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How to work faster in Microsoft Excel

Handy tips to speed up spreadsheet jobs

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Excel puts lots of great tools on your desktop, but what each one of them does isn't always obvious, especially since so many Excel features are hidden.

Would you like to create multiple lines of text within a cell? There's a keystroke for that. What if you want to reuse a chart's formatting on another chart, or print multiple worksheets on a single sheet of paper?

Those aren't the only timesaving tools at your fingertips. Here's how to find and use them to work smarter in Excel.

1. Make new text lines in a cell

As you've probably already discovered, when you're typing text into a cell and you want to start a new line of text, the Enter key doesn't produce the desired result. Pressing Enter merely places the text in the current cell and then selects the next cell.

Instead, to start a new line in Microsoft Excel, as you're typing text, press Alt-Enter. On the Mac, the key combination is Control-Option-Return.

2. Quickly add values in cells

What do you do when you need a quick calculation, such as adding the values of two cells? Rather than typing a formula to do it, click once on the first cell to select it and then Ctrl-click the second cell. By default, the Status Bar, which runs along the foot of the Excel window, will show the result of adding the values in the selected cells (Sum).

You can also view other calculations in the Status Bar by right-clicking the Status Bar and choosing from the calculations listed there. Aside from Sum, you'll find Average, Count, Numerical Count (the quantity of cells selected that contain numerical values), Minimum and Maximum.

3. Create a reusable chart template

Creating a series of charts for a project, such as an annual report, usually means that you need to format all of the charts similarly. Create a chart template for the design, and you can use it to create and format new charts in a flash.

First create one chart and format it as you want all of the charts to look in the future. To save the chart formatting and appearance (but not the data) as a template, choose Chart Tools, go to the Design tab, select Save as Template and then type a name for your template. The entry in the Save As Type box should read 'Chart Template Files(*.crtx)'. If it doesn't, select that option from the drop-down list. Click Save.

To use this template to format a new chart, begin by selecting the data to chart. From the Ribbon toolbar, choose Insert, Other Charts and then All Charts Types. Now click the Templates option. From the My Templates group, select the template you saved and click OK. Your new chart will have the same formatting as the chart template, saving you from having to do the work again yourself.

4. Format and chart far-flung data

Here's another quick timesaver: When you want to format a series of cells that don't appear side by side, start by selecting the first block of cells and then hold the Ctrl key as you select the second and subsequent blocks of cells. You can then apply a format, such as a font change or fill colour, to all the selected cells.

You can use the same technique to chart cells that don't appear side by side, as well. For example, if you need to create a chart from a table of data using the headings in the first column and the data from the fourth column, first select the headings in the first column. Then hold Ctrl as you select the matching data in the cells in the fourth column. Afterward, create a chart, just as you would any regular chart.

5. Keep an eye on data with a Watch Window

When you're editing a very large worksheet, often you need to view how your changes in one area affect totals and other calculations in cells that currently sit off-screen, either farther down the page or on another worksheet tab. Instead of repeatedly moving back and forth from your working data area to the cells that show the results you're interested in, use a Watch Window to display the values of the cells in the other part of the worksheet as you tinker.

To set up a Watch Window, click the left mouse button within one cell that you want to watch. From the Ribbon toolbar, choose Formulas, Watch Window. When the Watch Window dialog box appears, click Add Watch. Because you've already selected the cell, you simply need to confirm that the reference to it in the dialog box is correct, and then click Add.

Now return to the area of your worksheet that you're editing. As you do so, you'll see that the Watch Window floats atop the worksheet, allowing you to work on your data. While you edit, the Watch Window shows the other cells, reflecting the changes you're making. You can move and resize the Watch Window as you wish, and use the Add Watch button to view additional cells in the Watch Window, even cells on another sheet, so that you can track the results in multiple cells as you work.

6. Make formulae easier to understand

Sometimes formulas are not as clear as they could be. A formula that looks like '=C2*C5', for instance, is much harder to understand at a glance than one that reads, say, '=TaxRate*C5'. You can create formulas that use names (like 'TaxRate') instead of cell references (like 'C2') if you give common names to the cell or cells containing data you use repeatedly in calculations.

To name a range, click the cell or select the range of cells to name. From the Ribbon toolbar, choose Formulas, Define Name and then type a name in the Name box. The name should start with a character, not a number, and although you can't use spaces, you can use an underscore character if you wish. Click OK.

For example, if you were to name a cell 'TaxRate', later on you could use that name in a calculation, such as in the formula '=TaxRate*C5', which multiplies the value in cell C5 by the value of the cell you've named 'TaxRate'.

When you have named cells on a worksheet, you can find any of those cells or ranges by clicking in the Name box, which appears at the far left of the Formula Bar under the Ribbon toolbar. Click the drop-down arrow in the Name box to view a list of all named ranges, and click one to go immediately to that area on the worksheet.

7. Format large values as rounded thousands and millions

Large numbers, such as thousands and millions, are often easier to work with as a rounded number than the exact value. You can set the cells containing large values to the nearest number of thousands using a custom Excel format.

First select the cell or range to round off. Next, right-click the selection and choose Format Cells, Number. From the Category list in the Format Cells dialog box, select Custom. In the Type box, type ###, "k" and click OK. This format will round up the number to a whole number of thousands and display it with the letter k after it. For example, the number 21,678.22 will display as '22k'. Likewise, to format a number in the millions, create a custom formula that reads ###,,"m".

In addition to using this number format in your worksheets, you can apply it when formatting the axes of your charts. To format a chart axis this way, right-click the axis and choose Format Axis. Then choose the Number group and set up your custom format by typing it in the Format Code box.

This format controls only how the numbers appear on your worksheet or chart axis, and does not affect the cell's value. Therefore, Excel will use the actual value in a cell when the cell is referred to in a calculation.

8. Print multiple sheets on one page

One thing that's impossible to do in Excel using any built-in command or option is to print data from multiple sheets in a workbook onto a single sheet of paper. Instead, Excel always starts a new sheet of paper for each sheet in the workbook.

You have a workaround, however, that involves using the Camera tool.

To start, you need to add the Camera icon to a toolbar. The easiest one to use is the Quick Access Toolbar. Click the down-pointing arrow to the right of the QAT, and choose More Commands. From the drop-down list in the right panel of the Excel Options dialog box, choose Commands Not in the Ribbon. In the panel below, select the Camera icon and click Add to put it in the QAT. Click Close.

Then, select the first range to print, and take a snapshot of it by clicking the Camera icon. Move to a new worksheet, and click in the cell where the top-left corner of the snapshot should appear. Immediately, once you click there, the snapshot image will appear.

Now go to the second area that you want to print, select it, take a snapshot of it, and repeat the process of adding that snapshot to the same sheet as before. Continue to assemble all the data you need to print. Because the snapshots are all located on a single worksheet, you can now print them on one sheet of paper. Note, too, that the snapshots are linked to the original data, so if you make changes to the original data, the data in the snapshots will update automatically.

9. Borrow table formats for your Excel data

Using the 'Format as Table' command on the Home tab of the Ribbon toolbar applies a neat format to a list of data in Excel. Unfortunately, it also adds filters to your column headings and changes the behaviour of columns and rows adjacent to the list. If you want the convenience and simplicity of applying table formats with a single click, but don't want the other features applied at the same time, you can easily remove the extras.

To see this at work, select your list, including the heading row. Apply a table format to it by selecting the Format as Table option on the Home tab of the Ribbon. Click a table style to apply it to your list. When the Format As Table dialog box appears, select the My table has headers checkbox, then click OK. Your data will be neatly formatted.

To remove the other features that Excel adds automatically to your list, keep the list selected. Choose Table Tools and then the Design tab, and select the Convert to Range option. When Excel asks, 'Do you want to convert the table to a normal range?' click Yes. This action removes the filters from the column headings, and removes other table-specific behaviour, but leaves the formatting in place.

10. Create a custom data-entry list

It's always quicker and more accurate to select an entry from a prepared list than to type the item yourself. So when you have a worksheet requiring common entries that could exist in a list, set them up that way.

To create such a list, in an empty sheet in the workbook type the list of items to choose from, in one column. Return to the sheet where you will use these items, and select the range into which they will be entered. Choose Data, Data Validation, Data Validation and then click the Settings tab. In the Allow drop-down menu, select List. Click in the Source area, navigate to the sheet that contains the data, and select the cells containing the items you just typed. Click OK to close the dialog box.

Now, when you select one of the cells to which you just added the Data Validation option, you'll see a drop-down arrow appear. From the list that appears when you click the arrow, you can select the item to enter into that cell.


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