to allow for listing my activities and such in the rows below, my focus categories were labeled across the top line in columns two-nine:

  1. relationships
  2. health & exercise & outdoors
  3. dreams & goals
  4. music & art
  5. awareness & mindfulness
  6. writing
  7. play & fun
  8. learning

I then started to list activities, creative efforts, wants, dreams, and conceptualizations down the first column on the left that I had left for “actions & experiences.” (Examples: go to spin class, play mandolin, call my big brother, meditate, take Bronte to the beach, finish writing chapter three, do an acrylic pour, etc.)

I then typed a number “1” into each box across the row below each priority column corresponding with what this “action” row item incorporated. This was to allow for auto-summing the eight columns later so I could assess my “tangibility” of focus; the totals would reveal any imbalance, preferences, etc.  For example, an afternoon of painting ceramic pots at a local pottery shop with my two best friends translated into entering a “1” across the row under six columns: relationships, dreams & goals (we talked a lot about this topic as we painted), music & art, awareness & mindfulness (another great part of the afternoon), play & fun, and learning. That is a lot of boxes!

How I Use Auto-Sum to Plan and Prioritize

At the end of each week, I look at my auto sum and write a few reflective notes to myself:

I realize how much time I have been spending alone with my dog and with myself. I have had a contemplative week and it looks like it has also been a playful and fun one as well.

Also, although I have been social during the week, the contrast with my alone time in my auto sum inspires me to pick up the phone and call my sister in Arizona for a nice long catch-up call.

Another glaring thing I see is that any time spent binge-watching Netflix or Hulu is time that does not further any of my priority goals or dreams. “Relaxing” as it is, it’s time to eliminate or severely limit the binge-watching and spend my time doing something else that feels more satisfying and rewarding.

And wow! The glaring thing that pops out the most is that although I say that I want to dedicate myself to working on my writing project . . . well, it just isn’t happening. Not at all. This inspires some scheduling of dedicated writing time for the next week . . . along with a bit more time devoted to friends and family.

This is not to say that the important things in life can be numbered, totaled, assessed, and valued using auto-sum. Rather, the use of Excel to journal serves as a pretty good snapshot of how I have been choosing to spend my time and inspires me in making decisions going forward.

Results and Discoveries

Research shows that engaging in reflection will boost and grow your memory and enrich the quality of the experience. I discovered that the recording and the categorizing of my experiences on the spreadsheet served as this enhancing reflection. And to carry it forward, by having these columns of focus spread out on an Excel spreadsheet, I could really embrace and grow my awareness of what was undeniably my life’s priorities and remind myself to stay focused and balanced.

By looking at – and really studying – the spreadsheet, I began to feel a renewed motivation to make my life feel engaged and rewarding and balanced . . . and not just let it slip into what has been a tendency to become “default mode.” For example, I pushed myself to organize a fun activity to do with friends that involved seven of the columns. While the goal is not about simply checking off all the boxes, it is about paying attention to what makes life feel balanced by incorporating preferences into memorable moments.

What really came out of my “Study in Excel” is I realized how long it had been since I had taken the time “to plan” inspiring moments into my life and “to follow through” by becoming more proactive and conscious about how globally some of these feel-good times blessed my life.

It showed that I had been slipping into the role of a passive talker – and sometimes complainer – and not an active do-er. I had somewhere along life’s timeline given myself permission to succumb to the numbing acceptance of “whatever” and was ignoring any prompts of self-dissatisfaction to take more control of my choices in life – inspiring me to steer my time into my Priority Columns of 8 and beyond.

This process of Excelling my life has surpassed my initial curiosity that first night of musing and journaling. This exercise has grown to guide, to inspire, and to humble me. My name and address on an envelope may someday become a Delete Sheet Rows keystroke in an organization’s mailing list . . . but to the people who are important to me? I want them to see their names and our shared experiences listed over and over on my life’s spreadsheet and to understand and to feel the beautiful meaning that their essence, time, and love have infused into my life.

Truth, we are far, far more than the sum of any rows and columns on a spreadsheet. It is the little things in living that make for a life fulfilled. By living a life infused with more intention and connecting the dots between relationships and actions, we can better appreciate the time that we have during our time on planet Earth and with the people we love.

Kennedy Farr is a daily writer and blogger, a lifelong learner, and a true believer that something wonderful is happening right now in this very moment. Her passion for writing first caught light at the age of four when she learned how to write her dog’s name on a sheet of lined tablet paper. Kennedy lives high on the mountainside of a tranquil island in the Pacific Northwest. You can connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Image courtesy of Nicole Honeywill.