Reprogramming myself with a spreadsheet

Tacking onto existing habits. Starting small. How my daily spreadsheet started and evolved.

Coming out of the chat with my friend on Friday, we decided to start doing weekly goal check-ins with each other. We set up a recurring calendar invite for Sundays as a reminder, and we’ll alternate sending each other an email thread to reflect on last week’s goals, set new goals, and comment on each other’s responses. It’s clear from the first round that we have pretty different styles re: the specifics—and that’s great.

For me, it’s a slight extension to what I already do in an online community. It turns out once you start an accountability mechanism, it’s not hard to loop someone else in. And, pausing for a second to reflect: accountability is perhaps one rare arena where it’s both easy to pay it forward and where you can potentially greatly help someone else.

More generally, it’s a lot easier to tack onto a habit you already have.

Daily happiness

The idea of tacking-onto reminds me of one mechanism that’s helped me evolve myself. It’s a spreadsheet.

Before you roll your eyes, I’ll say this: What’s important is not the specific columns, but that it’s something I do every day, and continually evolve to what I want to help myself appreciate, remember, or do.

The first iteration of this spreadsheet came from a ritual a former partner initiated (and I thank him for this): a spreadsheet where we’d each fill in one thing that made us happy each day. It took about 1 minute each day.

  • Day (e.g. Monday)
  • Date (e.g. 3/17/2022)
  • Happiness (e.g. “Read string quartets all night, with the quartet A— pulled me into.”)

Evolving happiness

Eventually I spun up my own spreadsheet, and over time that “Happiness” column has evolved into a short daily log. I write more in it especially on days I don't do longer-form journaling.

A few specific changes, to illustrate:

  • I started writing down frustrating (un-happy) things that were significant to me personally, in brackets, like "[ - Got annoyed by X...]".
  • In January, I added a line at the top of each entry to describe my sleep, because it was a problem for me for almost the whole month, and I realized that sleep is a subconscious canary for me about whether I’m largely pointed in the direction I want to be.

Reprogramming myself with new columns

More recently, I’ve wanted to reprogram certain things about myself. After moving to live totally by myself for the first time ever (yeah), I started noticing what activities I naturally do not do, or need to reinforce, and added columns for them.

These columns may sound basic, but they reflect natural deficiencies I have to work to overcome. They’ve helped me keep tabs on and avoid falling prey to an introversion that can be good in moderation, but destructive if uncapped.

  • Outside? I put a 🌈 emoji if I go outside, blank otherwise. (No red X, otherwise it'd be too many red X's at this point.) I also mark these days on my calendar in a dedicated color, so I can see the spread over a month.
  • Workout? I put a green check and the # of mins (e.g. "✅ - 20") if I do it; otherwise ❌. I use the red X because I expect to do this every day, or nearly every day.
  • Friends: Names of friends I saw (over Zoom or in person). I also mark friend catchups on my calendar in a dedicated color, so I can see the spread over a month.

I’ve also added one column more as a memory aid than to reinforce activity:

  • Information foraging: Occasionally, I'll put in links/podcasts/media/etc that especially stood out on a day. Or an idea someone said.

Adding color

Recently, I started coloring the cells that were especially significant in some way. Some are yellow; rarely, I mark one orange.

It's cool to be able to scroll down and find those significant days easily. This easy trip down memory lane is an unexpected benefit. I now appreciate it, but didn't set out to create it.

Starting small

The main theme here is that all of this was built up slowly. The smallest, first brick was laid with the first one-sentence, one-minute daily happiness.

The root is just starting, and sticking with it, and continually examining what could be better, and making a change, however small.

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