6 Ways You Can Use Spreadsheets To Change The Way You Think

(This was first published in Thought Catalog.)

I will never forget the day, six years ago, that I received a phone call saying I was rejected from the Loran Scholarship. As one of Canada’s most prestigious programs, it essentially gives students a free ride to any university in the country. I knew, like many, that my family wouldn’t be able to support the pursuit of college, so this scholarship would have been my golden ticket. The director informed me that my extracurricular activities (doing solar energy research, competing in international science fairs – but not winning them, being the CEO of a small business, blah blah overachiever stuff…) weren’t diverse or interesting enough. They decided to nominate another candidate from Alberta who was more well-rounded than me.

I had been rejected from many things before, but this time, the loss almost destroyed me. The idea of my family having to sell our house or go into deep debt terrified me. I thought this opportunity was one of very few chances I would have at a better future that would allow me to get out of my hometown. I remember sitting on the couch for a few days – my parents even let me skip school – just moping as I watched television and mindlessly browsed the Internet. I seriously considered joining the Canadian Forces so I would be able to afford college. I ate a lot of junk food. I cried a lot. It felt like the apocalypse was happening. It took weeks before the awful knot in my stomach untangled itself, and months before I actually felt like myself again.

In hindsight, I recognize now that I had no coping mechanisms to organize my emotions, which is what made it so difficult to move forward. It took a long time before I began formulating a new plan of action. I eventually went on to receive other scholarships to fund my post-secondary studies, applying for them with renewed determination. Even though the Loran judges felt at the time that I didn’t exemplify their values of “commitment to service and an entrepreneurial spirit”, this didn’t have to become my reality. I realized could prove them wrong, but it took me far too long to rebound from that disappointment.

As a 20-something young adult going through the ups and downs of life, there have been many other moments afterwards that I handled equally as poorly: plenty of rejections from fellowships/scholarships/competitions/colleges, getting kicked out of an organization I cared a lot about, receiving feedback telling me that my ideas were meaningless, losing a close friend due to irreconcilable differences…

Although there are many highs in my life, I grew increasingly frustrated with how the lows always knocked me down so severely. Crappy things inevitably happen to all of us, but I had always struggled with accepting and moving on from them. The final straw was when I was recently dumped by someone who I thought had serious potential to be my lifelong partner after a long-term relationship. I was devastated, and I knew something had to change with the way I was handling disappointment. How could I manage my emotions and develop a mental framework for staying positive and resilient, instead of letting my grief and bitterness consume me for extended periods of time?

I decided to utilize my love of organization to help rebuild myself. I had been using spreadsheets on a daily basis for the past year to track my diet, exercise and productivity, so why not use them to improve my emotional recovery process? I knew time heals all wounds, but what if there were ways that I could ease the pain in the meantime, while still allowing myself to emotionally acknowledge and process what happened?

Below, I have shared spreadsheet templates that I used in different phases of my emotional journey. I don’t currently use all of these at the same time – my spreadsheet formatting has evolved over time as my needs and habits changed. I typically have 1-2 consolidated spreadsheets so I don’t have to flip back and forth between different documents. Based on a few months of trial and error, here are some tactics I honed over time to help me deal with crappy stuff:

1. Observe when your mood swings happen, and schedule activities accordingly. For example, I noticed that I would get particularly sad/excessively existentialist in the late afternoons, so I started planning to either watch a movie, nap, hang out with friends, or do something that would cheer me up during that time of the day, rather than trying to pointlessly force myself to get work done. It was important for me to learn how to manage my expectations.

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2. Nap to reset your mood. One friend compared napping to the “battery pull” you do to hard reset your cell phone when it’s frozen. Time the naps to when you are feeling at your worst.

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3. Keep track of what you’ve learned. I realized that I was getting sucked into very negative thought cycles while listening to instrumental music on my 20-minute commutes to work, or when I had to wait in silence in long lines at the grocery store, and I would end up extremely sad. So I decided to turn this into an educational opportunity by listening to podcasts/TED talks/videos/etc. – anything that had someone else’s words in it – whenever I was left alone with my thoughts for a little too long. It helped to focus on someone else’s voice and what they were talking about, instead of my own thoughts. I then kept track of the takeaways so I could apply them to my life moving forward, both personally and professionally.

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4. Lean on the people in your support network, but cycle through different friends on different days/weeks to ensure that you don’t wear them down or excessively burden them. I am a highly emotional person who heals the most when I am openly sharing my feelings and fears with my loved ones, so this was very necessary for me.

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5. Write down your first positive thought when you wake up in the morning. Let it be your mantra for the day. I wrote Quotes of the Day on my whiteboard in my room, shared some of them with close friends, and recited them to myself whenever I was feeling self-doubt. At the end of the day, I recorded each mantra in my spreadsheet so that I would be able to reflect on old ideas and continue building upon them with each new day.

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6. Reframe negative thoughts you have about others’ intentions into positive ones to better understand the situations around you. This concept sounds obvious in principle, but I initially found myself rolling my eyes and just thinking “Oh, of course people mean well.” To push myself to take this more seriously, I started writing the reframes down. Having to form coherent sentences forced me to genuinely internalize the positive idea.

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The difference between the post-rejection couch potato I was six years ago and the me who now uses spreadsheets to make sense of my emotions and thoughts is huge. Chronicling my emotional journey in such a clear, incremental way has been incredibly empowering. It’s not about the data I’m logging – I don’t claim to be making statistically significant observations about my life at all. (This is not intended to be some sort of Quantified Self lifelogging project, although that is a field I am quite interested in.) The reason spreadsheeting is so powerful for me is because I can really feel that each and every cell I am updating brings me one step closer to finding myself again.

Spreadsheeting is my way of journaling and reflecting on the progress I’ve made. On days when I feel discouraged because it feels like life will never get any better, I scroll through my spreadsheets and see how much I have learned every day. I see how my average mood rating has gone up over time. I see how many positive thoughts I have had lately. Tracking my progress gives me the courage to keep working towards something awesome.

I hope that some of these ideas might be useful to someone else going through a tough time. However, it is important to build your own routine and mental framework, rather than just copying someone else’s. Spreadsheets aren’t for everyone, but I highly recommend finding a way to keep ideas and emotions organized. Sometimes, it helps.

The pain we are going through right now is worth the greatness we can achieve later.

[Thank you to Janine Chan, Kathy Lu and Eric Dolan for their excellent editing!]