Redesigning My Homegrown Writing Productivity Tracker: to Database or Not to Database?

I honestly don’t recall if I’ve mentioned this here before: but I track all of my writing in a homegrown little productivity tracker that I built in Google Sheets. It’s pretty nifty, and I’m reasonably proud of it: it was a pretty good balance of easy-to-build with richly-detailed-stats.

Voilà:

It’s been great… so far. But then I blew past my word count goal for the year. And now I’ve found that this tool, as flexible and simple as it was… doesn’t really have what it takes to adjust on the fly to a changing situation.

Case in point?

As previously reported, I’ve already met my word count goal for the year 2020. But now I want to stretch my goals further. I can simply adjust my annual goal upward – but then weeks and months in which I met my goal for that period will no longer show that as being the case. There’s no way for me to put a cap on the goal that I have – maintaining my past success – while setting new goals going forward. And that’s to say nothing of how I track goals and productivity once I enter the editing phase of this novel – a phase which I can now conceivably imagine happening!

So I started working on an updated format that would be more flexible, but I quickly realized something: the sort of functionality that I want can be done in Google Sheets, if I’m willing to do some twisting of arms, etc. But it would be better served by a simple Database application.

If only there were a simple and flexible database system that lived in the cloud the way Google Sheets does that I could use to build out the Writing Productivity Tracker of my dreams.

Well… turns out, there are some cloud-based DB tools; some even free-to-use! But there are so many caveats to that statement, I feel totally unqualified to analyze all the possible options!

Of those that I’ve looked at, the one I feel most comfortable giving a go is Airtable. Having played with it a bit (due to testing Airtable for consideration of deploying it as a tool for my team at the old desk-grind day-job). I feel like it has just the right balance between spreadsheet-like table functionality and relational database tools. And… If I understand correctly, I can publish a blank copy of the Airtable Base for use by other authors, writers, and various like-minded folks. Which is something I was considering doing with the revised Google Sheets tracking tool.

The downside, unfortunately: the free tier of Airtable is pretty limited in terms of the size of the database. Limited to 1,200 records per database, a particularly prolific author could easily burn through the limits of a free account within a couple years. Even the lowest paid tier has a pretty strict limit of only 5,000 records per database… depending on how many active projects a writer was working on, that limit might only carry them through five to ten years worth of writing productivity.

Contrast this with a Google Sheet, which is free and which has an upper bound on the number of rows in a sheet in the range of upwards of something like 40,000 rows. Built right, a Google Sheet could last years and years of tracking writing. But since it’s a spreadsheet and not a relational database, doing it right is super complicated. You end up having to sort of reach around your elbow to scratch your nose to make it function more like a database.

In terms of time to develop my solution for 2021 and beyond: Airtable likely wins hands-down. I could throw something really impressive together over a couple weeks of downtime. In terms of cost and longevity: Google Sheets wins the prize with flying colors. But it will likely take me much of the remainder of the year’s worth of downtime to do figure out how to make it work right in Sheets. Which I’m willing to spend the time to do it right… but I worry it would eat too deeply into actual writing time. Which, you know, as a writer the actual writing has to come first.

So Google Sheets or Airtable? Major caveat though: I know next to nothing about the myriad of other options for free-to-use cloud-based relational databases. My research uncovered tools that go by names like “Grist” and “Obvibase” and “Ragic”. All appear to have different strengths and limitations – especially on their free tiers. And while I’d potentially be open to paying a small fee for the right tool… this isn’t a business for me, but something I want to create for myself and potentially open up to the world of like-minded data-geeky authors and writers for free. Ergo: ideally what I need is a free-to-use option.

Here’s where I’m hoping you, dear reader, can help. Fingers crossed someone reads this who has somewhat more experience than I in working with database tools and has a good feel for the types of tools out there and – hope-against-hope – has some good suggestions for what I might explore. Google Sheets vs. Airtable vs. Some-other-yet-to-be-considered solution. Given the constraints of needing a free-to-use tool, ability to publish a copy publicly, with enough room to grow for years of any given writer’s productivity (i.e. I’d like to see a minimum of 10,000 records worth of data available on a free-to-use tier): what would you do dear reader? What functionality would you want to see in such a tool? Would you use a writing tracker if it were made available and free-to-use? Let me know what great ideas you have!

3 thoughts on “Redesigning My Homegrown Writing Productivity Tracker: to Database or Not to Database?

  1. You might want to take a look at Notion. Lots of positive comments from tech people I follow. Free for personal use. I think you could publish a template as well. You’d have to investigate if it does everything you want on the spreadsheet side.

    Otherwise I think you’ve got the two best options there, Sheets or Airtable.

    • Well thanks for the new toy! I’m definitely going to be checking this out in further detail. Just a cursory glance suggests it probably has all the functionality I’m looking for. It’s going to take a bit to actually get in and play with it – dayjob work has been a real “treat” this week, eating a huge chunk out of my freetime hours. But so far I like what I’m seeing!

      • So disappointed. Did a ton of googling and checking through Notion support and it doesn’t (yet) support a ton of basic date calculations. Without the ability to assign a general word count goal – say an annual goal – to a specific arbitrary range of dates – like how much do I need to write THIS WEEK or TODAY to stay on track – without that the whole idea I have of building a writer’s productivity dashboard is kinda impossible to do. I guess it’s back to Google sheets. Maybe I can revisit Notion after they’ve fleshed it out a bit more with some more basic and, frankly, critical functionality. 😞

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