Dear Analyst #30: How to learn Excel while staying at home during COVID-19

Now that you’re staying home and picking up new hobbies and taking classes online, here are a few tips on how to learn Excel and spreadsheets from an online class. I have seen viewership on my own Excel classes spike since COVID-19 hit which has led me to think about the best way to learn online.

First of all, why are so many people trying to learn Excel? Maybe since all schools and universities have pushed to online learning, students may be questioning the value of their college degrees. Maybe I should start learning skills that will actually help me land a job…enter stage left: Excel and spreadsheets.

Spreadsheets most sought after skill

In episode 22, I brought up an episode of Freakonomics where they discussed different stats around subjects Freakonomics listeners wished they had learned in high school to better prepare them for their current jobs. The high-level numbers:

Skills currently used on their jobs

  • Less than 5% – Percent of survey responders who said they still use calculus, trigonometry, or geometry in their current jobs
  • 70% – Those who use Excel or Google Sheets on a daily basis
  • 75% – Those who visualize data or present data to make an argument on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis

Skills people wished they had learned in high school

  • 0% – Those who wished they had learned other traditional math subjects in high school beyond what they had already learned
  • 65% – Those who wished they had learned skills around analyzing and interpreting data to uncover insights
  • 60% – Those who wished they had learned how to visualize and present data

It’s pretty clear that data-related skills are what’s actually being used on the job, and during a pandemic where you may have been furloughed, laid off, graduating from university, or really any scenario where your future is unclear and you want to secure a job, learning Excel and data skills may bubble to the top on your to-do list while you’re in quarantine at home. Hopefully these tips will help you gain the skills you need to learn Excel and spreadsheets to help land your next job.

1) Block out time on your calendar to take your class

If you’re a fan of David Allen’s Getting Things Done philosophy, you’ve probably head the phrase that if it doesn’t gets scheduled, it doesn’t get done. Blocking off time on your Google or Outlook calendar to actually take your Excel class versus taking the class when you feel like it will ensure you get through the material and get into a state of flow with the material.

2) Minimize distractions

While it’s easy to stay connected with family and friends while at home, you really need to put away your phone and apps for doing all your meetings and virtual hangouts. Turning off notifications for Facetime, Facebook, Houseparty, Slack, etc. will ensure you can get some uninterrupted time to learn Excel. There are small nuances to writing Excel formulas that can be easy to overlook when you are distracted by your friends or social media.

3) Connect with the instructor and community

Many online Excel classes encourage you to ask the instructor questions and many platforms such as Skillshare encourage students to participate in the community of other students who are taking the class with you. For my Excel classes, there are several discussions where students ask me questions and either I or another student taking the class will jump in an answer. Active participation ensures you are engaged with the class and the instructor and students can help keep you accountable.

4) Have Excel open alongside the video

It’s easy to simply watch a screenshare of an instructor doing something in Excel and say: “I get that, that looks easy to do.” It’s one thing to see the instructor write a VLOOKUP() formula but a completely different experience when you write the formula yourself. Have Excel or Google Sheets open next to the window where you are taking the class is important for you to get hands-on experience with using Excel. Pause the video and try doing what the instructor is doing in Excel.

5) Practice with real use cases from your daily life

Probably the most important tip. In order to take what you learn from the online Excel class marketable to the real world, you need to use spreadsheets for real-life scenarios. The main way I learned Excel was from looking at other people’s spreadsheets in a work environment. If you know someone who can share an Excel file they use at work (removing sensitive info, of course), this would give you a way to see how people use Excel in the real world. Then you can talk more intelligently about how you might design a spreadsheet during an interview.

Don’t have access to Excel files from people who use Excel every day? Try Googling “financial model Excel example” or “track customers Excel example” and you’ll get all sorts of nice templates. Better yet, take Google Sheets or Excel and start tracking something in your daily life. The number of home workouts you do every week. What you are spending on online deliveries. Track COVID-19 stats for your county or state. By building these simple reporting tools, you’ll get a feel for how to use spreadsheets for a real world use case.

Some of my favorite Excel teachers

Been following some of these instructors for a while now, and can definitely say their classes are worth checking out if you are new to Excel:

MAKRO is back!

One of my favorite Excel streamers is back with this livestream. He makes some good points about how Microsoft is dumbing down Excel for beginners and alienating advanced Excel users. Bless you MAKRO.

Other Podcasts & Blog Posts

In the 2nd half of the episode, I talk about some episodes and blogs from other people I found interesting: