Time budgets and the impersonal irrelevance of apparent success

In a turn of events that will surprise no one, I use a lot of spreadsheets. Google Sheets tend to be my jam because I don’t have a personal copy of Excel and they’re easy to share. If you’re surprised by my overuse of something boring – please don’t request or look at my reading list. In any case, I find that over the long haul I have coalesced around using these sheets to do dozens of things from sharing a budget template, tracking weight, tracking workouts, creating a sharable backpacking checklist, to predicting future events for decision making.

Goals and spreadsheets

It’s easy to understand why you might pair a goal and a spreadsheet. Anyone who’s looked at SMART goals will understand that you need goals you can measure so you can track progress and understand the progress. Spreadsheets are a great place to compare measurements with goals and track milestones towards greater goals.

The failure modes of goals and spreadsheets

Spreadsheets and goals paired with humans – or at least, this human – are also a fertile ground for a multitude of failure modes. The most tragic such failure mode is the one where you simply have no plans beyond reaching a goal and at this stage you launch yourself into the unknown. This unknown is often the dietary equivalent of Halloween candy binge.

There are too many failure modes to count, but I have a couple more fun examples before we attack the larger scope of my issue with spreadsheets and goals.

The Divide and Conquer failure

The best way to get something done is to work backwards from the goal and divide it into very small, very manageable tasks that require minimal context to execute. The work backwards strategy is timeless, proven, lovable, and sometimes forgotten.

Worse than forgotten, however, is the failure to divide and conquer enough. This is my MO. Present-time me makes tasks that seem perfectly sized and contextualized for future me. Present-time me is unfailingly drunk and spiteful towards future me. Future me realizes this fact when seeing “bite size” tasks like “create website.”

Execution on the divide and conquer front is key, and it can derail you either in the doing or in the failure to D&C properly.

The Overambitious failure

This has little to do with spreadsheets conceptually. It is simply my own tendency to squint at a goal or a progression, grunt, and double it because success.

The reason I posit this one as a failure of spreadsheets and goals together is that spreadsheets exist in a virtual reality of the (perhaps not so) distant future. You don’t always have to reconcile that “create website” task with what it actually takes to achieve it. You don’t have to square Q4 revenue figures three years down the road with the miserable grind between here and there.

The problem with overambitious goals for me is that I tend to get disheartened by that failure to achieve and punt entirely. Or, in another iteration of the same result, I don’t spend the time to plot a new course in the face of impossible odds and my failure to plan results in total collapse. To be fair, in my vernacular here, “total collapse” means I ignore this goal and move on.

The Spreadsheet Frontal Assault failure

There are a couple ideas in battlefield strategy that can seem to be impossible to balance. The first is that you must concentrate your force at the decisive point (moment, battle, meeting, etc.) The second is that you really shouldn’t assault a fixed position designed to defend against you. Concentrating your force in a decisive battle is good, but storming the castle wall is often poor strategy.

I fail a lot on passive barriers. Embarrassingly often.

The Spreadsheet Frontal Assault is a drive into enemy territory where you devote so much ambition and scope to the spreadsheet that you inevitably get bogged down by the meta effort of the spreadsheet. You feel that you have almost solved for the goal with raw VLOOKUP prowess and functions about which mere mortal have scarely heard whispers and then…you didn’t finish that sheet and the goal lays unconsidered for a long winter.

Don’t storm the spreadsheet castle. Storm the Ardennes.

Budgeting the wrong currency

But really. Those are all reasonable failures. They’re fine. You can grow from them. You can still reach your goals.

The problem I have in recent years with spreadsheets is that they don’t have scoring systems built in for the things that really matter in life. Look, I’m not here to preach any philosophy to you, in fact I think you’d be better served to read Derek Sivers, take them all apart in sequence, and ponder that a while if you never have. (It’s not a perfect treatment, but it should get you thinking.)

Philosophy generally out of the way, I will proceed to say that ultimately you have to pick some thing to optimize.

You might pick time. You might pick family. You might pick dollars. Sure. Fine.

Whatever you pick, your actual life will be far more complicated and your choices will be entirely unrepresented in your spreadsheet goals. Unless you choose The Spreadsheet Frontal Assault path. In which case, I bid you a temporary congratulations on your apparent success.

This is a glimmer of the idea that All Models Are Wrong but some are useful.

Let’s look at an example.

Budgeting for time

In my twenties, I decided I was about time. That was my value. I did the ol’ work backwards from an end goal and build up the life you want exercise.

My goal at the time was to walk my daughter to kindergarten and have nowhere in particular to be after. I wanted the time freedom over my days.

I built a bunch of subgoals to get to this one. They were mostly focused on money. Money translated to time freedom in some unknown sequence of arbitrage.

I achieved this goal, but not through the subgoal that I thought was the key. I didn’t do it through working for myself or making a 10x fortune. In fact, had I followed some common advice to burn the ships in pursuit of the goal I think I would’ve failed entirely with serious personal consequences. I wasn’t prepared for the challenges on that path at that time.

Is achieving something not according to plan a success?

It’s both. I’ve found as others have that focusing on something has a tendency to produce results even when they don’t arrive as anticipated. The failure comes when we fail to learn from the unexpected route success took to our door.

The impersonal irrelevance of apparent success

I remember my parents offering me a solemn and earnest congratulations at my high school graduation. My response was disdainful. High School to me was no achievement at all and it connected to precisely none of my goals.

My failure in conception of my time goals and my pursuit of them was a clear lack of value placed in the journey itself. I didn’t care about anything between A and B. I only wanted B. And that, I know deep down, is Thanos level inevitable failure.

The successes I’ve landed in life, the things people compliment me on most are often the things I regard least. Things that connect to precisely none of my goals. Things that I once regarded as my goals. And that is the impersonal irrelevance of apparent success to me. When your accomplished goals no longer matter – as my completed goals rarely seem to – the only thing that does is the journey to them.

Build your spreadsheets. Chase the goals. Learn from them.

Pick ends with the journey in mind. Learn from Annie Dillard.

Life isn’t a scorecard. It’s not about time freedom or dollars in the bank. Square those goals with stacking up days well lived.