In defence of spreadsheets: the Great Spreadsheet Debate

The Great Spreadsheet Debate

To me, a world without spreadsheets is a world without order.

You might think of spreadsheets as a way to organise your finances, but I think of them as a way to organise my entire life. As a spreadsheet lover, it’s not that I’m particularly in love with math or figures or finances - instead, I love the order of spreadsheets. Spreadsheets give me a quick and easy way to impose structure on everyday life, to make my world tidy and trackable and ultimately, more efficient.

Spreadsheets aren’t just about the numbers

If you look around the web, people use spreadsheets to track everything: travel itineraries, fitness routines, life goals, makeup collections, car shopping, personal libraries, wedding planning, songwriting, sports leagues, parenting, sleep schedules, even dates. Entire blogs are dedicated to the idea of organising our lives with spreadsheets, and the “self quantifier” movement rose out of this impulse to measure and order our daily life. Sure, there are apps to track some of these things, but are they well-designed apps? Are they just right for your needs? Unless it’s complex or super-important, it’s a lot easier just to make a spreadsheet.

When numbers are involved, everyday spreadsheets are even more useful. One of the best uses for spreadsheets is to answer “what if” questions, like “what if I paid off my credit card before my car loan?,” or “what if I took out a different mortgage - how much money would I save?” With even a very basic understanding of spreadsheet formulas, you can suddenly create spreadsheets that help you solve everyday problems.

There are no bad spreadsheets, only poorly treated spreadsheets

With that said, all spreadsheets aren’t perfect - I think a lot of people who hate spreadsheets have been subjected to ones that were either poorly tested, not maintained, or just inappropriate for the job. Spreadsheets are great for a few people to keep track of manageable amounts of data, but the moment you get into lots of interlinking data and/or lots of people maintaining the data, spreadsheets become more frustrating than liberating. They’re also a real pain if you need to update them on the go, as even Google Docs hasn’t solved the mobile spreadsheet view.

This article does a good job of talking through the drawbacks of spreadsheets - essentially, they’re not great at replicating entire databases, and you can introduce a lot of unintentional errors and wasted time if you try to build a database (or entire app) inside a spreadsheet. As much as I love spreadsheets, there’s a time and a place for everything - I’ve retired quite a few spreadsheets over the years in favour of great apps.

How to love spreadsheets

If you’re open to the spreadsheet way of thinking and want to see what they can do for you, I’d suggest getting started with Lifehacker’s spreadsheet articles, which includes everything from tips to templates. Also check out Not Just Numbers for a daily dose of spreadsheet love and friendly tips.

The Great Spreadsheet Debate

Do you love spreadsheets, too? If so, I’d love to hear your reasons in the comments, as well as opinions from the other side of the fence! If you blog about loving (or hating) spreadsheets on your own site, share us the link!

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