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.

Enjoy this post? You might also like my FREE 7-day email course: