5 questions to ask before starting in a spreadsheet
Tips & Tricks

5 questions to ask before starting in a spreadsheet

We often use spreadsheets because they're simple, easily customizable, and can keep things organized. But, sometimes, they can actually create more work for you.

You can fill them with text, numbers, dates, links, even images—and over time, the lack of structure can create a messy, difficult-to-navigate system. Keeping your formatting clean and streamlined takes manual effort, cleaning up data is time-consuming, and version control across a large team is a pain. The management process becomes tedious and error-prone.

Databases ask you to define the type of information that is being managed and enforces structure for you. Software with the flexibility of spreadsheets and the power of a database, like Airtable, gives you the best of both.

Next time you kick off a project, ask these five questions.

1. What information needs to be tracked?

Before diving into your project, take a moment to consider: what information is going to be important for this project, and who will be inputting this information? If you’re going to be the only person contributing data to this project, maintaining the structure you want is relatively simple. However, the more people you have working on any given project, the more complicated it becomes to ensure that all your information is structured and formatted appropriately. Imagine location is a detail in your project and it appears like this in your spreadsheet:

  1. New York
  2. NYC
  3. NY
  4. New York City

If several variants of the same data may go into your project, you might need more structure—and unless you want to account for every possibility, having structure will help with discoverability and reporting.

Airtable's field types understand that you're dealing with different types of data, and help you easily define what information belongs where. Whether it's dates, owners, categories, or even reference files, using specific field types to define the types of information that belong in each place will help ensure consistency and accuracy in your project.

With Airtable, you can choose from field types such as single select dropdown, checkbox fields, dates, images, formulas and more.

2. Will information need to be filtered or sorted multiple times a week?

Depending on what information you need, you might want to look at your data in different ways. For example, knowing unassigned requests may be an important step to one part of your process. At another step in the process, you need to see comments and revisions. And at another, you need all of the upcoming deadlines—ideally on a calendar or timeline. You can use VLOOKUPs, save filters, and change cell fill color to build out timelines—but these are time-consuming to build and break easily.

If you’ll need to repeatedly use the same filters or formatting for different tasks, Airtable’s views can help. Views are specified ways of looking at your information. You can transform your grid into a calendar based on certain date fields, a project pipeline based on a single select status, and visual cards based on attached images or files.

Because views reference the same underlying data, everything automatically stays in sync in Airtable—no matter which view you’re using. For example, if you extend the due date of a project in a calendar view, your changes will be reflected in every other view, without a single copy and paste.

Views are saved configurations that allow you to slice and dice your information the way you need.

3. Will information live in several places?

Think of your company-wide goals this year: each of those can probably be broken down into several programs with different project owners and stakeholders. Cramming all of this information into one table would quickly become unwieldy in a spreadsheet. In the interest of staying organized, you might break the information into different sets, tracking goals in one spreadsheet or table, programs and projects in others. Because all of this information is related, you might have duplicative information across your various sheets and tables: dates, owners, status and so on. When you have information living in multiple places, keeping it up-to-date might turn into a workflow that involves a lot of copying, pasting, and repetitive work.

What if your tool understood that there is only one Program A, and any time you refer to Program A, it's always about the same piece of information, no matter where it lives? So if the name, milestone, or owners change, that should be reflected everywhere that it's referenced. You can do just that with linked record fields. Similar to views, the linked record fields are dynamic, so changes in one table will automatically appear in other tables where records are linked.

No repetition, no exporting into a different program, no typos or mistakes.

Linked records ensure that your information stays connected, and always up to date.

4. Who needs access to what?

Have you ever had to ask the dreaded question, “Did you get the latest version”? Project management, at its core, is people management, and people each have their unique roles, with their own workflows and mandates to achieve. Trying to address so many different needs with spreadsheets requires impressive handling of duplications, date stamps, revisions, and personal preferences (some people just won't hop into spreadsheets).

Rather than making copies of project information, collaborators can use views to customize the information they work with and how it's organized. You can even arm external stakeholders with dashboards that have the latest and most relevant information, by sharing specific filtered views with optional password-protected links.

Saved and shared views allow you each member of your team to work with the information they need, in the way they want.

5. Is it important to keep track of changes?

Checking how a project might have evolved or tracking an old link might involve digging through multiple spreadsheets or scrolling through messy timestamps.

With granular revision history, it’s easy to track how projects have changed, who made the changes, and when. For example, programs in our project management template might be approved through a single select field on the Program table. If there's ever a question of who approved the Program, just look at the revision history to see who updated the select field.

No more digging through version histories to find what changed and when.

Row-level revision history allows you to see how each piece of information has evolved over time—rather than combing through different versions of spreadsheets.

Plan ahead with Airtable

Thinking ahead and considering some of the pain points you may face is a worthwhile investment. And while you can't foresee every issue, designing you project management intentionally upfront can save you time later on. Airtable was designed to be customized, so you can always make changes along the way as your process evolves.

There’s no one-size-fits-all project management system, so build your own on Airtable or customize a template to get started.

Already have something in a spreadsheet that could benefit from Airtable's functionality? Read this quick how-to on importing existing spreadsheet.

Sign up for Airtable for free
More for the record