MS Excel Shortcuts fallacy

There is a fallacy that the solution to all your MS Excel problems is only learning keyboard shortcuts (CTRL + something) and other combinations of keystrokes. So not using the mouse is promoted as the better way. Below our view on this MS Excel shortcuts fallacy.

You must use whatever you feel most comfortable with. We use a combination of icons, right clicks and shortcuts. The trick is to use the correct tool, not getting to the tool the fastest. Our free tips and tricks course covers some of the keyboard shortcuts we actually use.

Time Saving Fallacy

Shortcuts are promoted as saving time, but the question is how much time. We would expect at least a 1 hour saving in an 8 hour day to make this worthwhile. So how much time can you save?

The difference between using a keyboard shortcut and the same thing via ‘right click’ or ‘icon click’ can’t be more than 2 seconds, but let’s make it 5 seconds saving by using the keyboard shortcut (count to 5 Mississippi and see how long it is).

In order to save 1 hour, you would need to perform 720 shortcuts in 8 hrs or 90 every hour. That is 1.5 short cuts per minute (doable), but will you continue at that rate for the rest of the day?

If the more realistic 2 seconds is used, this increases to 1 800 shortcuts per day or 225 every hour (or 4 a minute- again for the whole day).

If you wanted to halve your work day with keyboard shortcuts, you would need to perform a staggering

  • 2 880 keyboard shortcuts at 5 secs (6 a minute) and
  • 7 200 at 2 secs (15 keyboard shortcuts a minute).

It is highly unlikely that you perform this number of ‘short cut-able’ procedures in a day as no shortcut eliminates the thinking and formula writing time. Also you will spend hours on Excel tools that are short cut lite (see below).

So if it does not save you tons of time over a whole day, what are the risks with keyboard only?

New Tools are shortcut lite

Pivot tables are very difficult to work without the mouse, but more importantly the great new tools like PowerQuery and PowerPivot are very low on meaningful shortcuts. You are going to have to go back to using icons and right clicks anyway.

Memory Issues

Not the computer’s memory, yours. I struggle to remember what I did yesterday.

There are thousands of tools in Excel and most have a shortcut. You can’t remember them all. As a result, if you go the keyboard shortcut only route you will end up using only certain tools, not because they are the correct tools, but because you can’t/ don’t want to remember more.

You may think that muscle memory will work for you, but muscle memory assumes you do the same thing every day, all day. A lot of Excel users are less frequent users. It also assumes that the shortcuts stay the same!

If you want to go this route, spend your money on a good memory course and then memorize the list of shortcuts per this Microsoft page. Make sure you memorize all the variations as well (windows, mac, online etc- more on that later)

Better, use whatever feels comfortable and easiest to remember, and when you need a shortcut, google it and use it while you need it. If you genuinely use the tool a lot you will automatically remember it.

Stagnating in your Excel knowledge

A major problem with Excel in general, but especially users who focus on keyboard shortcuts, is that they stagnate in their Excel knowledge at the version they initially learnt on.

For example, if they always use ALT + A + E to get to the Text to Columns tool, they don’t notice that there is a new button called Flash Fill and they never wonder what it does.

Microsoft is continually improving Excel and often without much fanfare. The number of users we see who don’t know about Flash Fill, Maps and PowerQuery is staggering, and all they need to do is wonder ‘what does this button do’. But in order to wonder about it, you need to see it.

Limiting yourself to only your machine and software

Keyboard shortcut only training limits what machine and software you can work on. If you are so reliant on keyboard shortcuts you are going to be very particular on what type of machine and what software you are willing to work on.

Most software developers use the same or similar icons and words for procedures. Shortcuts could be almost anything. There is some standardisation and luckily it is mostly Microsoft based but not even all Excel variants are the same let alone across other software.

  • Relying on ‘keyboard shortcut only’ means that you need to be careful on the Mac version as they are not all the same even from one Mac version of Excel to another.
  • Excel online is great (and a focus area of Microsoft) but the shortcuts are different.
  • If you need to use Google Sheets, your shortcut only knowledge may be a problem.

Chris van Zyl, a regular reader, pointed out that using CTRL+ SHIFT+; does not generate the time on his machine. This is because on his keyboard the ; and : are not the same key. If your fingers get too used to a particular  sequence, you may be reluctant to change any of the above aspects.

Humans work better with images

Notice that most software and websites are more visual and less menu driven.

Google and Facebook have shortcuts but very few people use them.

Given how much time people spend on the internet, the Google Chrome shortcuts should be standard for everyone but we don’t know too many people who use them.

Shortcuts should not be the be-all and end-all of your training. If it was the best way, these software giants wouldn’t be spending so much time on the graphical interfaces.

Addin’s affecting shortcuts

Great new add-in but you have to switch it off as it is interfering with you shortcuts? Not a great reason to limit yourself. One of our add-ins affects the underline (CTRL + U) shortcut from working. This is one shortcut we use a lot, but using the icon is no problem as the add in is great and worth the extra 1 or 2 seconds.

Conclusion

  • Don’t focus on MS Excel training courses that will teach you only keyboard shortcuts.   They can be useful, but the ‘short cuts’ you should be learning is which tool achieves the best results. Keeping up to date with what Excel has improved and how it will make your life easier is more important.
  • Don’t rate users Excel skills on their knowledge of shortcuts. I would fail any question that asks what the shortcut is to insert a row. Does it really matter that I would rather right click than CTRL + SHIFT + ‘+’ ( or ^ + I on previous Mac versions but on Mac 2016 it is CTRL + SHIFT + ‘+’ and some of the shortcuts have changed so your need to re learn them)

A great old quote I received from Chris, who assisted by reviewing this article is very relevant

“As many as necessary, not as many as possible”