What is on your goals worksheet?

Do you know who Emmitt Smith is?

If not, go wild on the googling. What you’ll learn is that Emmitt Smith is one of the most celebrated pro-football players in history. But what you might not learn is the incredible way in which Emmitt Smith went about achieving all of his football goals, including becoming the all-time leading rusher in the game. In case you don’t know, that basically means he ran with the football the most of any player in the history of the NFL.

Until you write them down, they are just dreams.

When Emmitt Smith was in high school, his coach taught him and his teammates to write their goals on a piece of paper and put it in their lockers so they could see it every day and know what they were working towards each day on the field. The coach told them that until you write them down, they are just dreams. Once you write down your dreams, they become goals. Every year, Emmitt Smith wrote down his goals and worked towards them relentlessly. And he achieved greatness in his sport, and in many other ways in his life. Before Carol Dweck’s work on the growth mindset gave scientific backing to the idea that your mental outlook on your goals and challenges has a strong influence on your ability to achieve your goals and overcome your challenges. If you envision your goals and believe that you can achieve them, you are more likely to succeed. Our mindsets can make all the difference.

What do goals look like?

Goals can take a lot of different forms - they can be a number (I want to be able to do 100 push-ups at a time), an output (I want to write a book), a skill (I want to be able to play piano), an award (I want to have a superbowl ring), or any other incarnation of your dreams. You have to do what is right for you. But I would strongly suggest that if you are making some goals around technology, don’t make them tech-focused. Instead, set goals around the impacts and outcomes that can come from using technology. Here is a personal example:

When I started learning Excel, I didn’t know what I didn’t know, so I didn’t know what my goals should have been. I had two colleagues who were really really really good at it - they moved so fast I could hardly understand what they were doing and talking about. They worked like magicians with the keyboard, the numbers, the colors. They seemed unstoppable. I wanted to be just like them. In a way, my goals were living, breathing people in front of me each day. But I had no idea how I could become unstoppable, too. They would throw terms around that I could have written down in goals, but honestly I wasn’t even going to understand what I was writing down: PivotTables, Vlookups, Absolute References, Sumproduct, Automated Processes, Linked Spreadsheets - my colleagues were talking about and doing these things all the time like it was nothing, and I didn’t even understand what the words meant! So I couldn’t make my goals around those technical things. I had to make them more about the impact that would come out of picking those things up along the way. Here is what my goals for Excel looked like in 2011:

  1. Be more willing to ask questions until I really understand what I am doing.
  2. Increase my speed of using Excel to get requests done for my colleagues faster.
  3. Don’t waste time doing manual processes when they can be automated.

I put these goals up at my desk and looked at them every day. It reminded me that I wanted to be an expert who could quickly provide quality support to my colleagues. If I started to do something repetitive that wasted time in Excel, that was taking away from my goals, and so I had to switch gears and learn how to do it better and faster, or how to automate it. I have had somewhat similar goals every year since then, which is how I eventually got to starting my business. Now everything I do in Excel I look through the lens of my business mission: To help people learn, use, and love the technology that supports their work.

Now I want to hear from you! What does your technology goals worksheet look like? How can achieving these goals have an impact on your work and your life?

A Good Story Beats Data Alone Any Day

A few years ago, I took a storytelling workshop meant to help participants craft and share a personal story in order to make deep connections with listeners. We got a basic prompt (“tell a story about something important that has happened in your life") had about 10 minutes to think through the entirety of our lives up until that point, pinpoint one important story to share, craft some of the structure and themes of our story, and then get ourselves psyched up to share our most personal moments with a group of strangers.

Have you ever been asked to be vulnerable and share a story about yourself? How about a story that showcases the most important aspects of your work?

Our stories about ourselves and our work are based in both quantitative and qualitative information, and both can be surprisingly challenging to shape into a clear and impactful message. The workshop that I attended was helpful in preparing me emotionally to talk about myself and my work, but I was still needing more storytelling training in other areas, like thinking about the perspective of my audience, clearly articulating the message I wanted people to walk away with from hearing my story, choosing the right details to articulate the critical information, and creating visual representations of my story to support and enhance its impact.

Believe it or not, the way I actually developed these storytelling skills was through learning to use Excel. But because Excel starts off filled with bland gridlines, unending rows and columns, and a black-on-white display that can make anyone quickly lose interest, how is it possible to keep your audience engaged, captivated, and understanding the message you want them to get? It is surprisingly similar to what you might do if you were writing a short story, with just a touch of technical skill.

Here are the top three ways to become a master storyteller in Excel and - surprise, surprise - only one of them HAS to happen in Excel!:

  1. Write out your message in English first.

  2. This might seem like an obvious tip, but this one can really trip people up when they are getting started using data and Excel. There are so many other things you can start with - getting your numbers lined up, creating graphs and fun visuals, throwing in colors, making all different kinds of PivotTables of information. But when you start with these things it is far too easy to get caught up in the details and the technical stuff, and to move off-message. Before doing any of that, open a new tab in Excel, or a blank Google doc, or grab a piece of paper and a pen, and start writing out what message you want your audience to take with them from your spreadsheet and/or presentation. When you do start going back to your data and functions, you can always check back in with what you wrote down for your message to make sure you are sticking to it with anything that you present.

  3. Design for your audience.

  4. Some people like to read long, flowing descriptions of scenes, some want to know every little detail their characters are thinking and saying, and some want short sentences that are direct to the point and get them the information they need. The same is true for looking at data and information in Excel. As you are putting together your message and story in Excel, there are many different ways you can present it. The best way to get the message to your audience is to do it the way that they will best receive it. If your audience only wants the high-level information and would get bogged down in details, you’ll want a simple and clear message clearly displayed, without a lot of other words and numbers that could get distracting. On the other hand, if your audience tends to asks tons of questions and will want every last detail, make sure those details are clearly organized so that you can pre-empt those questions where possible. There are a ton of other configurations this could take, depending on who is looking at your presentation.

  5. Learn to use dynamically shifting text.

  6. Excel formulas can do a lot more than math - they can help you keep your story and message up-to-date as your data and information gets updated as well. By just using an ampersand (&) and some quotation marks, you can make sure your message always is in line with your data. Let’s say you want to always present on the number of volunteers and the hours they put in for your organization each month. The sentence you always want at the top of your sheet is: This month ([MONTH]), we engaged [NUMBER VOLUNTEERS] for a total of [TOTAL HOURS] hours. But of course, the month, number of volunteers, and volunteer hours change each month. So you can have a formula of both text and numbers that looks like this:

Want to up your game even more? Need more of these tips and tricks? Let’s get some time on the calendar to chat about your Excel needs! Contact me about individual trainings, team trainings, custom Excel/Google Sheets projects, or anything else with Excel/Google Sheets.

What do NFL quarterbacks and Excel users have in common?

It’s football season, and this year I am absolutely obsessed.

When I say obsessed, I mean that I am watching the games live, re-watching them later, watching the shows and documentaries on NFL network, listening to podcasts about the NFL, and you can’t really have a conversation with me without getting pulled into some football talk. So when you are obsessed like this and filling up your head with everything possible about one subject, you start to hear the same commentary about the games and the players over and over again. And this year I’ve been hearing about two themes in football that are super well-aligned to technology and Excel: Time and Vision.

Quarterbacks trying to move the ball down the field have very little time to think and make decisions. Most football plays have about 25 seconds to set up and then once the play starts, most end after about 10 seconds. In those 35 seconds, quarterbacks need to review how the defense on the other team is set up to attack, possibly adjust their own play based on that, get their players in the right places, know how much time is on the play clock. Once the ball is snapped, they need to watch their receivers running all around the field, keep an eye on those defensive players from the other team and the players on his own team trying to protect him, and do all of that while blocking out the sight of thousands and thousands of fans screaming for or against his success. To be successful, quarterbacks need to have a keen sense of time and a wide field of vision.

Time and vision - two things that are also incredibly important for learning and using any technology, and especially Excel.

Even though you may technically have more than 35 seconds to set up and run your play in Excel, it doesn’t always feel like it is worth doing any more than that. How does it feel after struggling with technology for about, say, 15 seconds, or 15 minutes? It is frustrating and annoying, and everything that keeps coming after that can seem like a total waste of time. And I know that your job isn’t to be the quarterback of Excel - you are teaching, or planning, or selling, or volunteering, or managing, or whatever your real job is to do. So you can only spend so much time in Excel when you’ve got other important work to be doing. In the time that you do have, you are trying to keep a lot in your field of vision. Just think about a typical blank Excel document - you’ve got hundreds of rows and columns, thousands of cells, buttons everywhere, and not to mention all the information that is sitting behind the scenes that you are trying to keep in your vision. In Excel, there is always more than one way to do everything and there are unending options for how to format your information to make it look attractive - That is a lot to keep in mind and trying to envision for whatever you are doing with your data and technology.

Quarterbacks are paid millions of dollars to get as good as they are - but what about us regular people trying to get good at Excel? Here are a few tricks of the trade that can help you up your game:

  • Use keyboard shortcuts. Just like quarterbacks have to throw the same pass over and over and over again to perfect it, using keyboard shortcuts can take some practice and repetition. It might feel hard to use them at first when you are just getting used to them, but you will see exponential results. The more you use them, the more natural and second-nature they become, and you will see exactly how much time they will save you. There are dozens of good shortcuts, but start out with your basic navigation. Ctrl+arrow keys on a PC and Command+arrow keys on a Mac. Try them out, see how they feel, and if you catch yourself reaching for your mouse or touchpad to do any scrolling, stop yourself and use your keyboard instead. The more you do it, the better it will feel.

  • Separate your data. There are times when you want to put a lot of things in just one little Excel cell, and times when you really don’t want to do that. For the most part when you are organizing your information before presenting it, you want to make sure you’ve got only one concise piece of information in a single cell - and every cell in that same column should also keep it small. A key example of this is that you don’t want to mix words and numbers - that makes Excel get a little headache and complain when you try later to search, sort, or filter for something specific. So you don’t really want this:

    Nov 13 - webinar
    Nov 18 - class
    Dec 1 - Study group

  • Instead, you want:
    Date Category
    11/13/2017 Webinar
    11/18/2017 Class
    12/1/2017 Study group

  • When presenting information, ditch the gridlines. Football and Excel both have really important gridlines that help you see where everything is in your data. But sometimes they can get overwhelming and messy. It would be hard to erase the lines on a football field for a clearer view, but in Excel you can easily ditch your gridlines, and use borders around your presentations instead. Just head over to the View tab, and uncheck the Gridlines options:

Want to up your game even more? Need more of these tips and tricks? Let’s get some time on the calendar to chat about your Excel needs! Contact me about individual trainings, team trainings, custom Excel/Google Sheets projects, or anything else with Excel/Google Sheets.

The #1 Excel Question (and the answer)

Excel users are people from all kinds of backgrounds, who are at all different levels of comfort and confidence using technology, working in tons of different sectors, and who want to do vastly different things in Excel. But all these different people inevitably have the same question over and over again when working in Excel, whether they are asking their coach or themselves:

“Am I doing this right?”

With my coaching clients, I hear this question after we go over doing something new in Excel, and it’s time for the client to try it on their own. They take a few tentative steps, and stop just before finishing to ask me - “is that right?”

It is a totally natural question to ask - before you take that final step, you want to validate that you’ve done everything right. If not, why take the time on the last step? Of course, the answer everyone wants to hear is “yes you did it right” or “no, you messed up, here is how you fix it.” But neither of these answers is the right one - in fact, no answer is right to this question. The reason for this is because there is actually a really important reason to take this last step before getting any validation. Creating anything in Excel is a series of steps that are getting you from point A (the idea of what you want to do or make) to point Z (successfully creating or doing it). Every single step taken along the way is a critical learning moment, and none more so than those steps that you are unsure of. And that is why I always answer the question the same way:

“Try it out!”

My coaching clients tend to give a nervous giggle at this point, and then they go for it. About 50% of the time, everything has worked out and they feel excited and validated in their work. The other 50% of the time, they get an unexpected result and we have to go backwards over our steps to figure out what went awry. There is a built in safety net when you have a coach watching you work and helping you troubleshoot. What happens when you are on your own?

The best thing that I can teach as an Excel coach is how to do it without me there as a safety net. That takes a lot more than just technical knowledge. It takes the confidence to try things out, to get things wrong. You need the approaches and the mindsets that will help you to stick with your work and figure things out on your own. These things are what will support you in taking the technical Excel skills that anyone can learn and applying them to your unique needs and the outcomes you want to achieve.

Ready to learn the mindsets you need and how to apply these with technical skills? Join my FREE email course:

Mastering the Excel Mindset

4 Signs You Need More Excel in Your Life

I’ve been reading Thomas Friedman’s book Thank You For Being Late: An Optimist's Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, and it has got me thinking a lot about what it means to be living in the so-called “information age.” Technology is part of nearly every single aspect of our lives, and becoming more all-encompassing every single day. Everyone is managing the incorporation of advanced technologies as part of our everyday lives in different ways. Some people - especially those young enough to have grown up with technology (I’m looking at you, 90’s babies!) - seem to just pick it up, run with it, use it, even improve upon it without any apparent hesitation or fear. Then there are others (of all ages and backgrounds) who look at technology and everything seems to go haywire. But no matter who we are or what we do, learning and using technology is baked into the fabric of the world we live in, and we all need to find the ways that we can make it work for us - and not just work us over.

Excel is one of those technologies that is expected to be used in nearly any job sector and function, similar to how Microsoft Word and PowerPoint are ubiquitous across nearly all roles in all businesses, government agencies, and non-profits - large or small. But what is the right level of comfort and use for these programs? You don’t need to be a best-selling author to use Word, and you don’t need to be a graphic designer to use PowerPoint. Similarly, you don’t need to be a data nerd or a techie to use Excel. In fact, a lot of data nerds and techies use even more complex tools and programming for their work. Excel (and it’s equivalent in Google Sheets) is actually the best program for people who are not technology or data experts to use for so many useful and vital parts of their work.

So how can you tell if you need more Excel in your life? Here are a few tell-tale signs that you should be learning and using Excel more or in a different way to add value to your work and life:

  • You want to de-clutter
  • You are looking for more time
  • You want to move up at work
  • You need to keep track of a lot of things

You want to de-clutter
Digital clutter and information overload got you down? Collecting information and resources digitally is part of everyday life for most people in the information age. But with the amount of information that is available and constantly being updated, it can become overwhelming to collect so much digital data, and it can actually block our brains from being able to use technology for the benefits it can provide. If you find yourself not learning existing technologies and trying out new ones because of a block like this, that is actually a big red clue pointing to the need for more Excel in your life. Excel is the ultimate organizer and recaller of information. Budget software like Quicken can handle everything about your money, Event planning software can keep event information as organized as possible, and the calculator on your computer can do a wide range of complex mathematical functions. But NONE of these programs can do all of these things at once, because they are designed to do one thing and do it in a standardized way. Excel can do all of these things (really anything you can imagine), and it can actually do it better than a lot of programs focusing on one thing only. If you are feeling a bit overwhelmed with your digital clutter and information overload, Excel is your new best friend. It is designed to force you to be clear about your data and to make sure it is “clean” (usable for gathering insights), searchable, and accessible.

You are looking for more time
Using technology in all parts of our lives came with the promise to do things more efficiently and save us time - so then why do so many people feel like they are busier than ever and would love to get a few extra hours into each day? Like in a story about magic or superpowers, technology has the potential to be used for good (time-savings) but can also be used for evil (time sucking). Which way you use it is all up to you. If you are a person looking to gain a little more time back in your life, then learning and using Excel can go a long way towards that! Excel is built to automate anything that you would do over and over again, day after day or week after week. If you find yourself doing a ton of manual work in Excel that is taking up your time, then you are missing out on a huge opportunity to automate your processes and save time - so you actually need more Excel in your life to learn how to make things happen automatically. It can be really hard to do, but putting in more time upfront to learn a bit more will save you innumerable hours in the future!

You want to move up at work
This could mean that you want more responsibility in your current role, or you want a promotion, or you want to switch jobs entirely and move up the ladder or move to a job that will make you happier. For any of these things, I can guarantee that getting more Excel in your life can help in multiple ways. First, as was just mentioned, time-savings. With more time you can get more accomplished, and automating processes in Excel lets you focus long-term on what you are best at in your job. Second, nearly every job now works with Excel in some way, and the better you can do it, the better your prospects for job advancement. People are seriously impressed with and envious of Excel skills, and you can be the one that they look to for answers and good work with Excel. Third, Excel is a driver of insights - when you know how to use it to organize your data into information, then you are primed to learn insights and knowledge from that information. The ability to gain insights from data and information is at the top of the list of amazing qualities for so many employers and in so many roles. Plus, you get the added bonus of feeling more confident about any decisions you are making, since they will have the data and information to back them up. Finally (but really there are still so many more reasons), knowing how to use Excel is like a gateway towards knowing how to use all sorts of technologies and systems. The methods and mindsets needed to learn Excel are the same that you’ll need for learning nearly any technology, and because Excel covers so much ground, it is the perfect classroom for getting into the technology space.

You need to keep track of a lot of things
From both a personal or professional lens, there is always more information that we can and should keep track of and know about ourselves and our work. From number of steps to calorie intake to heart rate to money spent to volunteer hours to productivity rates to anything that you can imagine wanting to know more about. If you have a lot to keep track of, then you need more Excel in your life! Many organizations use “trackers” of some sort, and though not all of them are as good as they could be, their intentions are in the right place - it is helpful to know what is going on in your life and work so that you can use that information to make things even better. The more comfortable you are using Excel to track data, and the more knowledgeable you are about how Excel can help you format and present that data, the more you will be able to quickly and easily keep track of anything in your work or life.

Need more Excel in your life but not sure where to start? Check out my free email course:

Mastering the Excel Mindset

3 Steps To Being Prepared For Change

Have you heard the saying “Change is the only constant”? It is often attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who wrote Panta Rhei or Life is Flux. Basically, everything is always in motion, always changing, always in flux, making “change” the only thing that is constant in the world. Sometimes change is awesome - get a new job, move to a new city, meet a new friend, or get surprised by good news like your rent is going down, or you are getting a raise, or you win the lottery. Any of these things could change our lives for the better a lot or a little. But other times change hits us with the unexpected that throws us off our path - an unexpected tax bill, a shift at your job, a hurricane.

Whether it is good, bad, or even neutral change - it can be disruptive. Even if your entire life isn’t up-ended by some big change, making any re-arrangement to our view of the world takes time and energy. This often times feels particularly taxing when it comes to our data and spreadsheets. You set up your spreadsheets to handle one set of data, and then another set comes along to throw everything out of whack. Or you did a bunch of calculations to get to a final number, but then you get some new information and the parameters change, making all your calculations wrong since they were based on a different set of rules or assumptions.

If change is constant - in life and in spreadsheets - then what can you do to deal with it? You may be surprised to learn that the same things that drive people to successfully deal with change in life are the same things that can be done in Excel to deal with change in your data. It is all about setting yourself up to:

Thinking about the future

This one never came naturally to me. I live mostly in the present, and I don’t think about what the future looks like. But too many times I ran into situations where I didn’t think about the future and when it hit me, I wasn’t ready for it. If you are like me, you don’t need to make any big changes to your personality or have a crystal ball to see into the future - you just have to stop for a moment or two to think about what could be. There are innumerable ways that life could twist and turn, and we can’t imagine and hold all of them in our heads - there are just too many variables. So why worry about trying to hold on to all of that? Just take a minute or two to sit back and think about what changes might be possible to come your way in the future. When you are working with Excel, before you start building your spreadsheets or adding your data, think for a minute or two about how your data or needs could change in the future.

Being flexible and adaptable

A natural and very common human reaction to change are feelings of disruption, confusion, frustration, and fatigue. It can be mentally taxing to think things are going one way and then you are hit with information that changes your path. Research suggests that the natural reactions to the stress of change have some evolutionary origins, but that chronic stress - from chronic change - can contribute to a number of physical health problems. Luckily, research has also been done to identify the ways to copy with change, and finding ways to be flexible and adaptable top the list. It may seem comfortable to find a specific path and try to stick to it, but we know that change will take us off that path. It won’t look the same for everyone, but however you can find to “go with the flow” will help you in life, and of course in Excel.

Get prepared for change

What does it mean to get prepared for change when you can’t possibly know when or what change will come? Sometimes you can arrange the plans you lay and the tools you use so that they can set you up to accept changes. In Excel, there is a built-in approach for dealing with changes to your data: it is called Dynamic Referencing. This is actually a fairly simple, yet powerful, concept. The basic idea is that if you are going to be calculating anything, you want to be prepared for the fact that your data could change. For example - let’s say that you are calculating the average score of grades in your class. You’ve got 10 students, and you enter their test scores next to their names in your spreadsheet. Seems pretty simple, right? Since Excel is just a big calculator, you can just add all those numbers up in a cell, like this: =98+87+70+96+80+98+87+70+96+80 etc etc. Then you know that to get an average you divide that total by the number of students, so in another cell you put the total you got over 10, like so:


And Excel spits out your average - 86.2%. That would all be fine and good...if change wasn’t inevitable. So you go back and realize that you entered one of the student grades incorrectly, and then two students unexpectedly transfer into your class and quickly take the test, so now you’ve got to add in their scores. Now not only do you have changes in your data, but you would have to make those changes in your calculations as well. On this small scale, that may simply be annoying and time-consuming. But imagine this on a large scale, and it can become impossible.

Instead of writing your calculations out the way you did, you can instead “reference” the cells that have the information you need, so that when that information gets updated, your calculations are prepared to take those changes in stride, and give you the correct information you need in under 1/1000th of a second. This is done with what is called “Dynamic References.” The “dynamic” part is all about you know what - change! When something is dynamic it means it is updating and changing. And “reference” means pointing to a cell or range of cells, or “referencing” those cells. There are many different ways to use dynamic references, from the very simplest to the most complex. Let’s start simple. You can add 2 and 2 together in one cell using Excel as a calculator, and it looks like:

Of course you will get 4. Or instead, you can have the number 2 in two different cells, and in a third cell you will reference whatever values are in these first two cells, like so:

You get the same answer either way, but with dynamic references you’ve unlocked the potential and the plan for dealing with change. This simple example can be taken up to any level of complexity. But the thing to remember is this: If you find yourself typing numbers into your formulas (or “hard-coding” them into your formulas), then you know to step back and prepare for change by using dynamic references instead. It will save you time and energy in the future, since nothing is constant but change.

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5 Excel Functions Guaranteed to Save You Time

If there is one thing that technology is NOT supposed to be, it is a waste of time.

In fact, isn’t the point of technology to help us do everything smarter, better, and most importantly, faster? This is especially true of Excel. Before we had spreadsheets, we had to write lists out on paper, scan down them with our fingers hoping not to miss any details, count things up manually, and generally spending thousands upon thousands of extra hours looking at data and doing calculations that Excel can complete in mere seconds. When Excel came along, time-savings and efficiency skyrocketed - but it seems like mostly for the people who really know and understand the system inside and out. But what about everybody else that has to use it? Sometimes it can seem like instead of saving time, Excel is costing more time in all the unknowns, the mistakes, the error messages, the weird results, and the seemingly endless amount of Google searching that can be done to try to find the right answer to an Excel question.

No one goes from 0 to 60 their first time.

Even those people who seem to know how to do everything and anything in Excel didn’t start out that way. Everyone has to learn how to use Excel at their own pace. For some people that will be slower than others. A slow start can sometimes be a big roadblock for learning and practicing Excel. And that is understandable - it is counter-intuitive to consider putting in a ton of time just learning how to use a system that is supposed to save you all that time in just being able to “do it for you.” It’s true, there is no getting around this. However long you need to learn Excel is how long it takes. But luckily there is one thing that you can depend on from learning Excel:

However much time you put into learning Excel now, you will save yourself double that time or more in the future.

This is always the hardest part - and in some cases it can seem like a leap of faith. It can be especially hard to remember and believe when there is a time-crunch or a deadline that has to be met. And at those moments, it might not be the right time to sit down to learn and practice all of the potential time-saving functions that Excel has to offer. But whenever it is possible, taking the time to learn and practice will pay off dividends in future time-savings.

To get you started on your path towards being faster and more efficient in Excel, here are XX tips that you can use right now that I guarantee will save you time as soon as you start using them:

1. Highlight rows and columns with keyboard shortcuts

When you need to highlight an entire row or column, a simple keystroke can do this for you with speed and accuracy. Just hit Ctrl+spacebar to highlight an entire column or Shift+spacebar to highlight an entire row. Happily, this is one of the few keyboard shortcuts that are exactly the same on both a PC and a Mac.

2. Find (and Replace) anything in your spreadsheet

There are times when you just want to find something - a word or a number - quickly in your spreadsheet. You can use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl+F / Command+F to open the Find function, or hit the Find & Select button on the Home tab.

This is also where you can switch over to the Replace function, if you need to replace all instances of a word or set of characters with something else.

3. Check out two spreadsheets at the same time (View side-by-side)

Do you have the same or similar data on two spreadsheets, and you need to look at them both at once? It is so easy in Excel! While both spreadsheets are open, go to the View tab on either one and hit “View Side by Side.”

4. Copy your formatting from one cell to the next

Have you figured out the most beautiful display of information in one place in your spreadsheet, and wish that you could copy all of that work from one place to the next? Copy-and-paste won’t cut it because you’ll write-over whatever text is already in your other cells. So instead, you can use the Format Painter. Select the format you want to copy, click on the little paintbrush in the Home tab, and then select where you want that formatting to go!

5. Remove duplicate values

There are so many reasons why you might need to get rid of duplicate values. Just one of those could be if you want to get a list of unique values from a column in your spreadsheet. Using the Remove Duplicates function in Excel will get rid of the duplicate values, so make sure that you either want those duplicates deleted OR isolate the data you are manipulating. Other than that, it is so simple - highlight the cells that you want to remove duplicates from, and on the Data tab click on the Remove Duplicates button:


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Can You Make Excel Work For You?

What is it about Excel that can make people pull their hair out?

Whether it is numbers not adding up right or forgetting how to do that one thing you want to do - it can be overwhelming and frustrating to the point that you just give up.

Excel is a tool that almost everyone is using or trying to use, but that most people don’t know how to use it, don’t like using it, or spend too much time not getting enough benefit out of it. This is especially true for people who aren’t “techies” or whose backgrounds and strengths are in areas other than technology. For a lot of people, just learning the technical parts of Excel just doesn’t cut it. Some of it will sink in, but most of it will be forgotten. Inevitably, they will hit snags, get unexpected results, and be super frustrated. In the end, they would keep on doing things manually - like counting things up by hand or doing a ton of copy-and-pasting - that would take forever and still end up with lots of time-consuming errors and mistakes.

After years of teaching people of all backgrounds and skills how to use Excel, I’ve heard all of the reasons why Excel is hard and frustrating to work with. But I’ve also seen even the most techno-phobic people turn the corner and see the benefits of overcoming their frustrations and fears. So if learning just the technical pieces doesn’t cut it, how can non-tech people learn how to use Excel to its fullest benefit? I’ve worked with hundreds of people on getting over their roadblocks by teaching them the mindsets that can lead anyone to success in using Excel. These mindsets are all about Making Excel Work For You. Not making you work for Excel, and not making Excel work for anyone else’s needs. Making it work FOR YOU. Now you can get the same coaching in an online course that lets you go at their own pace.

This course isn’t for everyone.

If you are someone who knows that you need to use a vlookup formula, can search on the internet for instructions on how to do it, follow the instructions, and figure out how to make it work for you, then you are doing great and you don’t need this course! You do need this course if you have tons of other strengths but have struggled to learn and use Excel. After taking this course, you will have the key mindset approaches to Excel that will let you:

  • Be confident doing anything in Excel

  • Work through any errors you might encounter

  • Break down your big ideas into attainable steps

  • Work faster and more efficiently in your spreadsheets

  • Never give up on finding a solution

  • Celebrate the progress you make in your learning

  • Turn the boring parts of Excel into fun challenges

  • Build trust in your data

But the number one thing that you’ll get out of this course is that you will be able to be your own teacher in the future - you will be in control of your learning and continuing to make Excel work for you.

And of course, you will learn the important technical pieces, too, including:

  • Simple and advanced sorting and filtering

  • Freezing rows and columns from the scroll

  • Keyboard shortcuts to save you tons of time

  • The most frequently used AND the most useful formulas

  • Absolute and relative references (those little $ in formulas)

  • How to create charts and graphs

  • PivotTables

  • Conditional formatting

  • Tips & Tricks that will make you love Excel

With the mindsets and technical skills you will learn from this course, you will be able to smash your Excel fears and take control of your spreadsheets.

Are you ready to get everything you need to Make Excel Work For You? Sign up below to get updates on when this course is released and let me know what YOU want to learn to do in Excel:

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The Power of Tinkering

Have you ever taken something apart to see how it works or to fix it?

Before my daughter was born, my wife and I got ready for her arrival by decking out her room - crib, rocker, tons of toys, and an adorable mobile. That is a simple contraption that hangs over the crib and plays a cute little tune while hanging giraffes go around and around. The baby loves it. So one day I was turning the crank to entertain the baby and pop! - something inside clicked, and that was it. No music, no spinning giraffes. I could crank it all I wanted by I could tell something had gone wrong, because it wasn’t winding up or working anymore. That was NOT okay, since the baby loves watching it go around and around. I had to do something.

Normally, I’m not a tinkerer. I don’t even usually read the instructions for assembly, much to my wife’s chagrin. But as they say, everything changes when you have a baby, and something changed in me. I decided to take apart that mobile and fix it. First thing I did was to take out a screwdriver and open up the back. I started to lose a little bit of patience when I realized that there were two sizes of screws on the back, and one required a smaller screwdriver then I had picked out to use. I had to get back up off the couch, search around for another screwdriver, then take out the second set of screws. Now I had 3 small screws and 3 even smaller screws that I needed to keep track of. OK, back to taking things apart. I lifted off the back and saw a lot going on. One thing I recognized was a music box - you know those little cylinders with bumps on them that sound the right notes as it spins and hits the bars. There were three or four spinning wheels with spokes that spun each other, and another little box inside that must have had even more mechanisms inside it. I was pretty nervous that I was just going to break the whole thing apart in my hands. So I took stock of everything in there, and tried to look at each piece individually. I looked at the connections between the pieces and tried to figure out what the problem was. Honestly, it was basically by luck that I moved my finger across a little piece that I guess was stuck somehow and unstuck it, making the whole thing start working again. It was pretty darn cool - the wheels started to spin, the music started to play, and I could see a happy baby in my future. I started to get intrigued by my tinkering - I stopped the wheels and looked around a bit. I held down a piece, touched something else, wound the whole thing up, and tried to break it and fix it again. I admit, I didn’t really understand all the mechanics of this simple little device, but I got closer to understanding it, and when I screwed those different sized screws back in and hung it up again for my daughter to watch it twirl and listen to the music, I felt a swelling amount of pride that I’d even attempted to figure it out. I now have this secret hope that it will break again and I will be forced to take apart more pieces so I can really learn how the thing works.

One of the most important aspects of learning how to make Excel work for you is tinkering. Taking things apart, breaking them down into smaller pieces, understanding how each simpler piece works and is put together to make the whole.

Two good examples of how tinkering is the best way to make Excel work for you come from two different situations. The first, you are working with an Excel template or a spreadsheet that somebody else has made and has given to you to work with. The second is that you have an idea or vision about what you want to do in Excel.

In the first example, you are likely to run across some things you don’t understand. Let’s look at the example of a complicated formula. You might see something like this:


Now is the time to start freaking out, right?

There is a lot going on here, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t tinker around with it to try to understand what is going on. Take it apart, break it down into simpler, smaller pieces, and see what you can understand. In this example, you might have seen that there are a few different formulas happening all at once. You could take them apart and try to see what they all do. For example, take the MATCH formula - MATCH(C2,$A$1:$A$6,0) - throw an equals sign in front of it, put it into a new cell, and you can see what the result would be. Maybe you didn’t realize that there were a few formulas in here that you could break out. No problem! Take a look at the cells that are referenced - like B2, C2, A1 through A6 and K1 through K9 - at least you can see that these are cells that are important to the calculation. Don’t know what those dollar signs mean? Type into Google “what do dollar signs in Excel mean” and start to get an idea of what is going on with those cells. Tinker with it, and you’ll start figuring out how each of the pieces fit into the whole.

In the second example, you have an idea of what you want your spreadsheet to do, but you may not be sure how to get there. You have a vision of all the information that you will have in your spreadsheet and you know what you want the result to be. For example, you’ve got a spreadsheet of all your donors and volunteers and the hours they’ve put in, and you want Excel to get you the total of all volunteer hours for each person and also to show how many repeat opportunities a volunteer has done, and to mark if they have also donated money or not. As you might guess, there is not one formula or one special function that will do all of that in a single move. In fact, you might find yourself needing at some point to write a formula similar to the one in the first example. But before you can even try to learn how to write the technical piece, you have to write out your vision in plain English. Break it down into smaller pieces. Take just the first part of your needs (total volunteer hours) - there is no Excel function for giving you “Total Volunteer Hours” so you’ll need to take a look at your spreadsheet. See what you’ve got, and write out what you want to do. If you aren’t sure how to do it, break it down into smaller pieces and go looking for the answers. It can be as simple as Googling “how do I add up two different cells in Excel?” and you’ll find an answer out there. The more complex your vision, the more pieces you’ll need to break down and then add up together again to get to your goal. But each smaller piece is something that you probably already know in Excel, and all you need to do is put those pieces together.

Tinkering - the key to making Excel work for you. Once you understand the smallest actions in Excel, you can build on top of those to get to the more complex stuff. You don’t need any special background for this. In fact, some of the people who are extremely technically knowledgeable about Excel don’t come in with the tinkering mindset, and they will never get Excel to work for them the way that you would be able to. Take it apart, look all around, and try to put it back together. You can totally do it!

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Mastering the Excel Mindset

3 Reasons Why You Should or Shouldn't Use Excel Templates

Excel templates are Excel files that come with pre-made formatting and calculations. Using Excel templates has its advantages - they are set up to do things that you don’t know how to make Excel do yet. So you get the chance to just put in the data that is relevant to you, and then everything pre-built should do the math, add the colors, and hopefully get you to some new information that you wouldn’t have been able to get on your own.

There are uncountable Excel templates out there for anything you might need to do: budgeting, fundraising, project management, event planning, calendaring, gradebooks, attendance tracking. Basically if you have a need, there is a high probability that someone has made an Excel template for it, and you can go find it on the internet. There are some pretty amazing ones here: https://www.smartsheet.com/top-excel-budget-templates

Excel templates can be really great - they can get you started working in Excel, give you ideas about how things can be set up in Excel, show you what is possible in Excel, and if everything is working out just how you need it, then it can save you the time and the energy it would have taken you to learn how to build something like it yourself. Excel templates tend to take advantage of some of the best and most important benefits that Excel offers: automation, data validation, dynamic updates, beautiful formatting, etc.

But Excel templates can also hold you back. Only the most simple of templates are perfectly easy to use. A lot of templates come with shiny features and lots to take advantage of - but that also means you have to figure out if everything in there is relevant to you. Because things are set up in ways that you might not understand, it is super difficult to change anything to fit your specific needs and it is super easy to break something in the template. Plus, you cheat yourself of trying to figure out on your own how to do all these cool Excel things. You can get frustrated when things don’t work out, because you don’t understand what is going on in the spreadsheet to make it all work.

So basically, the top 3 reasons to use Excel templates are sort of the same reasons why you shouldn’t use them:

Why you should use Excel templates Why you should NOT use Excel templates
1. Everything is built already, so you don’t have the frustration of trying to make it work yourself. 1. Everything is built already, so you can get easily frustrated when it doesn’t fit your specific needs and you aren’t able to customize it.
2. Templates usually have the best that Excel can offer: automation, data validation, great formatting, dynamic updates, and more. You get to take advantage of them all. 2. Templates usually have the best that Excel can offer, but you aren’t learning how any of it works or how to do it yourself. The templates tend to lead you away from a growth mindset and keep you away from learning - templates might be of some help in the short-term, but in the long-term you won’t be able to do anything on your own outside of the template.
3. Everybody loves shiny things, right? Excel templates look so good and can have so many cool features. 3. Shiny things can be super distracting. If you don’t need everything that is in a template, it can be easy to get lost in the mix of everything in there, and end up not using most or all of the template.

If you are working in Excel but don’t want to use a generic Excel template, what else can you do? One option is to work with me! I love working with people to get them exactly what they need in Excel. Let me know what you need and we’ll work together to get you an Excel spreadsheet that is tailored to your needs.

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What do YOU want to build in Excel?

The Art of the Error Message

Ever heard of a “wrongologist”? Did you know that there is an entire TED talk playlist about learning from mistakes? Have you read the 2016 Harvard Business Review article about increasing your return on failure ratio? Research has been growing on what can sometimes seem like a common sense notion - that great things come out of learning from our mistakes. The key is to embrace those mistakes and reflect on them.

It is a challenge to put time and energy into thinking about things that went wrong. And when things don’t go as you’d expect in Excel, it is a whole lot easier to think that Excel is broken or just doesn’t work for you. For anything you are trying to accomplish in Excel, there are countless ways for things to go wrong - your data could be set up incorrectly, you could have one letter or number wrong in a formula, or you could have the wrong formatting applied to your spreadsheet. These are all easily correctable, if you’ve got the right mindset for your approach.

There are 4 common mindset errors that you can avoid, and a simple trick that you’ll read about just a little further down to shortcut your way to success. But first let’s dig into these avoidable mindset errors:

Getting technical before getting critical

Using Excel take a lot more critical thinking than most people think it does. Before you can get Excel to do anything that you want, you need to think through the steps that are needed to get you where you want to go. One of the most common mistakes that people make is to jump right in and start manipulating data, writing formulas, and pressing buttons. While I love to encourage experimentation and trying to figure things out, this will only be successful if you have already thought about where you are going and how you are going to try to get there. Avoid this error by taking 5 minutes before you start working in Excel to write or draw or just talk out loud about what your end-goal is, and how you think you are going to get there. Whatever creative way helps you think through problems and solutions, do that!

Not loving the error messages

Does your mind just turn off when you see things in Excel like #DIV/0!, #N/A!, #NAME?, #REF!, and #VALUE!? What do you think when I tell you that these error messages are actually your best friends? OK, let me explain. If things are going wrong in your spreadsheet without error messages, like your formulas aren’t adding up right or your PivotTables aren’t showing you all your data, then there is no message about what is going wrong and how you can correct it. But when you get an error message, you’ve got a key to how to fix the issue. If you get an error message, you can jump for joy, because you already have some really important information about what went wrong and how you can fix it. There are tons of resources on the internet that can tell you exactly what all those error messages are trying to tell you, but before you go looking for them, let’s talk about the next common mindset error.

Getting lost in the internet

Everything you ever needed or wanted to know about Excel is on the internet already, in a few thousand different variations and approaches. It is easy to wile away hours searching for the resource that will help you learn what you need to learn. But for a lot of people, these resources just aren’t as helpful as they could be. Some of them are too technical, most of them use examples that focus on sales and nothing else, and there are just so many of them it can be a big time-suck looking for the one that speaks to you. This is doubly bad, because it can leave you not only without the information you went looking for, but can discourage you from learning more. Getting to know the resources that are most helpful to you and sticking to those can be a first line of defense against getting lost in all the great material that is so readily available, but which can also be a bit overwhelming.

Getting frustrated

Frustration is one of the biggest hurdles to a mindset that will lead to success using Excel. And I get it, there is a lot to get frustrated over. Like when your calculations don’t work out how you expected them to, or when you can’t quite figure out how to write that formula without getting an error message, or when you can’t find the button that you know you used last week or last year but seems to have disappeared. Frustration with Excel can come from thinking that Excel just isn’t working for you, or that you can’t work it, which can turn a lot of people away from using Excel more. The thing to remember here is that Excel always works the way it is supposed to - but a lot of the time we don’t know how it is supposed to work, and how to make it work for us.

One simple trick

Today, you can practice one simple trick to help you overcome these pitfalls: Set a time limit for yourself when you experience an error or a mistake. I like to call this the


When you hit a snag in using Excel, like an error message or incorrect calculations, try to solve that snag for a set period of time. A good rule of thumb is to take only 15 minutes - that includes any google searching - and then STOP. Take a break, make some tea, play with your kids, or search YouTube for 90s hip hop music videos. Whatever you need to do to get away from the potential frustrations of working in Excel while you are still learning to make it work for you. Whenever you feel ready, go back to it, but remember to use your I-hit-a-wall-time-limit whenever you need it.

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4 Excel Organizational Game Changers

If there is something I love as much as I love working in Excel, it is organizing. I love to organize my home, my office, my digital spaces - I even love organizing for other people when they give me the chance! When my physical or digital spaces are a mess, my productivity goes way down. I get distracted by everything lying around and annoyed when piles of stuff start getting too tall and slipping. Eventually I get so overwhelmed by the disorganization that I have to just walk away from it and not see it anymore - or, I have to stop whatever else I want or need to be doing and organize my life first.

Being distracted, overwhelmed, and having to walk away are all things that I’ve also experienced while learning how to use Excel. I eventually found out that a lot of those feelings came from the fact that my data was super disorganized in my spreadsheets. Now when I look at my spreadsheets I do it with the same attention to organization that I do for my home or my office.

The benefits of getting your house organized and getting your data organized in Excel are crazy similar, too:

Know where everything is

Don’t you hate it when you can’t find something in your house? Sometimes it is just annoying, like looking for a rubber band when you can’t remember where you keep them, sometimes it keeps you from doing something else like when you can’t find the remote or your wallet, and of course those times that you can’t stop until you find what you’re looking for, like when you can’t leave the house because you can’t find your keys. And when you put a time-pressure on it - like needing to catch a flight or get a report to funders - then everything gets harder. But when you are organized, this almost never happens. In Excel, having your data organized means knowing where everything is - because you chose where to put everything, and you put it there with a purpose.

De-cluttering for the win

Is there anything better than having wide, clean surfaces? There is space to work, move things around, and you can see everything you are working on. Clean surfaces are really so satisfying. In Excel, clean surfaces means you’ve taken away all the clutter - any data you don’t need in there is gone. It also means that you can see all of the important things that you need to see - everything that you need is cleanly organized in the way that makes sense to you, leaving the rest of your Excel sheet wide open for you to spread out and work.

A sense of calm and tranquility

I’m not trying to get too metaphysical with you here, but there is some real truth to this! Have you ever heard of organization porn? Just seeing things organized can have a positive impact on your mental state. There are tons of physical and mental health benefits to being organized in your life. I’ve definitely found the same to be true for being organized in Excel. A lot of the stress and frustration that is experienced in Excel is a direct result of being unorganized. It can play special havoc on your formulas, PivotTables, and charts (lots of times, they just won’t work unless your data is organized logically). Organizing your data is like feng shui for your spreadsheets.


It is no big surprise that organization can save you time. Sometimes it can feel like it costs time to get organized in the first place and stay that way, but getting organized in Excel is one of the biggest time-savers you will find. So much time can be wasted trying to sift through confusing and disorganized data, looking for things you think should be in your spreadsheet but you can’t seem to find, and generally just feeling lost yourself in a sea of gridlines and numbers. Organizing your Excel spreadsheets up-front means that you won’t have to spend time later cleaning up and making sense of your data.


There are 4 rules of data organization in Excel that will help you save you a ton of time and energy by avoiding some of the most common problems you could experience using Excel:

Always have clear column headers

Column header is simply the term for the words that you put in the first row of your spreadsheet. What you put in the first row should be descriptive of the data that is in each column. Having really clear column headers will help ensure that you don’t spend extra time at any point guessing or trying to figure out what the information in your spreadsheet is. You also want to make sure that you don’t leave the first row of any of your columns blank, which can cause you headaches later on.

Always apply your filters to ALL of your columns and ALL of your rows

This one trips people up a lot. Adding a filter in Excel means you are adding the ability to sort your rows however you’d like, and pick and choose the rows you want visible based on criteria that you get to choose and control. It is really important that you add your filters to ALL of your columns and ALL of your rows. This will ensure that when you start sorting and filtering, all of your data moves together. It happens to everyone at some point in Excel - you don’t add your filter to everything, and then after you do some sorting and filtering you realize that all your rows of data have been mixed up because they weren’t moving together. Making sure that you don’t leave any column headers blank and also that you don’t have blank rows in the middle of data in your spreadsheet will help make sure your filters are applied everywhere. But an easy way to make sure you are applying filters everywhere is to select your whole worksheet before adding the filter.

Don’t mix data types in your columns

It can be tempting to mix data types in columns. One of the most common examples of this is when you have some extra context about the information in your column and you want it to all be together. For instance, if you have a list of people with whom you are planning to meet, and the dates of your upcoming meetings, it can be tempting to add in something like “10/18/16 - Tentative” or “10/22/16 - Confirmed.” The problem with this is that Excel is really bad with mixed data types (like dates and words), and it won’t be able to do some key things, like sort, filter, or do calculations on the mixed information. Data types are things like text, numbers, and dates. Don’t mix these things in a single cell or column. If you find that you want to add context to a number or date, add a column for “notes.” Take a look at incorrect and correct ways to organize your data types:

Get granular with your data

A key tip to remember in Excel is that it is always easier to bring two pieces of data together than it is to pull them apart. As much as possible, you want to keep your data small and granular - meaning break it down to smaller pieces where you can. A really common example here is when you have names in a spreadsheet. You could have both first and last name in one column. But even better, you could have one column for first names and a second column for last names. Another common example of this is addresses. You could put the full address in one column, or you could have a few columns to capture the street, city, state, and zip code of addresses. Why is this important? It makes it A LOT easier to sort, filter, search, and count your data. In our address example, let’s say you want to filter your spreadsheet so you are only looking at people who live in California. You just won’t be able to do that unless the State is in its own column.

(Did you know all of these foundations already? Scroll all the way to the bottom of this email for a bonus - advanced Excel organization with Named Ranges)

If you are creating spreadsheets from scratch, you can apply all of the magic of organization from the beginning. If you are given a spreadsheet to use, whether that is a template that you download or a report at work that someone else created, you might be able to improve on the organization. Just remember the foundations from this lesson and you’ll be on your way to saving time and reducing stress when working in Excel.

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BONUS: Advanced organization with Named Ranges

The Named Ranges feature in Excel allows you to name any group of cells, rows, and/or columns with a name that you choose. This comes in particularly handy when you are doing calculations and want to easily and quickly refer to a specific set of data in your spreadsheet. This functionality can be used simply or complexly, but let’s keep it simple for now. Let’s say you want to add up (or get the sum) of all the numbers in Column F. The formula for that would be something like =SUM(F2:F16). With Named Ranges, you can assign a name to the range and then use that name in your formulas. You can name cells F2 through F16 as something else, like “revenue”, and then you can write your formula as =SUM(revenue). Check it out:

6 Steps for Baking Excel Success


A lot of people try to solve their problems or do their work in Excel by just going for it - without thinking through too much about the approach or the end-goal, they dive right in. I love the optimism and ambition that people have when they do this - and sometimes it works. Unfortunately, what ends up happening a lot of the time is that you get a few steps in and realize:

  • Excel is not doing what I thought it would be doing

  • I’m not getting the results I expected

  • I thought I wanted one result, but really I need something else

  • I thought I knew what I was doing, but now I’m not so sure

And it is usually right around this time when you start feeling frustrated, tired, bored, and ready to walk away from Excel.

Yeah, this used to happen to me all the time, too. I didn’t know about all the things that Excel could do, and I would start to feel lost in all of the buttons and formulas and functions. And when I couldn’t get it to do what I wanted, I spiraled into thinking that Excel was broken.


The truth is, Excel is basically never broken. The real problem usually is in the fact that Excel speaks a different language than we do. In my case, I speak English (you might speak French, or Spanish, or Chinese, or any other language), and Excel speaks its own version of a programming language. The good folks at Microsoft have done their best to translate as much as they could to make it easy on us, but when it comes down to actually being able to talk to Excel and tell it to do what you want it to do, things can easily get lost in translation.

It probably would have gone on that way for me - until one day I just had enough and decided to write out all my frustrations and hopes about what I was going. As I got everything I was thinking and feeling down on paper, I realized that what I had started out doing in Excel was never going to get me where I wanted. When I really sat down to consider what I wanted, it became super clear that I had been going down the wrong path, and would have to course-correct before I was going to see any success.

I started to do a lot more writing when I was learning and using Excel, and found that an analogy that a colleague drew for me was completely true:

Working in Excel is Like Making a Casserole.

Let’s say that you are thinking about what to have for dinner. You decide that casserole would be nice, so you heat up the oven and start pulling things out of the pantry. You get a big bowl out and when you look at your ingredients to start mixing you realize that you’ve got a random assortment of things. Some of them might work in a casserole, but other things have nothing to do with it. What went wrong? There wasn’t a clear end-goal in sight with a detailed recipe of how to get there.


With a clear end-goal and a breakdown of the details, anyone can set themselves up to be successful in Excel. All you need to do is pretty much the things you would do in order to make a good casserole:

1. Decide on your end-goal

If you don’t know what it is you want to make for dinner, then you are definitely not going to be able to figure out how to make it. Be specific. Do you want a cheese casserole or meat casserole? Your needs are unique. Go ahead and write them out so you can see them on paper.

2. Make a list of ingredients

What will you need in order to get to your end-goal? If you are making a cheese casserole, you’ll need cheese. But what kind of cheese? Sometimes thinking through what ingredients you need leads you back to re-defining your end-goal. Now you don’t just want a cheese casserole, you want a four-cheese casserole, with 4 specific cheeses of your choosing.

3. Check your pantry

If your end-goal is to make a four-cheese casserole, and you’ve only got 2 kinds of cheeses, then you won’t be getting to that particular end-goal. This is something huge to understand: If you want Excel to display for you the number of volunteers you had last month, but you don’t have any dates in your data about volunteers, then no matter what formulas or tricks you know, you’ll never be able to display volunteers by month - you just don’t have all the ingredients you need! Once you make a list of the ingredients that you need to get to your end-goal, make sure you’ve got them or you can get them. Otherwise, you may have to change your end-goal to be able to match the ingredients that you do have.

4. Break down the steps

This is where people start to try to think in Excel language, but it is still best to keep it to the language that you actually speak. In my case, that is English. At this point, your end-goal might be granular enough that you don’t need to think through too much detail. But in most cases, you’ll want to write out in your own words what you think needs to happen to get to where you want. In the casserole example, you might think of details like “I want the cheese in my casserole to be stringy and melted when it is served, so I’ll need to melt the cheese,” or “the top layer of my casserole should be crunchy, so I’ll put my breadcrumbs on last.”

5. Figure out where you need help

Along the way, if there were any ingredients you needed that you don’t have, or steps you don’t know exactly how to take, you’ll know that these are places where you might need to ask for help - whether that is from a colleague, a friend, the internet, or an Excel Coach like me. This is a great opportunity to learn new skills while getting towards your end goal.

6. Make your casserole!

Now you can really go for it! And remember: it is OK if it doesn’t work out as planned the first time you try. Like cooking, working in Excel can be both an art and a science.


Take 3-5 minutes to think about something that you want to accomplish in Excel - this might be as large as “create a budget for my event” or “gain insights into the activity of my volunteers” or something as straightforward as “add up all my donations” or “organize my participant information in different ways, such as alphabetically or by number of events attended.”

Then take another 3-5 minutes to write down everything else that you can think of about what you want to do - make sure to stick to the time limit, it is totally OK if you don’t get everything written down. Here are some guidelines to help you get out all your thoughts:

  1. What are you trying to accomplish?

  2. Why this is important for you to accomplish?

  3. What information do you have (such as names, dates, numbers, amounts, etc)

  4. Additional details flying around your head about what you want to accomplish - this part is important - try to get down into the details like “know the sum of all my donations AND sort them highest to lowest AND know when they were given AND have it be colorful AND some of my donations have notes I need to include AND I want to know if they are recurring AND the names of my donors are sometimes not spelled right AND my donations are currently in different spreadsheets and I need them all in one.”

This can take some practice, so don’t worry if it feels weird at first. I know - who thought that learning Excel wasn’t just dry technical mumbo jumbo? But once you find your own voice in writing out what you want to be doing in Excel, you’ll find yourself doing it every time you open Excel up.

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What a year of learning Excel taught me about life

An unlikely source of inspiration

If you read the title of this post and thought, “what the hell can anyone learn about life from learning Excel,” I don’t blame you. I know that it is an unlikely source of inspiration. But after spending a year throwing myself into learning how to make Excel work for me, I realized that I was learning so much more than just formulas, formatting, and number crunching. I was learning life lessons that were going to shape how I approached my work, my education, my hobbies, my friendships, and even my marriage.

The more I reflect on it, the more lessons I find in learning Excel. Here is just a sampling:

Life lessons From Learning Excel

Life Lesson #1: Confidence comes from small wins - so break down those big goals

My year of learning Excel all began because I had convinced a hiring manager to take a chance on me and give me a job that required a lot of Excel knowledge - even though I had barely ever used the program before (side note: never let Excel requirements hold you back from applying for a job!!). Right away I was given projects involving big spreadsheets to make sense of and work with. Immediately I was faced with the deflating feeling of being overwhelmed by little numbers and letters on the screen. There was so much going on, and I didn’t know where to start. The only thing that I could possibly do was to try to break things down and try to understand piece by piece what I had in front of me, and what I needed to learn. I took a big formula in the spreadsheet and started to copy and paste smaller parts of it into different cells to try to understand the pieces individually. Instead of trying to become an expert in the whole spreadsheet, learning just one piece of one formula became my biggest goal. When I figured out that first little part, I got a shot of adrenaline - I did it! I was able to understand 1/100th of the spreadsheet!! And if I could do that once, couldn’t I do it again? That first small win gave me the energy and confidence I needed to learn the next part, then the next part, and so on. I have used this lesson in so many other areas of my life - it guides my approach to working out, to decorating my home, even to writing this blog post!

Life Lesson #2: The Growth Mindset is for real, people!

I can’t remember how many times in my life I’ve said “I’m just not a math person.” That is the kind of attitude I had when I first started to learn Excel. And the first times that I saw those “#N/A” or “#NAME?” errors pop up when I was trying to write a formula, I felt so discouraged. Obviously I just wasn’t able to learn how to do this Excel stuff, because I had followed all the instructions in the system about how to do it, and clearly it wasn’t working. If I couldn’t get it to work on the first try, then it wasn’t going to happen for me. But since my new job depended on me figuring it out, I got over that initial feeling of wanting to just throw my hands up and walk away, and instead tried again. And then again. Finally, I saw where my mistake was, and corrected it. Voila! The formulas fell into place and the numbers started appearing the way I wanted them. Maybe I wasn’t “just not an Excel person” - maybe I could learn this stuff after all. If you haven’t heard of the Mindset Theory, here’s the summary: If you think that you “just aren’t good at” Excel (or math, or art, or whatever) and that you don’t have what it takes to get good at it, then you are thinking with a Fixed Mindset (and holding back your own potential). If you instead think that you are an evolving and growing person who can apply themselves and learn new skills, then you are thinking with a Growth Mindset, and opening yourself up to your fullest potential. The best part of Dweck’s research is that you aren’t born with one mindset or the other - you get to choose! And you get to make that choice in how you approach anything in your life.

Life Lesson #3: Failure means you are making progress

Speaking of those error messages - who in the world thought those up? When those messages appear in my cells it feels like I’m playing Mario Cart and I just took a turn way too fast, flew off the highway, and my character disappeared into the nothingness. Actually, it is really more like how I played Sonic the Hedgehog back in the day - I would make some progress, collect some coins, but then hit a spike, lose them all, and probably end up hitting another spike to die. Good thing there were those sign posts to hit along the way to save your progress! When I first started to use Excel, I got super frustrated about not getting things right the very first time. At first it seemed like I was stuck exactly where I started and not making any progress. But as kept at it I realized that for every roadblock, mistake, and frustrating moment, I wasn’t really failing - I was learning. As I continued to work, I saw how essential this process was to my gaining a deeper understanding of what I was doing and how Excel works. Now when I start any new project or take on learning a new skill, I both expect and welcome the early failures and struggles. Without them, I wouldn’t get as far as I know I can go.

Life Lesson #4: The second time is always quicker than the first time

Once I understood that failures were part of the process, I started to see an interesting pattern happening. I saw that the first time I would try to do something - like write a vlookup formula, or create a bar graph - it would take me a really long time to get it right. But then the second time I would try to do the same thing, I was able to do it about 10% faster. The third time I tried I was about 30% faster than the first time. The fourth time got up to about 60% faster, and from there it was a quick progression to nearly 100% faster. Yes - I did time myself learning things once I started to notice this happening. I wanted to see if this would hold true in other areas of life, so I decided to test it out on another passion of mine - snowboarding. I have been riding goofy (right-foot first) down the mountain for nearly 20 years, and I was determined to get as good at riding regular (left-foot first). It seems small, but this was a big challenge for me - and totally essential to bringing my snowboarding to the next level. My first trip to the mountain to take on this challenge was....rough. I usually speed past other boarders, but it was almost like being a beginner again, slowly making my way down, stopping numerous times along the way. About halfway through the day I was so tired I gave up and went back to my goofy ways. My second trip started out just as hard as the first - but I was thrilled to find that I was improving and getting down the mountain faster. My third time up gave me confidence that the pattern I had found in Excel was playing out in snowboarding - I was getting measurably faster with every attempt. There are no set percentages for any person about how quickly they will improve. But I’ve seen this play out in Excel and in so many other parts of life: the second time is always faster than the first.

One More Important Thing I Learned

While I was learning these (and more) life lessons from Excel, I was picking up on something about how different people are able to learn how to use and how to love Excel. It might come naturally for some, but for the rest of us it can be frustrating and overwhelming. I found this to be especially true for people who came from a background similar to mine - liberal arts, with no integrated Excel trainings in school or work. I became 100% convinced that if I could take on this challenge and become an Excel guru, then anyone - ANYONE - can do it.

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