Why I Ditched Spotlight for Spreadsheets

Besides its intended focus of searching your entire computer, did you know that macOS’s Spotlight search makes it really easy to perform simple arithmetic? Over time, this has actually become one of my favorite things about Spotlight. It’s a hugely convenient handicap for my dyscalculia, always ready and only two keystrokes away. Despite this, if I were forced to promulgate something approximating a New Year’s resolution, it would be that I’m not going to use Spotlight for calculations anymore.


I try to make a habit out of reflecting upon my habits and whether they’re providing real value to my life. Sometimes, I’ll use Spotlight to help me with this, because nobody hires computers anymore. Take, for example, coffee–I might find myself wondering whether the pleasure I get out of regularly buying coffee from the café across the street is worth it financially. To answer that, it helps to look at how much that coffee costs on a timescale greater than just an individual day, which can seem marginal.

Enter Spotlight: I press Command-Space, type 4*4*(52/12), and see that it costs about $70 a month, on average, if I buy four cups of coffee a week. That certainly makes me a lot happier than paying my AT&T bill. Might be worth it.

Taking a step back, though, I’ve come to the conclusion that my habit of using Spotlight for math–despite its great convenience–is actually not the best tradeoff. Instead, I really should be using spreadsheets.

It’s a More Pleasant Experience

Although this should not come as even a mild surprise, it turns out that Spotlight is just not meant for doing this kind of modeling. Given my software developer background, I know some tricks to make it work.

Let’s say I want to take the value I just computed and do something else with it. No problem–I use Control-a to go to the beginning of the line and add an opening parenthesis, Control-e to return to the end and add a closing paren, and then toss in some multiplication or whatever. If I need to navigate the cursor somewhere in the middle, I can use Option-arrows to jump by “words” in a certain direction. Easy–but not scalable.

In what can only be described as obvious (especially now in hindsight), I can tell you what is meant for this exact thing: spreadsheets. You can throw some values in their own cells, give them nice labels such as “coffees per week,” and then press the equals key somewhere else to make a formula that multiplies it all out.

Not only are you able to see the various stages of how your computation comes together, but you’re able to de-duplicate. Reference the same value throughout different parts of your computation, rather than duplicating the value itself.

Or, if you want to perform what-if scenarios different ways, that’s also easy to do. Just copy the values and formulas to new rows (or columns) and adjust the values you’re concerned about. Unlike Spotlight, you’ll be able to see all of the values at once. And, if you’re inclined, you can make really pretty graphs from it. It’s actually not that hard.

When you make the small tradeoff to open Numbers instead of Spotlight, your prescience is rewarded with a gift of easy extensibility.

It’s There Later

When I brew coffee at home, I like to use about 16 and a half grams of water for each gram of coffee grounds. It’s a good ratio that’s served me well. Once upon a time, I would reconcile this ratio with my desire to brew the 14 ounces of coffee that would fit in my Oxo travel mug by typing these numbers into Spotlight. I did this many times, in fact. More than I would care to admit, because I have a bad memory and doubt myself.

As it happens, I threw these numbers into Numbers, and the permanence is freeing. They didn’t evaporate when I inevitably pressed the Escape key. I extrapolated this ratio out across all the various volumes of coffee I brew, and they’re all still there. I even printed it out and taped it to the inside of one of my cupboard doors.

Another infuriating problem I almost always run into is that, because of my bad memory, I’ve forgotten a number that I’m now interested in factoring into whatever I’m computing. Usually that number exists in whatever app I was using before I opened Spotlight, but, danger! It’s fine if you use the mouse to click outside of the Spotlight window. Whatever was left in the Spotlight window will still be there when I re-open it. It is absolutely not fine if, as I am wont to do, I use the Escape key to dismiss Spotlight. In that case, it happily deletes everything I had entered, and there is no way to recover it without the manual labor of retyping it.


If you gain anything at all from this post, I hope it’s that there isn’t any job that’s too small for a spreadsheet. In the past, I had this irrational fear of spreadsheets. I didn’t really understand them, and it seemed laughable to employ one for something too simple.

In hindsight, it’s embarrassing that I resisted them for so long. I’m immeasurably thankful to Spotlight for helping me realize that spreadsheets are great. Should it happen that you ever find yourself doing arithmetic in Spotlight, I hope you remember this post and open a spreadsheet instead. Even if you throw it away.