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Spreadsheets for the mind…

As is often the case in life, things get complicated. Whether we’re considering a difficult scenario at work or trying to make sense of things in our personal lives (or both), there can be a dizzying array of factors to consider when contemplating taking an action with the goal of achieving long-term positive outcomes.

We can find ourselves in an “emotional gridlock,” where the simple act of considering what to do next can lead to analysis paralysis. It may seem easier (or even necessary) to think about something else, seek escapist outlets and “deal with it later,” or even to take the first action that seems “good enough” and hope for the best.

A glass of wine here and there, that spontaneous trip overseas, even something that may seem healthy such as working it out at the gym may be good “soul food” in some circumstances, but it’s not always sustainable and in many instances, the core problems continue to extend their reach into all corners of life in sometimes quite a damaging fashion.

In attempting to solve the longer-term issues, the question I keep coming back to is: How can I find a deeper sense of fulfilment?

Emotion by the numbers?

Over the years, especially when faced with potentially life-changing challenges, I’ve turned to various tools and methods more commonly used in solving business or technical problems, such as spreadsheets and a mix of quantitative and qualitative analysis.

I’ve provided a link to a blank template here. Simply make a copy to start using it. If there’s any interest, I’ll consider building an app as my next personal project.

This might seem counter-intuitive from an emotional perspective; how can we quantify feelings?

As with many forms of analysis, we can either start from the bottom and work our way up, looking at all the variables and trying to tie them together into a cohesive vision, or we can start from the top, outlining an ideal end state and breaking down the problem into more detail until there’s enough confidence to proceed with a decision.

Throw emotion into the mix however, and it can be difficult to tell which way is up and which way is down. Thoughts seem bounce off one another indefinitely, and each seems as important as the last.

My first step is to list these thoughts out. Whether they’re goals, fears, life principles or values, being able to simply identify and write each down makes it a tangible object, something we can measure and compare.

Once identified, I can rank each value according to its importance to me, personally. This exercise helps identify my “Pillars,” those values that need to be nourished in order to foster a longer-term satisfaction.

The next stage in the process maps out how well I’ve been supporting my pillars. While ostensibly an exercise in numbers, each correlation is a moment to pause and consider if I’ve really been living according to each value, a gap analysis of sorts.

Seeing each pillar and supporting value laid out clearly in front of me, I can then start to list out strategic thoughts toward strengthening that support.

This culminates in a task list of actionable items, things I can put in my calendar and actually do, and feel reasonably confident that I’ve taken a step in roughly the right direction.

A subtle disclaimer

I hope this mud-mapping tool can help others as it has helped me, while keeping in mind that it is in no way designed to replace trained professionals or heal the mind. It serves a simple purpose, which is to extract actionable outcomes from what can be at times a tangle of circular logic.

The Spreadsheet

The spreadsheet is divided into 3 tabs, to be completed in order:

Sheet 1 — Value Map

We start by listing out “values.” These are the underlying concerns, life goals and character traits behind the issues we’re faced with. This could be a direct goal from “Financial Security” through to “Active Sex Life,” or a personal outlook such as “Pragmatism” or “Honesty.”

No two people or situations are the same.

Once a fairly solid range of core values are listed out, they can be ranked on a scale of 1–5. Try not to think about whether something feels like a pillar or a personality trait, instead focus on the relative importance to you.

Once you are satisfied, you can move to sheet 2.

Sheet 2 — Fulfilment Map

Pre-filled from the first sheet, pillars will be listed across the top, these are the fundamental areas you’ve identified as being key to your overall sense of satisfaction in life.

Down the left hand side, you’ll see the main motivators and philosophies which should serve to prop up your pillars.

We then place a value from 1 to 5 in each cell, this time answering the question “How much does this philosophy or motivator influence my pillar” with 5 being the strongest, and 1 the weakest support.

As you run through this exercise, you may start to spot patterns and trends. You may find that you have some values which do not feed any pillars. Alternatively, you may find some pillars are left without any supporting values. Are these really your pillars, have you missed any values, or do you need to invest some time in yourself to explore these questions further?

Take as long as is needed, perhaps going back to the values map as you work your way through any of the questions that might be raised as a result of this activity (taking a backup first, as adding new values will skew the following sheets — sorry!)

Once you are happy that you’ve mapped your pillars and supporting values, it’s time to move onto the next sheet.

Sheet 3 — Strategic Thinking

With (hopefully) everything clearly mapped out highlighting the values which matter the most to you, you can start thinking strategically about addressing and supporting your pillars.

Start to list tangible steps and strategies you can plan and act on, whether in work or personal life, taking a holistic approach to addressing all pillars.

You should then be able to schedule these actions realistically so that they are achievable, pinning them to your wall or entering calendar reminders.

This part is all up to you — you will know best what actions are within your power to take, and should now have clarity on what outcomes you hope to achieve.

Final thoughts

We all only ever “know what we know,” so it’s important to understand that this self assessment is unlikely to tell you anything you didn’t already have an awareness of, though it may provide some structure and objectivity and bring focus to certain areas.

On that note, it’s also important to be aware that while the overall framework has the appearance of being objective, the data points are subjective in nature. Whatever you are thinking and feeling right now directly influences the outcome.

By way of example, perhaps you’ve identified “DIVORCE!” as a pillar, but on reflection that may be a heated reaction to a need for romance or building a “meaningful connection”. It can be helpful to take the outcome with a grain of salt, and try to work on it when you’re as relaxed and open minded as possible.

This exercise can be revisited as often as desired to monitor progress, or to reassess if life events uncover or shift your understanding of core values.

As always, while I’ve found this approach valuable in my life, your mileage may vary and if you’re experiencing mental health issues, please seek professional guidance!

I hope this has some value to others.