How to Sort in Excel: A Simple Guide to Organizing Data

Believe it or not, the average office worker wastes over 2 hours per week due to disorganized data and files, according to a study by The Worldwide Academy of Experts [1]. That‘s more than 100 hours per year spent hunting for information that should be readily available. One of the simplest ways to combat data disorder is by learning how to properly sort and structure your spreadsheets.

In this guide, we‘ll walk through everything you need to know about sorting in Microsoft Excel. Whether you‘re a complete beginner or a seasoned spreadsheet user, you‘ll discover new ways to organize and analyze your data like a pro. We‘ll cover basic and advanced sorting techniques, keyboard shortcuts, practical examples, and tips for avoiding common pitfalls.

Why Sorting Your Data Matters

Before diving into the technical steps, let‘s take a moment to appreciate why well-sorted data is worth striving for:

  1. Efficiency: Sorted data is easier to navigate, search, and update. No more endless scrolling or manual lookups.

  2. Insight: By surfacing patterns, duplicates, and outliers, sorted data helps you understand your information and make better decisions.

  3. Accuracy: Sorting can highlight data entry errors and inconsistencies that would be hard to catch in raw data.

  4. Professionalism: Sharing neatly organized data reflects well on your attention to detail and competence.

Plus, research shows that working with structured information actually improves cognitive performance and decision-making [2]. So sorting isn‘t just good for your data—it‘s good for your brain too!

Basic Data Sorting in Excel

The quickest way to sort data in Excel is by arranging the values in a single column or row from lowest to highest (ascending) or highest to lowest (descending).

To sort a column from A to Z or smallest to largest:

  1. Select any cell in the column you want to sort
  2. On the Data tab, click "Sort A to Z" or "Sort Smallest to Largest"

Sort buttons on Excel ribbon

To reverse the sort order, simply click "Sort Z to A" or "Sort Largest to Smallest" instead.

When you use these one-click sort buttons, Excel automatically expands the selection to include all adjacent data, ensuring each full row is kept together. Empty cells are sorted to the bottom.

Pro Tip: You can also access the sorting commands by right-clicking any cell and choosing "Sort" from the context menu.

Sorting on Multiple Columns or Rows

Need to sort on more than one criteria? No problem! With a multi-level sort, you can organize your data by a primary attribute, then by a secondary attribute within the first category, and so on.

Let‘s say you have a table of employee data with columns for Department, Last Name, and Hire Date like this:

Department Last Name Hire Date
Sales Johnson 1/15/2018
Marketing Smith 5/1/2015
Engineering Lee 9/30/2020
Sales Wang 3/22/2017
Marketing Gupta 11/10/2019

To sort this data first by Department, then by Last Name, then by Hire Date:

  1. Select any cell in the data range
  2. On the Data tab, click "Sort"
  3. In the Sort dialog, choose the first column to sort by (Department)
  4. Click "Add Level" and select the next column (Last Name)
  5. Click "Add Level" again and choose the final column (Hire Date)
  6. Adjust the sort order for each level as needed
  7. Click OK

Excel sort dialog box

The result will be a neatly organized table, with rows grouped by department, employees listed alphabetically within each department, and hire dates in chronological order for employees with the same last name.

Sorting by Date, Time, or Custom Order

Excel can intelligently sort dates and times chronologically, even if they‘re in different formats. Just select a date/time column and use the "Sort Oldest to Newest" or "Sort Newest to Oldest" options.

You can also create your own custom sort order for columns with unique value sets, like project status, satisfaction rating, or location. To set up a custom sort:

  1. Select a cell in the column to sort
  2. On the Data tab, click "Sort" and choose "Custom Sort"
  3. Under Order, select "Custom List"
  4. In the Custom Lists dialog, enter your desired sort order, one entry per line
  5. Click Add to save the new custom list
  6. Click OK to apply the custom sort

Custom sort dialog in Excel

Now your data will be sorted according to your specific business logic or reporting needs.

Sorting by Cell or Font Color

Ever used color coding or data bars to highlight key information in your sheet? You can actually sort by these visual attributes too! Here‘s how:

  1. Select any cell in the data range
  2. On the Data tab, click "Sort" and choose "Custom Sort"
  3. Under Column, select the column with color formatting
  4. Under Sort On, choose "Cell Color" or "Font Color"
  5. Click the color dropdown to specify the sort order by color
  6. Click OK

Sorting by cell color in Excel

This is a great way to bubble up critical items, identify aging records, or sort by priority level. You can combine color sorting with other sorting levels too.

Real-World Examples & Use Cases

Need some inspiration for how to put all these sorting techniques into practice? Here are a few examples:

  • Use multi-level sorting to rank sales opportunities by deal stage, amount, and close date
  • Combine sorting and filtering to create custom views, like overdue tasks, expiring contracts, or high-risk accounts
  • Sort an employee directory by location, department, and title for easy lookup
  • Organize survey data by response date, rating, and open-ended feedback
  • Sort a product catalog by category, price, and inventory level to identify top sellers and low stock
  • Apply color scales and sort by color to visualize performance thresholds

The possibilities are endless! As you explore your own data, consider how different sorting setups can help answer key questions and drive action.

Sorting Shortcuts & Power User Tips

Want to speed up your sorting workflow even more? Try these pro-level tips:

  • Use keyboard shortcuts to sort without lifting your hands off the keys:
    • Alt+D+S+A to sort A to Z
    • Alt+D+S+D to sort Z to A
  • Double-click the slim "handle" between column headers to auto-fit columns after sorting
  • If your data has headers, check the "My data has headers" box in sorting dialogs to keep the header row at the top
  • To undo an accidental sort, use the Undo button on the Quick Access Toolbar or Ctrl+Z
  • If you frequently sort the same columns, consider freezing panes to keep headers visible

How Sorting Works in Other Spreadsheets

Sorting isn‘t just for Excel! If you collaborate in Google Sheets or another spreadsheet app, you‘ll find similar sorting commands there too.

In Google Sheets, the Data > Sort range and Data > Sort sheet options work just like Excel‘s. You can also enable the "Sort" filter button on any column header for quick one-click sorting.

Sorting in Google Sheets

Apple Numbers and LibreOffice Calc offer analogous sorting functionality in their respective Table and Data menus.

While the exact steps and dialog boxes may differ slightly, the core principles of sorting data are universal. Master them in Excel and you‘ll be able to transfer those skills across platforms.

From Sorting to Analysis & Insight

Sorting is often the first step in the larger journey from raw data to meaningful insight. Once your information is tidy and logically structured, you can start to:

  • Filter for specific subsets or criteria
  • Subtotal and aggregate with pivot tables
  • Create charts and dashboards to visualize patterns
  • Merge and consolidate with complimentary datasets
  • Build formulas and models to discover relationships

Each of these analysis techniques relies on well-organized, sorted data. Think of sorting as the foundation for asking and answering questions with your data.

The Benefits of Consistent Sorting

Beyond one-off analysis and reporting, adopting consistent sorting practices can have far-reaching benefits for your team or organization:

  • Reduce time wasted searching for information
  • Promote data literacy and self-service reporting
  • Ensure everyone is making decisions based on the same (accurate) data
  • Collaborate more effectively with standardized, predictable data structures
  • Streamline hand-offs between teams and systems

If you‘re in a position to establish data guidelines, consider creating a sorting "style guide" for key files and reports. Documenting your preferred sort orders and naming conventions can go a long way in keeping everyone on the same (neatly organized) page.

Conclusion

Sorting data in Excel is one of those fundamental skills that pays dividends no matter your role or industry. Whether you‘re wrangling a small personal budget or a massive corporate dataset, the ability to efficiently organize and extract meaning is a major advantage.

In this guide, we‘ve covered the concepts and steps for basic sorting, multi-level sorting, custom sorting, and more. You‘ve seen how to sort by cell value, visual formatting, and your own business logic. And we‘ve explored practical examples for putting these techniques into action.

Armed with this knowledge, you‘re well on your way to conquering spreadsheet chaos and discovering new insights in your data.

Remember, Excel proficiency is an iterative journey. Keep practicing, stay curious, and don‘t be afraid to experiment. The more you sort, the more natural it will become, to the point where you‘ll wonder how you ever found anything before!

Happy sorting!

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