Better than an App: Three Tiny Excel Skills

Posted on June 5, 2024

Measuring tools and notes on paper together on a desk or table top.

Today’s Morning Buzz is brought to you by Raman Shah, an independent data scientist based in Providence, Rhode Island. Connect with Raman on LinkedIn or Twitter.

What I’m working on: A process map of a city’s Planning and Zoning workflow

What I’m reading: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

What I’m watching: Wristwatch Revival on YouTube


“You should make an app for that.”

Experienced programmers hear this regularly. I usually hear it when I show off one of the morsels of handcrafted workflow that characterize my life and work, like my pocket-friend spreadsheet (GitHub page; download). The appeal of an app is obvious. In the best case, an app in a web browser or on a smartphone can look and feel beautiful while helping a lot of users with zero training. An app can earn its creator clout and money.

The downsides of an app are more hidden. To pay the considerable costs of maintaining them, apps typically surveil you without meaningful consent, hold your data hostage, and are subject to being degraded or taken away arbitrarily in the name of profit, regardless of how much you have come to depend on them.

In many cases, it’s far better to hand-roll a private workflow that works exactly how you want and keeps you in control of your data and privacy. These tools start from old-school infrastructure like a plain text editor or Microsoft Excel.

It takes skill to hand-roll a private workflow, but often less than feared. The three tiny Excel skills below underlie a powerful family of workflows for resilient management through continuous prioritization. I illustrate these skills through a little spreadsheet (GitHub page; download) with which I optimally juggle about four dozen different adulting chores, from bits of personal grooming that happen every few days to business maintenance that only happens every couple years.

Re-calculating every day

Section of an Excel spreadsheet listing adult tasks and related statistics.

Resilient management means prioritizing effort. Prioritization means answering “Can this obligation wait?” Answering that question depends on knowing how long it has already been waiting. Excel makes this analysis tractable with its function TODAY(). Put TODAY() in a formula, and it evaluates to the date in the computer’s clock when the formula was last evaluated.

This in turn enables the formula in the above screenshot: a “recency” score. TODAY() – A2 counts the days elapsed since the date in A2 when the task was last done. Divide this number by a desired service interval, subtract the result from one, and you have a score that is 100% when you have done the chore today, steadily falls to 0% as it becomes due again, then goes negative once overdue.

Tomorrow, TODAY() will evaluate to tomorrow’s date, and your spreadsheet will recalculate to look like this:

Section of an Excel spreadsheet showing adult tasks and related statistics.

Re-sorting data with zero clicks

Whatever obligation has the lowest recency score at any moment is the most neglected and is a good candidate to deal with next. Happily, in Excel, a tiny skill makes sorting routine.

To sort a spreadsheet the first time, you rummage through some menus and configure your needs in a sort window. It’s easy to do once, but it would be a dealbreaker if you had to do this every time. Re-doing a sort is thankfully easy with shortcut keys, which depend on platform. On Windows, you type Alt, A, S, S (four keys, one at a time). In MacOS, you type Cmd + Shift + R (three keys, all at once). Excel will highlight all the data in your spreadsheet and bring up the sort window with the most recent configuration saved. All you need to do is press Enter to refresh your sort. Using shortcut keys, re-sorting a spreadsheet only takes about one second.

Section of an Excel spreadsheet showing adult tasks and related statistics.

Watering the succulents has bubbled to the top, above cleaning the fridge coils, and would probably be better to deal with first.

In recent years, “Microsoft Excel” has become synonymous with “Google Sheets.” Unfortunately, Google Sheets is broadly less capable than Excel. There is no shortcut key to refresh a sort in Google Sheets. This makes real Excel essential, in my experience, to comfortably hand-roll this resilient management workflow.

Writing down today’s date instantly

To run this workflow, it looks like you’d have to type out the current date, longhand, a million times. But that’s not true; there’s a tiny skill for that, the shortcut key Ctrl + ;. Push the “Control” key and the semicolon key at the same time, and today’s date appears. After watering my succulents, I’d click on cell A2, hit Ctrl + ;, hit enter, and refresh this chore to 100% recency in one more second or so.

Section of an Excel spreadsheet showing adult tasks and related statistics.

Re-sorting one more time, it might finally be time to grab my air compressor and pull out the fridge.

Section of an Excel spreadsheet showing adult tasks and related statistics.

Building muscle memory

A lifetime of working on and around technology has ground me down. Having seen too much of its dark sides, I’ve become petulant when I hear expansive claims about Artificial Intelligence, learn that your community expects to benefit by migrating from one brand of bad enterprise software to another, or am told I should make an app for that.

What keeps the spring in my step is my wild optimism about a different kind of technology: a technology not on screens but in brains, which arrives not by downloading something from an app store but by building muscle memory to hand-roll private workflows from decades-old components. This kind of technology uplifts not corporations who seek to addict you to their products so they can control you like a puppet. It uplifts you as the human subject, who is capable of empathy and creativity, whose agency and privacy matter, and who serves other humans who matter in the same way.

Here, three tiny skills—TODAY(), Ctrl + ;, and a shortcut key to re-sort a spreadsheet—elevate Excel from a mere rectangle of data to a resilient prioritization system with interactivity rivaling many apps. There are multitudes of tiny skills like this, which can be combined in untold ways. Individually, these tiny skills do not look like much. Collectively, they can change the world.

An app for that? Nah. Let’s grow a skill for that!

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