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Tickling the Keyboard: 10 Spreadsheet Tips

Basic shortcuts to smooth the use of Excel.

It may not be one of the seven wonders of the digital world, but for CFOs, nothing compares with Microsoft’s Excel for performing calculations, tracking a variety of business items, and making forecasts of what the future might hold in store. The problem is that the program is so complicated that few busy finance chiefs can ever use more than a handful of Excel’s many capabilities.

When things get complicated, it may be most helpful to start simply—and when it comes to computing, you can’t get much simpler than the keyboard. Following are 10 essential keyboard shortcuts that have the power to streamline how to use Excel. While the focus is on using Excel 2003, most of the shortcuts apply to older and newer versions as well. One thing is for certain: the bigger the spreadsheet, the more time the shortcuts can save.

• Saving, Printing, Opening. If you spend a lot of time opening, closing, and printing spreadsheets – and who doesn’t – the F12 key could become your best friend. On its own, the F12 key will open up the “Save As” dialog box. But add the Shift key to it, and Excel will automatically save the current sheet. Type “Control” and F12 together and Excel will provide a fresh spreadsheet.

• Formulas, the Easy Way. It may not sound like much help. But whenever you type an equal sign in an Excel cell, it will start a new calculation in the formula bar. If you create or modify a lot of spreadsheets, it’s a real time-saver. If you’re having second thoughts about the formula, just hit the ESC button or “Control” and “Z” to start over.

• Adding It All Up. Think of the F9 key as a power tool for Excel jockeys whose spreadsheets are chock full of interlocking formulas. On its own, the F9 will execute every calculation in the file. Adding the shift key will restrict the calculations to just the open sheet.

• Hide-and-Seek Cells. One technique for making a complicated sheet easier to handle is to hide non-critical cells, rows, and columns. They’re still there and work, they just don’t get in the way. It can be tedious to manually make them disappear and reappear individually. Use “Control” and the number 9 key to hide something. Don’t worry about losing what you’ve hidden: to bring it back, type “Control” and 9, followed by “(.”

• Moving between Workbooks. With nested Workbooks, although Excel can perform incredibly complicated tasks while keeping a firm’s financial data organized, it can be a confusing chore to get to the right sheet. Any time you want to go to another open page, just hit “Control” and “Tab” to cycle through the open pages. If you’ve gone too far and missed the sheet you want, try typing “Control” and “Shift” and then “Tab” to go back a page.

• Next Cell, No Waiting. Need to copy a cell’s contents to a new cell? It can be time-consuming and awkward to highlight the cell, go to the “Edit” menu at the top of the screen, select “Copy,” point the cursor at the new position, and use the “Edit” menu to paste it in place. Fortunately, Excel can quickly copy content. After highlighting the cell you want to copy, carefully move the pointer to the small black square at the cell’s lower right-hand corner. It’s called the “fill handle,” and you can drag it anywhere. The cell’s contents will go with it.

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