Excel it Forward

Have you seen the movie Pay it Forward? If you haven’t, go watch it. If you have, watch it again!

The idea is simple. When someone does a good deed, don’t pay it back. Instead, pay it forward to someone else.

In a nutshell, Excel it Forward is the Pay it Forward phenomenon, measured.

Okay great, but what the hell does that mean Shir?

Well, imagine every good deed that you give or receive being recorded into a giant spreadsheet, with the ability to sort and filter by any criteria you want.

Want to see what types of good deeds you performed? Want to see who you helped inspire to start performing good deeds of their own? Where did they spread to geographically? How long did it take for 100 deeds to occur daily?

In my head I’m already seeing this all as an interactive Excel dashboard. And let me tell you, a more beautiful site, I have not seen. (Not sure why I just turned into Yoda for a second there)

I know it’s still very vague, and the truth is, I’m not really sure exactly what Excel it Forward is going to be or what it will look like. Or even, how it’s going to work from a logistical standpoint.

But that’s OK, because contrary to my old belief system, I do not need to have all the answers before getting started.

So how did it come to be?

By this point I’m sure you’ve all heard of the Sandy Hook elementary school tragedy

In the wake of the tragedy, Ann Curry decided to start a campaign of 26 random acts of kindness. I first found out about it through @ohjefframos’s tweet:

There he links to the Buzzfeed article that originally sparked the idea for Excel it Forward:

I saw this tweet on 12/21/12, which ironically enough was supposed to be “The End of the World” according to the Mayan calendar. Glad that didn’t happen.

My first thought was to hand out 26 Metrocards on the subway, and take a big group photo. But then I thought to myself “OK, that’d be nice, but where would it go from there?”

Something was missing

What if I found a way to be more systematic about it? Cause, you know, I’m a pretty systematic person. (*ahem* understatement of the century)

It would be particularly gnarly (in the good sense of course) to see exactly how the good deeds spread. I envisioned an Excel spreadsheet where I could see how many people I inspired to do good deeds, and then how many people those people inspired, and so on and so forth.

For the first time in human history, we would finally be able to visualize the ripple effect of acts of kindness, in real time.


That’s when things got exciting.

All I would need is a simple, non-obtrusive way to record the act of kindness

It would have been nice to record everything about the deed itself, but that would make the process prohibitively complicated. So, to narrow it down to its most essential elements, all I really needed was: who, when, where, what, and how.

  • Who? Do-Gooder ID, and Referred by ID
  • When? Timestamp (automatically recorded)
  • Where? Location (city, state, country, zip)
  • What? Good deed type
  • How? Good deed description

I also thought about including a picture, since it would be nice to see the deed in some way. After all, that’s how the #26acts was done as well. And you know what they say…

Why put off til next year what you can do today?

The interesting thing about Excel it Forward movement is that I didn’t think I’d be able to start it for at least a few years. I would say to myself:

“I have a lot of different projects going on right now.”

“I want to set the foundation and really get this right, so that when it takes off I’ll be completely ready for it.”

In other words…blah blah excuses blah.

Finally, after talking about it with several people, I decided to take the plunge on June 1st, 2013. I realized I would never be completely ready, and it would never be an ideal time, so why not seize the moment and go for it.

And go for it I did

I did not have a logo. I did not have a comprehensive system in place to record the good deeds. All I did have was a Google form with a few questions:

This linked to the following Google spreadsheet:

I also created a tumblr account, which seemed like a natural choice, because after all, tumblr is a microblogging platform.

My very first good deed was taping a $5 metrocard to an MTA vending machine: http://excelitforward.tumblr.com/post/51919639452/officially-completed-the-first-good-deed-of-the

After a few days of using the Google form, which was annoying to fill out on the spot, (and therefore made it less likely for anyone to actually follow through and perform the good deeds…myself included), I decided to streamline the process a bit.

I decided to use IFTTT.com, recommended to me by Achievement Architect Ari Meisel. IF This Then That simply automates things on the internet for you, based on the triggers you set. It’s actually quite simple, and remarkably powerful.

I searched high and low for a way to trigger an automatic action using twitter, but there was none to be found. Thankfully I was able to trigger the event using tumblr.

Here is a link to the recipes I use to make it happen:

Excel it Forward frequency

At first I was super dedicated to performing at least 1 good deed every day. And for 2.5 months I did just that. After about 2 months though, I began feeling anxious and stressed at the prospect of coming up with another good deed every day.

That’s when I had a conversation with maymay, where he helped me see that the stress was actually taking away from the genuine nature of the good deed itself. I was becoming more concerned about filling my quota than improving someone else’s life. As soon as that happened, it was defeating the entire purpose of Excel it Forward. Check out the bottom of this post for the unedited notes after my conversation with maymay.

I immediately lifted the requirement on myself to perform a good deed every single day, and allowed myself the flexibility to perform a good deed when the opportunity arose.

The benefit is that there is no more stress associated with it for me, and as a result each deed is more genuine, natural, and ultimately more helpful.

The back end system

Shockingly, at the time of this post I still don’t have a system in place to record other people’s good deeds. I thought of teaching other people how to set up their own tumblr and link it to their twitter, and google spreadsheet using IFTTT. That probably would be too many steps for most people though. Plus I would then have the problem of linking everyone’s disparate spreadsheets together.

After discussing it with Georges Janin the next logical step is to develop a system that captures the good deed using tools that people are already familiar with. The most obvious choice is Twitter. I am very close to creating a system that grabs the latest twitter activity for #excelitforward and adds a row in my spreadsheet with their username, timestamp, and the tweet itself (describing the deed).

As far as I see it, the moral of the story is that things don’t have to be perfect before trying them out and actually taking action. In fact, it’s better to just dive in and adjust as you go.

Wouldn’t you agree?

Final notes

As it stands now, the Excel it Forward website http://excelitforward.com just has the latest 20 deeds as a news feed, and a link to the Google spreadsheet. Eventually I’m going to give clear instructions for anyone to start performing and recording their good deeds.

In the meantime, what do you think of Excel it Forward? Conceptually, philosophically, logistically, I’m always looking for ways to improve. Thanks!

As promised, here are the unedited notes after my conversation with maymay on 8/14/13.

“There’s really no need to do a good deed every day, and by attempting to do so I am actually making the deeds come off as forced and disingenuous. Meitar gave me specific feedback on the “told someone they had a beautiful smile” and said that while he was sure my intention was good, it could have come off as a back handed compliment in a way. Instead of me complimenting someone, it was as if I was complimenting myself for complimenting them. I see that, and even felt something was off about it. But as I told him, and he knew anyway, this is very much a work in progress and I am still experimenting and adjusting constantly.

Then he told me the story of Cleveland Ohio and how the chain of good deeds led up to all the incredible things that happened to him in the past few weeks. They were all so seemingly random and magical, and had one of them not happened the way they did it wouldn’t have led to the next piece. He used the analogy of the Tetris Attack chain combos. You can’t have the last one without all the previous ones. And that’s also what makes the last one so impressive and powerful, is that everything had to be in place perfectly to lead up to that moment.

The real essence of excel it forward isn’t about measuring, he argued. And I agree, nobody cares about measuring good deeds (except for data nerds like me). If anything they feel inauthentic if they are doing it to get measured (and then praised later).

Instead, the focus must be on REMEMBERING the good deeds. Uncovering the stories behind the deeds, and seeing what led up to each one. Seeing how far the chain can go. The other thing he mentioned was the mindset and message is something like “look for good deeds and remain open to them throughout your day, and magical things will happen to you.”

If anything it’s very spiritual and all about the law of attraction and karma. It can’t be forced though, which is precisely what I was doing, and why I was having such a hard time with it lately. I knew it happened for a reason. Even the Hershey kisses idea wasn’t working. They were like “so what.”

Now the pressure is off, I can write about the entire process and evolution of the idea, and the real fun can begin.”