There’s nothing scarier than knowing bad news is around the corner, but not knowing the details. You want to avoid it, but the longer you avoid it the more it eats at you.

I’ve found if I can turn that news into a spreadsheet, I go from frightened to relieved.

If I know my personal or business finances are not in the shape they should be, I’ve been spending way too much, and I know I probably have a rough few months ahead, the best thing is to open a spreadsheet and get all the facts laid out. No matter how dire, get every one of those ugly facts accurately listed. Tally, calculate, and project what it means. Get a hard handle on the present situation.

Then it’s not so scary. Not because the situation isn’t bad – sometimes it’s terrible – but because it’s legible. And legible means beatable. Legible means options. Illegible, undefined problems are too big for any solution. Spreadsheets can be worked with.

After coming to grips with the present problem by putting it all in a grid, I can move on to potential solutions. Spreadsheets let me run scenarios and projections and see how various plans would turn out over different periods of time.

It’s a constraining exercise, but what it constrains isn’t me but the problem. It makes me feel more free.

It works for non-financial problems as well. There are myriad ways to lay out pros and cons of decisions, assign weight to various stressors or ranks to various failures or goals.

Sounds nerdy (maybe it is, but I’m definitely not a math nerd), but it’s cathartic, calming, and effective.