Five Excel nightmares (and how to fix them)

Working in Microsoft Excel doesn't have to be a hassle. Here's how to eliminate five common problems.

Have you ever wondered if Microsoft Excel was invented by a sadist?

Trying to edit multiple files at one time becomes a game of "Find the worksheet." You know that the feature you need is on one of the ribbons, but which one? And a large, funky workbook file can slow the program down so much, you need to take a coffee break after altering a single number.

Let's face it: If you do a significant amount of important work in Excel, you're dealing with one nightmare after another. And if you find that using Excel is more difficult than tracking your finances with a pencil and paper, something isn't adding up properly.

I'm here to help, with solutions to five common nightmares found in Excel 2007 and 2010. I'll tell you how to manage multiple workbooks effortlessly, speed up a slow file, track changes from multiple users, find the feature you need among all the ribbons, and enter data more easily.

1. Multiple open workbooks maximize hassles

In Excel you have two clear and obvious ways to work on three or more spreadsheets: You can have too-small windows that don't give you the big picture, or you can clumsily switch between them.

When you launch Excel, it opens a single window on the Windows desktop. When you open or create another workbook (an Excel file that can contain one or more worksheets), that opens an internal window within the Excel window. You can maximize internal windows so that each one fills the entire Excel window, or restore them to view them all at once.

Unless your worksheets are exceptionally small, you should keep the inner windows maximized (the default setting) so that they fill the whole Excel window. You can switch between worksheets by pressing Ctrl-Tab or, to go in the other direction, Ctrl-Shift-Tab.

That approach works well if you have only two files open--but the more files you add, the more you might cycle through them, going in the wrong direction and then wasting time circling back. Another problem with the technique is that it doesn't allow you to examine two workbooks at the same time (which, depending on what you're doing, may come in handy).

For that, click a workbook's Restore button, which you can find below Excel's Restore button in the upper-right corner. Then you can resize and rearrange the windows for better viewing. You can also minimize those you don't want up at the moment.

If you use two monitors, click Excel's own Restore button so that the application is no longer maximized, and then drag the edge of Excel's window so that it fills both monitors. You'll have much more room for arranging windows.

Your final option--and the best in my opinion--is to download and install one of ExtendOffice's Office Tab products. These Office add-ins place each open file in its own tab at the top of the application window. You sacrifice a small amount of screen space, but gain the ability to switch easily between multiple windows. The free edition adds tabs to Word and PowerPoint as well as to Excel, and can handle pretty much everything you need it to do.

2. One superslow file

You double-click a worksheet in Windows Explorer and wait for it to load into Excel. And wait. And wait. Finally, it loads. You change a number, and then you wait some more.

It's hard to say why a particular Excel workbook file becomes so slow that it's unbearable to use. Here are three common culprits and what you can do about them.

Too many calculations: In complex workbooks, changing one number can affect hundreds of reiterative calculations, and Excel takes time to work out each one.

The solution is to turn off automatic calculations, which you can do from the Options dialog box. To get there in Excel 2010, click the File tab, and then select Options in the left pane. In Excel 2007, click the round Office button, and then click the Excel Options button at the bottom of the drop-down menu.

Once you're in the Options dialog box, select Formulas in the left pane. For Workbook Calculations, select Manual.

Just remember that the numbers won't be correct until you either save the file or press F9.

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