I manage my entire life in spreadsheets.
There’s my daily log, a savings planner, monthly review checklists, reading lists, project trackers, trip plans, and (lest you think this wasn’t nerdy enough) Madden and FIFA video game tournaments I’ve organized.
You name it, I have a spreadsheet for it.
The crisp, orderly black lines against that brilliant expanse of white are a salve for the chaos of my life. I love spreadsheets so much I honestly don’t know what I would do without them.
Sometimes though, this affinity for spreadsheets leads to an over-dependence on what I call “spreadsheet logic”.
Spreadsheet logic is reasoning that makes sense inside the comforting confines of orderly cells, but it doesn’t always hold up in reality.
Like the time I began building a new budget for our family based on a job offer I was considering. I found myself getting more and more excited as I added columns for vacations and home improvements that the salary of the new role would hopefully afford.
Then I took the job and absolutely hated it for reasons that were obvious in hindsight. I had been so wrapped up in the euphoria of my new budget that I failed to consider whether or not I actually wanted the job.
Spreadsheet logic is borrowing money to invest in cryptocurrency because the “math checks out”. It’s convincing yourself you can afford an expensive new car because of the incremental gas mileage savings you found with a complex formula. It’s constantly tinkering and beautifying a home improvement plan spreadsheet instead of, you know, beautifying your home.
Plenty of actually great ideas don’t make sense in a spreadsheet.
Personal finance expert Dave Ramsey is famous for his “Debt Snowball Method”. The idea is to list all your debts and pay them off in order of smallest balance to largest. Spreadsheet logic (and basic math) would dictate tackling your debt with the highest interest rate first, but in reality the quicker payoffs of the snowball create an emotional and psychological reward that motivates you to keep going.
Sometimes spreadsheet logic leads to the correct course of action, while concealing the difficulty of enacting it.
I recently helped a company with a layoff. They had tried for months to make the necessary changes to avoid it, but eventually the math was clear—reduce headcount dramatically or the company wasn’t going to survive.
There was no longer any debating it so we worked diligently (mostly in spreadsheets) to formulate a plan for the layoffs. No one was thrilled about it of course, but we were confident our plan was sound.
As I sat across from real humans and shared devastating news that upended their lives, spreadsheets were the farthest thing from my mind. What seemed so logical the day before was gut-wrenching in the face of the justifiable hurt and anger that comes with any layoff.
Spreadsheet logic is seductive because it promises order and certainty—things we all crave. But life is messier than a spreadsheet and often defies logic of any sort.
I’ll always love spreadsheets, but I know there are some formulas they just can’t solve.
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