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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Dan Moren

Command Performance: Get Smart Categories

For someone who makes their living writing words, I spend a surprising amount of time in spreadsheets. Sometimes that’s because it’s the best way to organize information (my nerdy quiz show Inconceivable! has long been managed in a massive Google Spreadsheet, outstripped only by the Clockwise guest spreadsheet, which is only a few episodes away from gaining sentience and attempting to absorb the world).

But sometimes I’m using spreadsheets because I’m—gasp!—actually working with numbers. Specifically, I’m working with Numbers. Not because I have anything against Microsoft Excel1, but because Numbers is just the right speed for a word monkey like me, with its lovely charts, pretty colors, and easy to understand features.

Smart Categories Numbers
Numbers’s Smart Categories feature makes it easy to view your data a different way, without destroying it.

One of my favorite features in Numbers, though, is a relatively recent addition: the Smart Categories feature that arrived in September 2018’s Numbers 5.2. Smart Categories is a feature that lets you quickly and (most importantly for me) non-destructively reorganize your data to view it in a different way.

Smart Categories can be a little hard to find: it’s hidden under the Organize icon—the same one I spoke so warmly about in Mail—where it exists alongside Filter and Sort. Once you turn it on, you can choose one of your columns as a category, then decide how it will order the entries in that category, whether by value or by some sort of date range.

So, for example, the spreadsheet I use the most is the one where I track income for my business. (I’ve made templates based on this sheet available before, but it’s continued to evolve.) Using Smart Categories, I can quickly break down my income list by quarter, by client, or even by project. I can collapse and expand each of those fields and with a couple of clicks—or taps, if I’m on the iPad or iPhone—summarize the categories with subtotals, counts, averages, and so on.

And the best part is that I don’t have to do anything other than pick the correct category from a drop-down list. It doesn’t require me to rearrange my data or create another table for reference, or structure my table in a certain way—it just detects what I’ve already entered and is smart enough to let me choose my categories from among that information.

Smart Categories also allows you to apply up to four sub-categories, meaning that once you’ve broken down your data by, say, quarter, you can sub-categorize by something else, like project or client. So I can quickly and easily drill down into how much money one of my podcasts brought in over a specific time period.

When I’m done with that breakdown, I just flip the Categories switch off, and all of my data goes back to looking just the way it used to. (Though, I have to admit, sometimes I do have re-sort it.) Numbers stores the category sorting I’ve used, so I can always just flip it back on when I want it, or quickly edit it to categorize by a different set of criteria. And if I move over to my Expenses sheet, I can do the same thing with a different set of criteria there, making it easier to track my outflows as well.

No doubt such a feature is old hat to users of powerful programs like Excel, but for someone like me, who just wants to get a quick picture of his current financial status, Numbers’s implementation is, well, smart.


  1. My wife has used Excel day in and day out for years and is, frankly, a virtuoso on par with world-class bassoonist Albrecht Holder. 

[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at dan@sixcolors.com. His latest novel, The Nova Incident, comes out in July and is available to pre-order now, so do it!]

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