I remember when I first started working for myself, my old man created a spreadsheet for me so as I could track my income and expenses.
He thought it was simple to use, and it was for him. But, for me, it was a physical representation of a headache.
I told him I’d use it, purely because he’d spent time creating it, but never had the slightest intention of even looking at it again.
After a while, tax and self-assessments became stressful so I hired an accountant.
He took one look at the pile of receipts I handed him, asked me a couple of questions and arrived at the perfectly correct conclusion that I was useless with numbers, figures and tracking anything meaningful.
He gave me a notebook to use, which was way simpler than the spreadsheet my old man crafted, but still “too much like hard work” for me to even consider using.
A year or so after that, I met up with an old mate of mine who founded and runs Scotland’s biggest, and fastest growing, digital media and graphic design company (those may not be facts, but I think they are).
He showed me some of the spreadsheets he uses to track the goings on in his business and asked if I used anything similar in mine.
“That stuff gives me a headache, mate. I started working for myself so I could avoid doing stuff like this. I’m really shit with numbers.”, I told him.
“You don’t need to be amazing with numbers, you just need to be a bit good with them.”, he replied.
That piece of advice always stuck with me – “you need to be a bit good” with numbers – but I still didn’t action the advice.
The way I looked at things back then was that I avoided formal education, by pursuing a degree in sport, and avoided a ‘grown up’ job that involved sitting at a desk with my head buried in spreadsheets by pursuing a career in fitness.
Around August last year, I felt I was smashing my head off a brick wall every single day, was going nowhere fast and was facing imminent failure if things didn’t change.
One of the most respected dudes in the fitness industry, who I’d hosted for a seminar last May and learned a lot from, set up a kind of ‘independent gym owners super group’ with the idea of contributing a monthly fee so that every 4 months we could collectively afford to hire a fitness ‘hot shot’ to come teach us what they specialise in.
The idea was to combine our knowledge, expertise and experience to help each other achieve more and then bring in the best guys (and girls) to learn from so as we continue to improve ourselves, our teams and our service offerings. The ultimate goal was, and still is, to improve the standard of the fitness industry as a result.
When I joined, I was sent over a two-part on-boarding questionnaire.
The first part asked about marketing, business model, etc. and I breezed it.
The second part asked about numbers, figures and key performance indicators (KPIs).
“I don’t know” was all I could answer every question on the 10-odd part questionnaire.
I felt like a wee boy amongst men; out my depth and about to get majorly found out and ridiculed…
So I opened Google Sheets and spent about 4 days creating numerous spreadsheets to track everything I could possibly think of that was important.
Income, expenses, retention, number of members, etc.
(Ya, all the ridiculously obvious stuff that you and I know I should have been tracking, but had been avoiding for years and years.)
From then until now, there’s not been a period of more than a few days that’ve passed without me dipping in, updating and analysing what’s going on. And it’s no surprise that I’m a lot less stressed and ‘in control’ now than I’ve ever been when it comes to ze bizniz.
I was convinced I was missing a trick and that there was an easier way to track…a magic pill, if you like…so I asked at our first meet up how everyone tracked their KPIs.
“It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you fucking do it.”, I was told.
“What’s the point in me telling you all this?”, I hear you ask.
Well, over probably around a 5 year period, I had been shown three different methods of tracking my finances by three different people I respected – my dad, my accountant and my high-flying mate.
They all emphasised the importance of ‘knowing my numbers’ and even went so far as to give me their preferred method for tracking; complete with fancy graphs and all.
But I didn’t take heed until it got to the point I felt like a total dafty.
“How hard can it be to simply enter data?”, I eventually asked myself.
At that point I knew I had to make a significant change to the way I worked, and to my attitude about numbers.
I looked at a few different bookkeeping software systems and even signed up for one, but I found it to be too complex for my state of understanding at the time and decided to create my own ‘system’ instead; in the form of a series of the world’s most idiot-proof spreadsheets.
That way I could tailor everything to how my peanut-sized brain works and get things in the kind of order that my OCD tendencies enjoy.
As I’ve got more comfortable with tracking and analysing, I’ve tweaked and changed the spreadsheets to ensure they’re constantly getting easier to use, easier to read and easier to analyse.
And the cool part is, I reckon I could now use fancy software without throwing a hissy-fit about how “useless” or “stupit” I am. (But, for now, for the sake of continuity of habit, I’m sticking with my ‘simple sheets’.)
The importance of this is that finances and nutrition are pretty much identical – they’re both numbers based.
With finance you have income and expenses, with nutrition you have calories in and calories out.
You can set up spreadsheets for both, you can use ready-made mobile apps or you can use a notepad and physically write stuff down in two columns: money in Vs money out or calories consumed Vs calories expended.
You can start with one method (eg. a notepad food diary), change to another (eg. MyFitnessPal) and finally arrive at your preferred method (eg. photo food diary) months and months down the line.
The important factor is that you monitor what’s going on so as you can measure your progress.
In the case of nutrition, your KPIs are going to be your body weight, your mood, the way your clothes fit and/or your performance in the gym/your sport, amongst others.
If you’re not tracking any of these stats, it’d be a smart idea to start doing so, because, as I was told over and over again at the first meet up of the gym owners:
“You can’t measure what you don’t track.”
When you track your weight, for example, you can check at the end of the day, week, month, quarter…or however often you see fit…the same way you might check your bank balance to see how much money you’ve got left before your next payday.
If you’ve lost weight, cool.
If you haven’t (and weight loss is your goal), you need to cut down your ‘spending’ (ie. the amount you’re eating), the same way you’d have to cut down on spending if you checked your bank balance and you were overdrawn or only had a few quid left to your name.
If you’ve got a bunch of data, it’s really easy to see where you can make ‘savings’ or where you could cut back to then give you more wiggle room for special occasions.
For example, spend less money during the week so you’ve got extra for a night out on Saturday night. Same with calories – eat a bit less during the week so you’ve got more calories to ‘spend’ on your night out.
We can track nutrition using any of the following methods (or even a combination of a few):
- Ad libitum, which means basically no tracking whatsoever.
This is typically reserved for people who don’t give a shit or people (probably like myself) who’ve either got a solid enough understanding of their body and food in general…or have just been conscious about their health for most of their life…to be able to maintain a similar physique all year round without too much fuss.
- Photo food diary, which simply involves taking photos of your meals and potentially creating collages of your daily meals.
This is useful for everyone as it gives a fair idea of portion size, the number of meals you’re eating per day and how often you snack. However, people can be quite selective with their memory or dishonest with ‘what counts’ and forget to take a photo of that chocolate hobnob (or 5, if you’re like me) they had with their cuppa.
- Food diary, which just involves writing down what food you’ve eaten/drinks you’ve drank during that day.
This is a little bit more time-consuming than a photo food diary and there’s more room for you to conceal the truth, as you can shrink portion sizes or say “a few crisps” when you really mean half a bag of Sensations, but its still a useful method.
- Tracking protein intake and your weight on a scale, which involves keeping note of how many grams of protein you consumed in a day, weighing yourself and then making adjustments depending on the result.
You can either do this by guesstimating (if you’re clued up enough to do so) how many grams. Or just aim for 4 ‘servings’ of protein per day and classify a ‘serving’ as a protein shake, 1.5 chicken breasts, 3 eggs…etc. Or you can use MyFitnessPal and enter in what protein sources you’re consuming. Totally up to yourself.
If your weight doesn’t change, you need to cut down on carbs and fats. If it comes down, you’re all good. (Obviously, assuming weight loss is the goal.)
- Tracking protein and calories, which involves using MyFitnessPal to track everything you’re eating.
This is a wee bit more time consuming again, but gives you more than enough data to avoid failure. If your weight isn’t coming down, reduce your calories or increase your daily activity or the number of sessions you’re doing per week. If it does come down, great – keep it up.
- Tracking macros, which involves tracking the number of calories and grams of protein, carbs and fat you consume each day.
This is the most time consuming method; although, assuming your diet is quite repetitive, which all of ours are, it becomes less so as the days go by.
I think this is largely overkill for those not looking to compete in bodybuilding/physique competitions, but can still be a useful tool to gain more of an understanding of what’s in the food you’re eating and to test how your body responds to simple tweaks and adaptations to macros/calories.
The main point in all of this is that, at any point in time, we can abort the method we’re using and make life easier or harder for ourselves; based on our mood, levels of adherence, levels of success and/or motivation.
Just because you commit to macro tracking and abandon it after a week doesn’t mean you’ve failed or the you can’t succeed in tracking your nutrition. It simply means you need an ulterior method, and in that case you can make a call based on the above list.
Similarly, just because you’re keeping a food dairy doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to succeed.
Many of us underreport what we eat and lie to ourselves (and then to our food diaries)…or just simply forget about a wee snack hear and there, which can add up to make a big difference as to whether or not you lose weight.
So, in this case, a photo food diary or calorie tracking would be a better bet, at least for the short term until you gain a better understanding of yourself, nutrition and your body.
For the lion’s share of us, not tracking anything is simply not good enough to deliver the result(s) that you would like/work hard in the gym for.
I know how difficult it is to get your head around this; after all, it did take me 6 years to get into the mental space necessary for me to simply track my income.
But I also know how much easier it is to make changes, understand what’s going on and how much less stressful life is once you make the commitment and put the habit in place to get it done; whilst also accepting that tracking is a constant sliding scale that you need to be adaptable with for it to be effective.