The Excel Habits You Need to have

I’ve been trying to form a new habit for the past few weeks.

I want to be a better and more consistent writer, and I don’t want it to feel like pulling teeth every time I sit down at the computer with a blank document in front of me. In my ideal world, writing would be something that I can do without even thinking about it - something that I could almost absent-mindedly sit down to do and find myself with a perfectly formed blog post after 30 minutes of joyful and care-free writing.

I’m also trying to be realistic. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to realize that ideal world, but I do know that the more intentional practice that I can put towards building any skill, the more improvement I will see. That is why I have started nearly everyday for the last few weeks writing at least 500 words. By 8am, I’ll sit down with my coffee and breakfast, open a blank google doc, name the doc “FREEWRITE” (so that there is no pressure to come away with a finished product), think about what is on my mind or what I observe around me, and just start typing. The first few days went pretty slowly, and I had to push myself to get to 500 words. But the more I do it, the more routine and habitual it becomes. And after a few days I also got a bit more comfort and familiarity with the whole writing experience. One way this helps is that I can eyeball how many words I’ve written on a page, which can drive me to write more or to be OK with stopping and moving on to a different task.

This is essentially the same way that I formed good Excel habits.How can you recognize good and bad Excel habits? Good Excel habits save you time and make your life easier. Bad Excel habits waste your time, frustrate you, and sometimes keep you from learning more skills.

Whatever level of Excel user you are, you most likely have some good and bad Excel habits that you do without even thinking about doing them. By identifying and getting rid of those bad habits and building up your favorite good ones, you will be able to approach any work in Excel with more confidence and comfort, since you’ll be doing some basic things that you’ll do without even thinking about them. And no matter what your habits are, the way you make or break them is by seeing the results. When you have a good result from breaking a bad habit or building a good one, you can get the motivation to keep doing those habits, until they are just second-nature.

Here are a few of my favorite GOOD Excel habits. These have definitely shown me really positive results, including saved time, more accurate work, fewer mistakes, and the confidence to get even better.

Add filters (and add them again when you need to)
Most of the time when you are working in Excel, you are going to want to sort and filter your data. That means adding that little down-arrow to the first column on your spreadsheet. If I have even two columns of information, I’ll go ahead and add a filter to both columns. If I end up adding more columns, almost immediately I make sure to re-apply filters to include the new columns. When you don’t have filters on all your columns, you run the risk of sorting some of your data, but not all of it.

Combine workbooks
If you have more than 5 workbooks open at one time, you start running a lot of risk - you can forget which workbooks you are actively working on, which workbooks have which information in them, and Excel starts running more slowly and might even crash. If I have two different workbooks of information to work from, I will combine them by adding a new sheet to one workbook and copying all of the other workbook data into this new sheet (or you can use the “move and copy” action that can be found by right-clicking on the tab). Then I close the second workbook. Now I have only one workbook open with two sheets of relevant information in it. Do this as many times as you can.

For presentations, trade gridlines for borders
Gridlines make it much, much easier to read a whole bunch of numbers and words in Excel. But when you are trying to draw attention to certain information, particularly just a few cells of information on a worksheet, gridlines can be noisy and distracting. When I make presentations and want to highlight a smaller table of information on the screen, I will remove the gridlines from the worksheet and instead add borders around my cells with the important information. Or even better, use the “format table” action to add in some nice colors and borders.

Use keyboard shortcuts for navigation
It is an indisputable fact - using your mouse in Excel will slow you down. There is just no competition. It takes way more time to move your hand from your keyboard to your mouse and back again, moving the cursor around with the mouse, and scrolling with the mouse, and way less time to navigate an Excel worksheet and workbook with your keyboard. Learning the keyboard shortcuts takes commitment and practice - a lot of times it will feel easier to just use your mouse. But the more you use the shortcuts, the quicker you become at them, and the better results you will be able to recognize.

Wherever possible, take the simple route
In Excel, there is always more than one way to get to the end-goal that you are working towards. Sometimes it is a science, but a lot of times it is an art. When faced with choices about how to approach your work in Excel, often times the simplest path is the best one (or a few simple paths combined). For example, let’s say you want to know if the data in one cell is the same as in another cell. You could write a complicated if/then statement. Or, you could just use equal signs: =A1=A2. This simple formula will return a TRUE if cell A1 is the same as A2. If it isn’t the same, the formula returns a FALSE. Couldn’t really be simpler than that.

Use color coding sparingly and with rules
Color coding is tempting - it is an easy way to mark things that you want to know or remember, and breaks up the monotony of all those lines and boxes. But color coding can get really messy also. Sorting and filtering can screw around with it. Adding and removing rows and columns can mean you need to apply the colors again. It can be a big struggle to change colors if you want to make them different at any point. And importantly, you can forget what the color coding meant, or someone else using your sheet will have no idea what the colors signify. Use colors for presentations, but not so much for organizing and working with your data. But if you really love color coding, the best way to do it is with conditional formatting rules - that way there is at least some record of what the colors mean.

Take notes
Speaking of keeping a record of what something means, one of the absolute best Excel habits is to take notes about what you’ve done in your spreadsheets. When you’ve got some documentation about what is going on, you can leave your spreadsheet for long periods at a time and know what you are coming back to. You can pass your spreadsheet to someone else and have them understand things without needing to explain it. Even though it takes some time to enter the notes as you go, it will save you tons of time later on. There are a lot of ways you can take notes in Excel - right in the cells, using comments, or starting a new tab called “notes” where you type all your notes.

It isn’t sexy, but the best way to form a new habit is to practice, practice, practice. I want to hear from you! How do you form new habits? And what Excel habits do you want to have?