Three Methods of Entering Formulas


November 18, 2021 - by Bill Jelen

Three Methods of Entering Formulas

Problem: I’d like to enter formulas faster. What are the three ways of entering simple formulas?

Strategy: There are three ways of entering formulas. Learning the arrow key method will dramatically improve your efficiency with Excel. This topic will compare all three methods.


Say that you want to calculate total cost in E3 as the case quantity in B3 multiplied by the unit cost in C3.

Item is in A, Case Pack is in B, Unit Cost in C, Unit Price in D, and the active cell is in the Total Cost column, in cell E3.
Figure 158. Calculate unit cost times case pack.

One way to make this calculation is to simply type the formula:

  • 1. Put the cell pointer in E3 and type =b3*c3 and then press Enter.

Type =b2*c3
Figure 159. Typing takes only seven keystrokes.
  • 2. The formula will calculate. You will see the original formula in the formula bar above E1. The worksheet will show the result of the calculation.

Press Enter and the formula becomes =B3*C3
Figure 160. After pressing Enter, Excel calculates the formula.

This method is great for short functions that require only a few keystrokes. However, this method gets complicated when you are dealing with complex formulas.

Alternate Strategy: Another way to enter calculations is to use the arrow keys. Anyone who was using spreadsheets in the days of Lotus 1-2-3 often used this method. When you have mastered this method, it is very fast and very intuitive. Here’s how it works:

  • 1. Move the cell pointer to E3 and type an equals sign to let Excel know that you are about to enter a formula.

  • 2. Press the Left Arrow key. As shown here, a dotted border surrounds the cell to the left of E3. Excel starts to build the formula =D3.

Another method. From E3, type an equals sign and then press the left arrow. Right now, the formula says =D3.
Figure 161. Type equals, press left arrow.
  • 3. Press the Left Arrow key two more times. Your provisional formula is now =B3.

Press the left arrow key again. Now the formula says =B3
Figure 162. Press left arrow two more times.
  • 4. Press * on either the keyboard or the numeric keypad. The dotted border will disappear from B3 and be replaced by a solid-colored border. Pressing any operator key, such as +, -, *, or /, tells Excel that you are moving on to the next part of the formula. At this point, focus returns to cell E3.

Type an asterisk to indicate multiplication. This locks in B3 to the formula, which now reads =B3*. At this point, focus returns to the active cell, or E3.
Figure 163. Typing an operator returns focus to E3.
  • 5. Press the Left Arrow key two times. The dotted border reappears. You now have a provisional formula of =B3*C3.

Press the left arrow twice and the formula reads =B3*C3.
Figure 164. Left arrow twice.
  • 6. Press Enter. The formula will calculate. You will see the original formula in the formula bar above E1. The worksheet will show the result of the calculation.

Additional Details: With this method, you never have to type cell references. You merely point to them using the arrow keys. If you are building formulas that are based on cells near the formula cell, you can enter them very quickly using this method.

Although I used several paragraphs and five screen shots to show this method, it required only eight keystrokes, many of which were repeats of the same keystroke. Further, because you are allowed to start a formula with a plus sign instead of an equals sign, you can enter the entire formula using the keys on and around the numeric keypad on a desktop computer (that is, +←←←*←←Enter).

Alternate Strategy: Another way to enter calculations in Excel is to use the mouse. Normally, people use the keyboard to type the equals sign, math operators, and enter and the mouse to click on cell references. Moving your hand from the mouse to the keyboard takes a lot of time and dramatically slows the entry of formulas. Adding a few icons to your Quick Access toolbar can dramatically speed formula entry. Follow these steps.

  • 1. Using steps from "Make Your Most-Used Icons Always Visible", add icons for equals, plus, minus, multiply, divide, exponents, left parenthesis, and right parenthesis to the Quick Access Toolbar. These icons are found in the “Commands Not in the Ribbon” category.

  • 2. Right-click the Quick Access Toolbar and choose Show Quick Access Toolbar Below the Ribbon.

The Quick Access Toolbar now has icons for equals, left parenthesis, plus, minus, multiply, divide, right parenthesis, and a carat for exponents.
Figure 165. Add these icons to the QAT.
  • 3. Start in cell E3. Click the equals sign icon.

  • 4. Click on cell B3 with the mouse.

  • 5. Click on the * sign in the QAT

  • 6. Click on cell C3 with the mouse.

  • 7. Click the checkmark icon to the left of the formula bar to accept your formula.

Click on the equals sign icon in the QAT. Click on B3. Click on the Multiply in the QAT. Click on C3. Click on the green checkmark to the left of the formula bar to accept the formula of =B3*C3.
Figure 166. Complete the formula with the checkmark.
  • 8. The formula will calculate. You will see the original formula in the formula bar above E1. The worksheet will show the result of the calculation.

There are three basic methods for entering formulas in Excel. Using the easiest method for the situation can radically improve your efficiency.


This article is an excerpt from Power Excel With MrExcel

Title photo by Charlota Blunarova on Unsplash



Bill Jelen is the author / co-author of:
MrExcel 2021 - Unmasking Excel

This is a 5th edition of MrExcel XL. Updates for 2021 include: LAMBDA, LET, Power Query Fuzzy Match, Sort & Filter in Sheet View, Cut-out people, Save object as image, STOCKHISTORY, Wolfram Alpha Data Types, Custom Data Types from Power Query, Weather data types, bilingual spreadsheets, Performance improvements, Unhide multiple worksheets, Action pen, Collapsible task panes, LET function to re-use calculations, store formulas using LAMBDA, Recursive LAMBDA, Branching LAMBDA, Lambda to return a picture, Excel function quick reference.