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Using Spreadsheets for Everything

Porcupine sleeping in a tree

As someone who took his last math class in high school, it’s not been all that often that I’ve had the need to sit down and really crunch some numbers. It’s for this reason that I went almost all of the way through graduate school without really using a spreadsheet. After all, it’s not like using a computer would help me read literature any better, would it?

But knowing at least in the abstract what spreadsheets were capable of doing—but not really having an idea of how they worked—I started using spreadsheets within Google Docs as I began teaching in earnest. My first idea was to use the spreadsheet to help me calculate grades. It took me an hour of fiddling around before I really understood how the formulas worked, but as soon as I could not only plug in all of my students’ numbers and get final grades but also get averages, modes, and medians for each assignment along the way, I was hooked. Since then, I’ve used spreadsheets for far more than just the grades that I need to report.In part it’s because of the fun of watching the numbers churn out. But I’ve found that spreadsheets make for excellent organizational tools as well, simply because they keep their contents nice and ordered. I much prefer spreadsheets to tables in a Word document. (I also prefer rabid porcupines to tables in a Word document, but that’s beside the point.) Here, then, are some of the ways that I’ve used spreadsheets to help organize everything in my life.

  • Taking attendance: I decided that if spreadsheets could help me with my grades, they could also help me keep track of attendance. After each class, I would give students who were present a value of “1.” At the end of the semester, it was the matter of a simple summation to see which students had missed more days than my attendance policy allowed. (These days, I just use the Attendance App for iOS devices.)
  • Travel Budgets: I know that a lot of people keep track of their personal budgets (including their irregular expenses) with finance software, but I know others for whom spreadsheets work just as well. What I’ve found spreadsheets especially good for are short expense budgets, such as when I’m traveling. As soon as I leave on a trip, I create a new spreadsheet in Google Docs, and track all of the expenses there. While I naturally hang on to the receipts for the reimbursement, I find that my spreadsheet makes that process a lot faster.
  • Job Applications: In the three years that I was seriously on the academic “job market,” I created a detailed spreadsheet for managing my applications. Using the ads from the schools, the spreadsheet became a handy, at-a-glance reference for everything I needed to do for a particular school, including due date, the research specialty of the position, the required documents for the application, and the ad’s text itself. Applications that were in process were yellow, and those that were completed were green. In this way, I could tell at a glance where I stood on any application, and I could do useful things like sort all of my schools by the due date of the application.
  • Journal Issues: I recently finished co-editing a special issue of Neo-Victorian Studies on the subject of steampunk. (Go read it, it’s fascinating!) My co-editor and I used a spreadsheet to keep track of where individual articles were in the process of moving between us, the journal’s board, the journal’s readers, and the authors. Complex color-coding again became our friend, and while the spreadsheet eventually became too large to easily read in a glance, we at least knew where all of the information could be found should we need it. And using Google Docs, which various posts at ProfHacker suggest as something we all adore, meant that we could access that information wherever we were.
  • What’s I Install on my Computer: When I moved from a Windows machine to a Mac 2.5 years ago, I wanted to keep my new computer as squeaky clean and shiny as possible. For this reason, I started keeping a list of everything that I installed (and uninstalled) on my computer. I’ve done the same for my laptop, and it’s out there in the Google cloud when I need it.
  • My music backlog: One of the places where I spend my disposable income (which I also track using a spreadsheet) is on music. I’m a lifelong music lover/obsessive. My primary mode of music acquisition over the last five years has been eMusic, which for a long time has been the indie version of iTunes. (I’ll avoid discussing their recent changes to their accounts.) Rather than purchasing music a la carte, however, eMusic provides you with a certain amount of credit that you must use each month. As such, I purchase 3-4 albums a month. But I like to spend a lot of time with each album, and so I don’t always get to each. Since I’m obsessive, however, I decided that I needed to keep track of what I’d bought but hadn’t yet heard, so I could always know what I should/could spin next if I wanted something new. I decided to keep this list in a Google spreadsheet, so I could share it with other people who might be interested.

There’s a few of the ways that I’ve found spreadsheets handy for simplifying what I’ve got to do. Do you use spreadsheets for anything out of the ordinary? Please share your tactics with us in the comments.

[Lead image by Flickr user JunCTionS / Creative Commons licensed]

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