Friday, August 10, 2012

Spreadsheets to Manage the Unknown

I am officially making plans to go back to Australia after I graduate in December.

After a lot of thought, I think this is a very good plan for me. I need a bit more time to figure out the grad school thing (rocks or words, where, with whom, what sort of project), and the economy/job situation here in the US is still so iffy right now, I'm not confident of my chances of getting a job in the meantime (especially in Albuquerque, without having my own car...). Mooching off my parents would make me feel really guilty, no matter what they say.
Perth, however, has both professional and research opportunities in my fields, as well as plenty of minimum wage-type jobs. I also have a longing to see more of Australia, and perhaps even more of the world. There is also someone I'd really like to see again. It's a bit crazy, but I kind of figure that now is my time to do the wild things. ^_^
Trying to move to the other side of the planet is a pretty big freaking deal though, and it depends on a variety of factors outside of my control, so I'm trying to plan for all possible outcomes.

First, I'm applying for a grant which would give me the funds to do a year long research project in Perth. I am very lucky to have contacts there who are willing to supervise my potential project and to work with me on this proposal. I'm working hard on all the details of the application now; I'm glad it will be due in mid September, so after that I can concentrate more on my last semester of classes and on my senior thesis project.
However, I won't learn the results of my grant application until next April, which feels like a million years away. I have to decide whether I want to hang around here in the states until I get the letter, or whether I'm antsy enough to just go to Perth in February. It's a tough decision, and it's complicated by visas, unknown outcomes, and relationships. To work it out, I unleashed my inner neuroses and made a spreadsheet of doom.

I have Dan to thank for the new obsession with spreadsheets, so after some trial and error, I found a really great way to visually lay out all my options. In my first column, I have just the months in order to create a basic timeline of the next two years. The next column has the list of things that I know are happening, basically the big things happening each month until December (all bets are off in January, hence the need to make decisions and plans).

Finally, I have a series of columns that outline each potential situation. IF I leave in February and I DON'T get my grant (third column), IF I leave in February and I DO get my grant (fourth column), IF I leave in May and I DON'T get my grant (fifth column), etc. Then I can picture what I might do in each situation, like what sort of visas I'd get, whether I would be tied to Perth or free to roam, and make of note of that in that column. I color-coded the cells based on visa type to show very clearly how long I might feasibly be in Australia and on what sort of visa restrictions. Having all the options side by side in columns makes it so easy to compare the different possibilities, edit, and go wild with the colors.

Because I like making lists (and because I don't know how reliable my brain will be by December after all these projects on top of a full class load), my spreadsheet also has tabs for what I would need to pack.

So far I have four packing tabs: Documents, Stuff, Clothes, and Jewelry (this doesn't really need a separate tab, but I'm using it to name specific pieces and to keep the other tabs less visually cluttered). In every one of these spreadsheets, I use the first column for separating things into categories; for example, under Stuff, I break things up into Bags, Electronics, First Aid, Tools, Comfort, and Toiletries. This is just to help group things so I don't forget anything when I actually start packing. I also color-coded the cells; pink means I would have to buy that item, while teal means I need to make a decision regarding the item (I know I need to pack business wear, but I'll decide later exactly which pieces I want to bring).
The second column is what I would take in my carry-on luggage, while the third column is what I would pack in a suitcase. For example, in my Comfort category, I would take a neck pillow with me on the plane (so it gets listed in the second column), but pack my feather pillow (which gets listed in the third column, same row).

Starting this list now has been very helpful for a few reasons.
First, I'm less likely to forget something, since I have plenty of time to add things to the list.
Second, I'm able to mentally edit the list without having the stress of actually packing and sorting through my stuff. Most world travelers have the "one half" rule: put everything you think you'll pack in one big pile on your floor, and then take away half of the items. Working on this list a little at a time lets me edit without ever having to pull out and put away all my stuff. For example, I put "umbrella" on my list when I first started, because I love my rainbow umbrella and I had it with me last time, but after consideration, I realized that it's a bit too big and heavy and that I can buy one in Perth.
Third, this list is actually helping me declutter. I don't know exactly how long I may be gone, so I definitely want to reduce the amount of stuff I store at my parent's house. As I'm considering what I love dearly enough to carry with me to the other side of the world, it helps put the rest of my stuff into perspective; if I'm not willing to take it with me, do I really need to keep it?
I also have a tab of things I might buy. On this sheet, I have have a columns for Pros and Cons, and then a column for whether or not I'll buy the item. This has helped me resist the temptation to buy things like all the sexy travel gear at REI (guh, those crazy smartwool socks are just so alluring, even at $20 a pair D: Boo!). If the item is still on the list by the end of the year (that iPod touch is looking pretty good still...), then I have a short list of things I know I would value.
Lastly, I have a To Do tab. This is important because I keep thinking of time-consuming things I'm sure I'll forget about later in the rush and excitement, like doctor, dentist, and eye appointments, buying health insurance, and canceling my American cell phone plan. I color-coded this by importance/category; pink for buying things, scarlet red for super important things, and green for trips I might take and people I should visit.

So this is a pretty ridiculous spreadsheet, all told. While it's taken a bit of time to set up, it was time I feel was well spent, because I'm pretty sure it will reduce my anxiety down the road. One of my best friends was totally right though when he told me "It's nice your neuroses are so practical." Hopefully this post might help someone else who gets a little nervous with big plans, but doesn't want to let that fear keep them from doing something awesomely crazy. ^_^

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