In my first post-university employed position, I worked for a boss who loved Excel spreadsheets. She thought nearly everything could be put into "boxes and rows", and after my first year working there, I was officially a convert. I'm big on organisation anyway, and those spreadsheet cells called to me, luring me in with their promises of order and clarity. Event planning logistics? I had a spreadsheet for that. Airline and hotel reservations for the office directors? Spreadsheet. Goals for the new fiscal year? Spreadsheet.
Image by Professor Excel
I haven't worked in that office for almost 10 years, but what I learned there about the power of spreadsheets has stayed with me. It's a good thing, too - I have three kids now, and in addition to homeschooling two of them, I also work part-time as a freelance writer. I don't think I could survive motherhood with my sanity intact if I didn't spreadsheet the life out of it.
Parents: If you aren't using Excel to keep the wheels from coming off your day-to-day hustle, you are missing out. Allow me to show you the beauty of a spreadsheet (you can thank me later, when you have a ton of stress-free time on your hands).
It Isn't Just for Budgeting
Sure, you can use Excel to keep track of your monthly or yearly household budget. But in its most basic form, the program is just a series of boxes. Whether you use formulas to calculate the data inside those boxes is entirely up to you.
I put both my freelance work and our family homeschool plans into spreadsheets. I keep track of everything there. But if I have a hectic week ahead, I make a to-do list spreadsheet for that, too, filing different tasks under each weekday. This helps me manage my time efficiently.
School holiday program schedules. Monthly school tuition payments. University application requirements for your teenager. Christmas gift lists and spending goals. Carpool shifts and P&C fundraisers. Got multiple kids in athletics, playing games on three different fields each season? There's a spreadsheet for that.
Use it to manage your kids' camp schedules.
The format of a spreadsheet makes organisation possible even for scatterbrained parents - once you decide what goes where, all you have to do is plug your data into the right boxes. Move them around, make them bigger or smaller, work side to side or up and down. It's adaptable to whatever your particular needs are. I tried bullet journaling, but quickly grew frustrated with the permanence of ink on paper: I couldn't delete or change things without making a mess or tearing out pages.
With journaling, I also had to make sure I carried my physical journal with me literally everywhere. By comparison, the spreadsheet system is highly portable. If you have a Gmail account, you can upload or even create new Excel spreadsheets right in Google Drive and access them anywhere, anytime: On a desktop or laptop, smartphone or tablet. (Editor's note: You can also use Google Sheets from the start, and it's free.) The simplicity of the Excel layout (as opposed to software such as Trello or OneNote) works in its favour; it might be considered old school, but that means even technological Luddites can figure it out - there's no learning curve to overcome.
And while there's no shortage of organisation apps available, most of them are specialised toward one kind of organisation (Remember the Milk for your to-do lists, Cozi for your family calendar). With Excel, you can organise multiple types of content in one central location and avoid skipping across a host of different programs, trying to mentally sync everything together.
It Helps You Manage All the Moving Parts of Family Life
Despite my love of spreadsheets, there are some things that don't necessarily work better in Excel than in a simple notes app or as an email to yourself. A reminder to return your kids' library books before you incur another overdue items fee can be written down virtually anywhere.
What a spreadsheet works best for is any kind of complex cataloguing (that is, things that have more than one moving part). While you can jot down your supermarket list on any old piece of paper, something like weekly meal planning would be much better served in a spreadsheet. You can categorise the day of the week, then fill in the meal itself, a list of necessary ingredients, a link to the recipe online, and any other special notes to save your sanity (such as "take tomorrow's meat out of freezer TONIGHT," lest you find yourself trying to defrost chicken breast at 5:30PM while your impatient family looks on in starvation).
A sample meal plan.
In other words, don't use it to brainstorm a list of places you could go on your family holiday, but definitely use it to plot out the pros and cons of each potential destination, what attractions are there, and how much you might spend on travel and accommodations.
It can help you decide on a holiday spot.
You Can Make It Your Own
Let me give you a quick set of tips for how to really work an Excel spreadsheet like a mother, so it does exactly what you need it to in the least amount of time:
- Use tabs. I don't have 10 different spreadsheet files for my freelance work. I have one master file with eight tabs for all the things I need organised. I only have to open one document, but everything is sorted in a way that makes the info I'm looking for easy to find.
- Bold your headers. Maybe a personal aesthetic choice, but I think putting my category headers in bold (either across the columns, down the rows, or both) makes it easier to find where things need to go.
- Don't overfill your boxes. Part of the beauty of the spreadsheet is its readability - the clean lines are easy on the eyes, and the data can be quickly skimmed. Once you start cramming too much text into individual boxes, though, some of this readability is lost. Limit your information to bite-size pieces.