Can an app get you hooked on sleep?

Asleep in Battery Park on hot day

Hooked: A Guide to Building Habit-Forming ProductsUnless you want whatever product you’re working to be ignored, go out and read Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, by Nir Eyal. It’s a short primer on the nuts and bolts of how products ingrain themselves into our everyday routines. As Nir puts it, “the ultimate goal of a habit-forming product is to solve the user’s pain by creating an association so that the user identifies the company’s product or service as the source of relief.” In the book, he outlines four components of a truly additive product:

  1. Trigger
  2. Action
  3. Variable Reward
  4. Investment

I wanted to see how well an app I regularly use stacked against these criteria. It’s an app called Sleep Cycle, which uses my phone’s accelerometer to measure the quality of my sleep each night. I’ve been using it pretty religiously for several months now, so I think it’s safe to say that it’s a habit forming product. Let’s see if it meets all of the criteria…


There are four types of triggers outlined in the book, but just two apply here: internal and owned.

Internal is “When a product becomes tightly coupled with a thought, an emotion, or a pre-existing routine…”. Considering that I sleep everyday (it’s a great way to fend off insanity if you haven’t tried it), that’s a pretty solid internal trigger. I go to sleep; I am triggered to use Sleep Cycle. Since the app also serves as my alarm clock, it’s actually ingrained into two routines.

Owned refers to triggers that “consume a piece of real-estate in the user’s environment.” The app lives right there on the first page of apps on my iPhone home screen, so it does provide a trigger this way. For a phone app, though, “taking up a piece of real-estate” is pretty much a given, so I can’t give the app any extra credit here. However, app notifications fall under the umbrella of owned triggers, and it’s interesting that the app doesn’t offer any. I would think that setting up a simple reminder to “Turn on Sleep Cycle” at a set time every day would be a no-brainer.

I’ll give the app a 6 out of 10 here – the nature of the app lends itself well to routine, but it could go a lot further to remind new users to keep using the tool.


The book references the Fogg Behavior Model, which says that “a given behavior will occur when motivation, ability, and a trigger are present at the same time and in sufficient degrees.”

We’ve already touched on trigger, so how about motivation and ability?

It’s easy to find motivation to sleep given the right circumstances.

Eyal defines motivation it as “the level of desire to take that action.” For a first time user of the app, the primary motivation is to “sleep better” (it works by waking you up during the correct point in your sleep cycle). That’s an interesting proposition (who doesn’t want to sleep better), but it’s fairly vague in terms of what that actually means. Further more, the App Store page used to market the app doesn’t go a long way to really sell you on the concept.

Ability is simply how hard it is for a user to take an action. E.g. using Craigslist vs filing your taxes. Sleep Cycle is pretty easy to use, simply turn it on and place the phone facing down on your mattress. However, to get real benefit from the app, you need to use it consistently, and there’s kind of a steep learning curve to wade through all of the reports. You also have to make sure the phone is plugged in, which is a pain if you’re just exhausted and want to go right to bed! Of course the final step can be pretty tough (you actually have to go to sleep), but that’s not the app’s fault!

Let’s give it a 5.

Variable Reward

“Without variability, we are like children in that once we figure out what will happen next, we become less excited by the experience,” Eyal says. This is why the math behind slot machines is so important. If you simply won a small, fixed prize for every, say, ten spins, the experience would get dull pretty quickly. Apps are no different.

This is where Sleep Cycle really shines. Each morning when you wake up, the app rates your sleep quality on a scale of 0 to 100. 100 being a perfect night’s sleep, and 0 being, well, miserable. Yes, I did get a perfect 100 once; it took me 9 hours 29 minutes back in December. My worst was a 29%. That was a rough morning. Most days it hovers around 80%.

But the great thing about the sleep “score” is that it makes you feel as though you can “win” at sleep. It’s literally a game. You really don’t know what your score will be in the morning (you might have a vague sense if you were up all night worrying how you’ll pay back that Mafia loan), so each morning starts with the itch to satisfy your curiosity about how well you did.

I’ll give Sleep Cycle an 8 here.


Eyal points out how several studies have shown that we tend to over-value things that we’ve spent more time doing: “Of course everyone likes hearing the accordion, I’ve practiced every day for the past 8 years!”

One of the ways investment manifests itself is through the accumulation and interaction with data. And boy does Sleep Cycle have the data. Not only is it measuring sleep quality each night, but it tracks quality by day of week, duration in bed, the time you went to bed, and more. You can even add something called “Sleep Notes”, which are basically tags assigned to each night. For example, if you regularly each 5-alarm chili, you can set up a “5-alarm chili” Note. The app will compare your sleep quality on days you ate said chili to days you had a normal diet. After a while, you might see that your chili feasts cost you major sleep points, and you’ll decide to back off the Tabasco a bit.

Real life example: I switched to a new mattress in early November, and my sleep quality consistently improved since then. Money well spent!

Sleep Cycle gets a 9 out of 10 here; the longer you use the app, the more valuable (and interesting) it gets.


If we average out these scores, Sleep Cycle gets a 7/10. That’s not a terrible score, but the app could much improve it’s use of triggers to encourage new users to use the app regularly. It’s the kind of product that if the user wants to make using it a habit, it’ll probably happen. But for the curious user who downloads the app on a whim, they’re unlikely to be turned into a habitual user through the “hooks” of the app alone.

If you haven’t read Hooked yet, give it a read. It doesn’t commit the sin that most business books commit of being way too long, but there’s enough useful information in there to be valuable to almost any reader. Cheers!

Your New Job: Are You a Savior or an FNG?


You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack 
You may find yourself in another part of the world 
You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile 
You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife 
You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?

- The Talking Heads, Once In a Lifetime

…and you may find yourself hired for a new job at a startup, in which case you might ask yourself, “well, what do I do here?”

This post is about exactly that.

First, imagine that all new hires are lined up on a spectrum. At one end you have the FNG; at the other The Savior. Who are these people and which one will you be?

FNG stands for “F**king New Guy”. It’s the guy who just shows up clueless, doesn’t know the culture, lacks any sort of useful knowledge (or the wherewithal to share it), and generally gets in the wayYou never really like this guy because he doesn’t know why he’s there, and neither do you. He stands around and just does what he’s told, and it’s exactly who Charlie Sheen’s character, Chris, became in the 1986 classic film, Platoon:

On the other end of the spectrum lies The Savior, the genius whose transformative insight or wisdom forever changes the way his company works. It’s the person every company aspires to hire. Unfortunately, finding a Savior is about as easy is spotting a unicorn. In the movie Moneyball, the Oakland A’s get lucky and identify one in Jonah Hill’s character, Peter. By looking at the struggling baseball team’s player selection process in an entirely new way, Peter completely reworks the way the team recruits and helps turn the organization around:

Obviously, no one envies Chris and few wouldn’t love to be as insightful as Peter, but what really separates the two? Here are three factors:


The Moneyball clip doesn’t reveal this, but Peter started exploring new ways of selecting players long before he had any real influence on the A’s. He wasn’t hired to be “influential”, but he didn’t wait for his boss’s prompting before engineering an entirely novel player selection methodology. He just did it. The fact that Peter was at his first job and in a relatively junior position didn’t stop him, and it shouldn’t stop you. Just because you’re new and/or junior doesn’t mean you can’t start asking lots of questions and figuring out where you can add value. If you’re waiting around for someone to tell you how you can help, you probably won’t be around for long.


Your naivety in a new industry or at a new company may be your greatest strength. In fact, it’s not at all uncommon for outsiders to use their unique perspective to help companies do things no one thought possible. Witness Steve Jobs’ disruption of the music and mobile phone industries; the exploits of Sir Richard Branson, who said, “My interest in life comes from setting myself huge, apparently unachievable challenges and trying to rise above them… “; and Alan Mulally, who brought Ford back to profitability despite having no experience in the automotive world. You may not be a captain of industry, but if treat your “new guy” perspective as an asset, you’ll go far.


Sometimes, the culture of a startup has just as much of an influence on how effective new hires are as anything else. The Vietnam military culture that Chris faced in Platoon certainly didn’t foster the development of new recruits, so fresh soldiers were all but guaranteed to be FNGs. Ask yourself: does the company you’re planning to join encourage new ideas and different ways of thinking? Have they asked for your perspective on problems they’re currently tackling? Do the people you interview with ask for your critiques on how the company can improve? If the answer to any of these is no, then don’t work there. Chances are, your new ideas won’t go very far. Instead, find a company who values your input, even if your ideas aren’t as helpful at first because you lack context.

Startups are quick to hire, and quick to fire, so hopefully this post moves you a bit less of an FNG and slightly more of a Savior. Good luck!

Will Non-Profits Participate in the Sharing Economy?

(Photo by: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)

Jeremy Rifkin, a widely published economics pundit, argued last week that non-profts are going to play an increasingly important role as our economy shifts to a zero-marginal cost “sharing” economy.  (Example for the uninitiated: it costs Netflix nearly $0 to stream Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to your TV.)  

We all understand how Netflix works, but why does he think charities will be crucial to this transformation? In his words:

The answer lies in the civil society, which consists of nonprofit organizations that attend to the things in life we make and share as a community… we are constructing an Internet of Things infrastructure that optimizes collaboration, universal access and inclusion, all of which are critical to the creation of social capital and the ushering in of a sharing economy. The Internet of Things is a game-changing platform that enables an emerging collaborative commons to flourish…This collaborative rather than capitalistic approach is about shared access rather than private ownership.

…the new employment opportunities [will] lie in the collaborative commons in fields that tend to be nonprofit and strengthen social infrastructure — education, health care, aiding the poor, environmental restoration, child care and care for the elderly, the promotion of the arts and recreation.

I wanted to examine this a bit further. Are charities really going to be the driving force in enabling “shared access”?

First let’s take a look at a few companies that have been creating this sharing economy in the first place:

Airbnb - the archetypical example, Airbnb lets property owners lease out their homes directly to other travelers. I’ve used this in LA and it was fantastic. Cheaper than a hotel and the homeowner was gracious. Oh, and they’re being valued around $10 billion these days.

ZipCar – allows city dwellers to rent cars by the hour, day, etc. Hopefully they clean out the McDonald’s french fries left underneath the seat by the previous driver. Similar companies include Getaround and Relay Rides, which allow you to rent from individual owners.

Citi Bike – same thing as ZipCar, but for bikes. In NYC only right now. People ride these things a lot more than you’d think!

eBay – ever since I sold used parts of my crusty mountain bike in the early 2000′s, I’ve loved eBay. These days I’m focused on building out my collection of mannequin feet, but eBay is still the ultimate sharing platform.

TaskRabbit – people aren’t just selling goods, they’re selling their time, with services like TaskRabbit.

Fon – even wifi access is now being shared. With over 12 million members who share their home’s wifi with the Fon network, how many do you think are still named “linksys”?

Just Soles – ladies, if you buy a $600 pair of shoes and wear them 4 times before they go out of style, you just paid $150 each time you went out on that lousy date. That’s why Rent the Runway exists: you can rent fashion for the few times you need a special item at a much lower cost per use. Rent the Runway does the same thing for dresses.

That’s just a short list. Shared ownership and distribution is becoming a major trend, but I haven’t seen any non-profits contribute to this movement yet.

Why is that? It has to do with risk.

Any time an organization attempts to forge a new economic model, risk is involved. The risk is that the model doesn’t work, and whatever time and money went into the idea is lost. Zipcar has to face the financial risk of profitably buying, leasing out, and maintaining a fleet of cars in a much different fashion than traditional car rental agencies. Airbnb deals with the liability risk that renters won’t thrash the place where they’re staying. eBay deals with scale risk, as its model doesn’t offer value unless millions of people are using it. TaskRabbit and Just Soles are faced with competitive risk, as the services they offer can be easily duplicated.

However, non-profits are typically very risk averse, and they often aren’t in a position to risk their capital (or even their time) on endeavors that don’t have a clear outcome. Instead, they’re asked to do the things near and dear to donors’ hearts: feeding children, caring for animals, stoping diseases, and saving the rainforest. So it’s no surprise we’ve seen them on the sidelines thus far.

However, I think we will see two things happen as the sharing economy becomes more pervasive:

First, we’ll see a continued rise in alternative corporate structures, such as L3C (a low-profit limited liability company) and B (benefit) corporations. My hunch is that startup-minded individuals will find new ways in which a zero-marginal cost economy can solve social problems. There are already nearly 1,000 B Corporations, and the designation is only a few years old. Organizations like RecycleBank and Better World Books are great examples of this. I wrote about this while ago, and I still believe that the distinction between for-profit and non-profit will continue to break down.

Second, I think that partnerships between for-profit and non-profit companies will be more common. Not every company’s focus lends itself to solving social problems, but that doesn’t mean its investors don’t want to contribute. Toyota Cars for Good and Patagonia are classic examples of companies who’ve created strong support for causes in line with their products and values, even if they’re not tackling those problems head on.

Either way, the shift to a sharing economy will mean that both for-profit and non-profit companies alike will have to adapt. How do you think non-profits will participate in this new model?

Waving at Strangers (or 6 Brands That Bring People Together)


In high school I used to wave at strangers all the time. No, not because I was awkward at meeting girls (OK, maybe I was), but because they (and I) happened to be driving the same particular brand of car. Can you guess it? Here’s a hint: “It’s a ____ thing, you wouldn’t understand“, reads a common decal that its owners like to place on their windshields.

That’s right… Jeep. Let me explain. Jeep owners love their Jeeps. Even more, they love talking to other Jeep owners. Why is why there’s an unpublished rule that when you’re driving a Jeep and you see another Jeep, you wave. And if you’re stopped next to another Jeep at a stop light, you might say something profound to the other driver, like “Hey, nice Jeep!”. At which point, the other driving will reply with something equally thought-provoking, like “You too, bro!”

Owning a Jeep means being part of something special, a community of owners who share similar passions. There are even Jeep Jamborees all over the country for those who want to pay money to drag their cars over rocks and meet other people doing the same thing.

The strong owner community is one of that Willys/Kaiser-Jeep/Chrysler (and now Fiat) has been able to produce and sell essentially the same vehicle for almost 70 years, with the open-top CJ that became available for consumers in the 1940s that turned into the modern Wrangler. That’s despite the fact that these cars consistently get poor reviews from Consumer Reports. Of course I have zero scientific evidence to substantiate this, but that’s one of the perils of reading my blog over The New England Journal of Medicine.

But look – when you by a Ford Explorer, you become a car owner. When you buy a Jeep, you become part of a club. For many, that’s reason enough to choose the Jeep brand over another. I consider this a competitive advantage for Jeep. It’s just not something most car manufacturers can claim they have. 

Unfortunately, strong customer communities are rare for brands, but here are 5 brands more brands that do a great job of bringing people together:


I didn’t know that Airstreams were a thing until my relatives bought one. But going on “rallies” with other Airstream owners is a big event, and another reason to buy an Airstream over a less expensive brand. The largest Airstream club Wally Byam Caravan Club International, has over 14,000 members.


While many “social games” have strong communities of players, Minecraft is one of the few where you actually play with other people, simultaneously. In case you’ve never played, the game is basically Legos meets World of Warcraft. Its players have built some amazing things together, like this stunning recreation of Game of Thrones. And I thought I spent too much time on video games!


Harley Davidson

Does this really need an explanation? A Harley does the exact same thing as a Honda Goldwing, but you don’t exactly see droves of Goldwing owners banded together on a highway. Buying a Harley is the price of entry for joining any variety of riding clubs, ranging from those catering to suburban offices workers wanting to look a little badass to full blown outlaws.


Go to your run-of-the-mill gym, and chances are you barely talk to a soul while you’re there. If you do, it’s probably the buddy you brought with you. But join a CrossFit, and if you haven’t met at least a few people after a couple classes, you’re doing it wrong. The group orientation of the classes and the high  intensity they encourage really fosters a sense of camaraderie. And that’s a big part of what keeps members coming back.



A computer operating system built on the “free and open source” model, Linux has seen over 8,000 developers contribute to its code base since it was released in 1991. You may not run it on your machine, but more than 95% of the world’s 500 fastest supercomputers run some variant of Linux. It’s used widely by developers, with many cities hosting Linux User Groups to allow software engineers to learn from each other and share their appreciation for the operating system.

Know of any other brands that thrive on their strong customer communities? Let me know!

Delta’s Marketing Department is Better Than Yours


If you haven’t seen Delta’s latest pre-flight safety video yet, it’s a riot. It’s the latest in a string of comical takes on the standard (and usually mind-numblingly boring) safety films that anyone who’s flown in the past decade is already familiar with:

OK, so I’m sure you laughed a little bit. But I wanted to break down why this video is such a win from a marketing perspective. Making a funny video is one thing. But making an otherwise dry by necessary production into something that people actually seek out to watch is another feat entirely. Let’s take a closer look:

1. It isn’t funny for it’s own sake. Delta (and presumably the FAA) really do want you to watch their video. The information it conveys could literally save your life. Making the video humorous ultimately serves to get passengers watching, which is a good thing. This is probably the most important lesson for anyone involved in technical writing or user experience: just because your subject is serious doesn’t mean that the message has to be. Of course, the Germans learned this decades ago: here’s the classic example.

2. Comedy doesn’t distract from the content. This is actually hard to do. But most of the humorous bits relate directly to the message conveyed at that time. For example, when passengers are told to ask flight attendants if they have any questions, they see a business man looking for help with his Rubik’s Cube. And it’s hard to ignore how to deal with oxygen masks, because seeing Arf don his own mask is pretty unforgettable.

I've never solved one either.

I’ve never solved one either.

3. The humor isn’t exclusive to a certain age group. Even if you didn’t grow up in the 80′s, watching the hair metal guitar player store his “ax” in the overhead compartment is going to make you laugh no matter what. So is the guy in the multi-colored track suit dancing the robot as he takes his seat in the exit row.

4. If you did live through the 80′s, the video is especially funny. It starts with watching the straight-laced business man place his Devo energy dome underneath the seat in front of him. References to mullets, Teddy Ruxpin, Gameboy, Atari, croquet, and Tab ensue. And the piece de resistance: seeing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar reprise his role in the classic movie Airplane, as Roger Murdock, the co-pilot.

"I'm sorry son, but you must have me confused with someone else. My name is Roger Murdock. I'm the co-pilot."

“I’m sorry son, but you must have me confused with someone else. My name is Roger Murdock. I’m the co-pilot.”

5. They didn’t overthink it. There are some temporal challenges with the video, namely that the passengers seem to have been transported from 30 years ago to the present. Not only are they seated in a modern 737 that doesn’t allow smoking, but they’re told not to use wifi, which doesn’t exist in their era. Delta could have stopped halfway through the script to realize “Um… this doesn’t actually make logical sense…”, but they pressed on. 

6. It respects the passengers. Perhaps Delta considered forcing everyone to watch the video by yelling in a thick German accent: “NOW YOO MUST VATCH ZEE SAFETY WIDEO!” But they thought better of that and actually decided to make the passengers’ day slightly better by making them laugh. They even give a nod to those who’ve flown with Delta for a little while: the red-headed girl at wagging her finger is supposed to be the original Delta redhead in their first lighthearted production several years ago.

"Smoking is NOT ALLOWED, on any Delta flight..."

“Smoking is NOT ALLOWED, on any Delta flight…”

This is marketing done right. Delta has effectively used humor to make its messaging more effective and to improve its customers’ view of the brand. Now can every other company who thinks it’s too boring to be interesting please take note?!?

Making the Most of a Travel Day (or Why Airports Conspire Against Email)


Some days at work you’re a productivity powerhouse. You’re cranking through projects, e-mails, to-dos like Paul Bunyan at a Christmas tree farm in December. Maybe you didn’t even check Facebook even once to see if your annoying friend form high school posted another #YOLO picture of himself. You’re in the zone.

When traveling, though, that feeling of zen just doesn’t happen. Your ability to focus is right up there with your ability to sweet talk that car rental agent into giving you a Camaro even though you paid for a Kia.

Why does this happen? When traveling, you’re constantly switching environments, and have only a vague idea of how much time you’ll be spending in each. Does this look familiar?

Office -> Car -> Security -> Airport Gate 1 -> Airplane 1 -> Airport Gate 2 -> Airplane 2 -> Airport 3 -> Taxi Stand -> Taxi -> Hotel, etc., etc.,

In a typical trip, you might switch environments nearly a dozen times. Not including the smaller changes, like having to turn your laptop off during takeoff, or stopping to pay for some healthy food a bag of Tropical Starburst.

It’s not long before you feel like this guy:

For some reason I believe that no one felt this way when traveling in say, the 1980s, when people still smoked during flights, and didn’t even know to ask “should I use Prodigy or CompuServe?”. But today, it’s ultra easy to get stuck in a “technology loop” while fleeting across the country. All you need is a iPhone, or perhaps a laptop with a just poor wi-fi connection at the airport (especially if the wi-fi connection is poor). Armed with the latest gadgets and 14 productivity apps, you think, “There’s no reason why my work pattern should be any different today, even though a baby is crying next to me and the man sitting next to me just had to take his call on speakerphone.”  Which is both false and impossible. But here’s what happens anyway:

10:07 – Check mail on phone. See 37 unread messages. Delete one that looks like spam. So productive!

10:09 – Start to read a thread that looks  important. Fail as the full message content refuses to load. Stare at the screen for 30 seconds while your phone makes up its mind about whether it has an internet connection or not.

10:11 – Let phone do it’s thing while you try the airport wifi on your laptop.

10:15 – Finally get your computer to connect to the “free” Boingo wireless hotspot. Wonder what their ridiculous looking guy with the grey suit and red bag is running from.

10:17 – Load the same 37 unread messages on your laptop. Including the same spam message you thought you just deleted on your phone.

10:20 – Read that email thread you thought needed attention.

10:21 – Start to write a thoughtful response.

10:22 – Hear on the PA, “Ladies and gentleman, we are now boarding Zone 1…”

10:23 – Cry inside

There, you just spent 16 of your life in a very busy but utterly unfruitful attempt to Get Something Done. And you’ve actually made yourself worse off, because you’ve depleted a good deal of mental energy reserves hassling with everything.

This happened to you not because you’re not being productive enough, or because your using the wrong tools, or because AT&T’s coverage sucks (which, it does). It happened because you fell into the trap of trying to replicate your office workflow while in a very different context. You’re like the person that tech companies like to feature in their commercials, who believe that we all want the ability to check email while climbing a mountain:

Checking email on a hike can only lead to loneliness.

What to do? The idea isn’t to ignore your work, not to travel, or use this as an excuse to buy the latest phone. Instead, ask yourself this one question every time you face a disruptive environment:

What can I do right now that I can perform at 100% effectiveness?

The answer is usually not the thing you’re attempting to do at the time. Writing email while waiting to board the plane? You’re maybe 25% as effective. Working on that spreadsheet while in the back of a taxi? I’ll give you 15%. Working on that presentation when you have 10 minutes left to use your laptop? You’ll barely get warmed up before you have to stop.

Instead of trying to do what you would normally be doing at 10:17 in the morning, flip your approach around and find the thing that you can do the absolute best, right now.

The answers will vary from person to person. For me, I can listen an audiobook at full attention in nearly any environment (Audible is my friend). I can actually do spreadsheets quite well on a plane. And taxis are a great place for me to make phone calls. Airport security line? Still working on that one.

Try keeping this question in mind next time you have to face a hectic day. You may not get as much pure office work done during  travel, but you’ll end the day with greater mental energy and an increased ability to focus on the more challenging things. Like writing a blog post.

Got any more thoughts on how to make the best of a travel day? I’d love to hear them.

3 Excel Pro Tips for Helping Others Not Hate You


I came across a horribly convoluted Excel spreadsheet this week. This wasn’t hard to do. The thing with Excel is that once you have a simple, working model that gets the job done, there is always the temptation to add just one more input, one more variable, one more tweak, to the point that your model is now so complex that only you can understand it. This only leaves your boss scratching his head and wondering why he hired you to make things that he can’t use. Or even worse, leads to being asked this question:

Which leads to the point of this post: no one cares how fancy your spreadsheet is, they only care if they can understand it.

It took me maybe 3 or 4 years to get this, because for a long time, I was that guy. The one who would find a way to combine multiple obscure functions into a calculation that ran off the edge of the screen. Try explaining how this works to someone else:


What? I made that and even I can’t figure out what it does without some serious effort. I wouldn’t stop there, though; I would find a way to extend this madness over multiple tabs, making even my computer wince just at the thought of opening Excel.

In the beginning I thought this approach was fine. Surely, everyone must be SO impressed by how complex and precise my models are! And how useful it will be to our company now that we can model out revenue scenarios using relevant data such as the weather in Japan next Tuesday and the average wind speed velocity of an unladen swallow. 

This was my attitude for years. I had earned my Merit Badge in Excel and was proud of it.

But when I found myself on the other end of the equation, as the guy trying to wrap his head around the monstrosity someone else had made, I found myself saying “Oh….”. As in, “Oh, dear God, how am I supposed to use this thing?!?”. Which led to the even more horrifying realization that I had been inflicting this type of pain on others for years, unintentionally torturing co-workers and investors by asking them to understand a maze of formulas, columns, and rows that looked like it had been created in a drug-induced fever dream of mine. Oh, indeed.

Many consider navigating this to be a more favorable option than dealing with a Byzantine spreadsheet.

Many consider navigating this to be a more favorable option than dealing with a Byzantine spreadsheet.

Now that I know better, I’m a recovering member of Excel Freaks Anonymous. And I’m trying to make my spreadsheets much more user friendly. To help me get there, I created these 3 Excel Pro Tips for Helping Others Not Hate You, which I will share here:

1. Don’t confuse precision for accuracy. Just because your spreadsheet can handle forty different inputs doesn’t mean that your forecast is any more accurate. There’s probably already a huge margin of error involved in your model, because so much of what you’re doing is guessing anyway. Adding more variables than necessary will only make it more difficult for someone else to figure out how your model works.

2. If you have to be complex, give directions. OK, sometimes you do need to include those forty different inputs. Maybe you’re launching a space shuttle. Or perhaps you’re just trying to visit that chocolate factory you’ve always wanted to see and are attempting to predict the location of the next golden ticket. In those cases, pretend you’re going to walk your grandma through your spreadsheet. Write comments. Highlight sections where inputs are taken. Break complex formulas out into simpler ones so readers can walk their way through a calculation. Most importantly, take the time to lay out your work in an intuitive manner. Your grandma will thank you.

3. Colors are your friend. And you have so many to choose from! Using color to signify related data and to call out special attention will have you wining friends in no time. Here’s an example: all hard coded data is blue, formulas are black, and inputs are green. Just don’t go crazy and make your spreadsheet look like an Easter party. A dab will do.

So if you’re an Excel-meister, be kind next time you craft a spreadsheet and make something others can actually understand. And if you have any more Pro Tips and want to further humanity by sharing them here, please do!