Excel’s Conditional Formatting: Friend or Foe?

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Written By Chris

Just a simple "data guy". Changing the world one formula at a time.

I’m no stranger to an Excel bug or two. And any file crash or freezing worksheet usually has more than one underlying issue. But on the surface, one culprit could be the custom styling of your cells.

Yes, conditional formatting can cause Excel to crash in some situations. But it’s wise to recognize that there are preliminary factors leading to this.

I’ll save the ins and out of crashing Excel documents for another day. Today, I’ll focus on your conditional formatting problem and tell you why it’s happening, how to prevent it, and what you can do to fix it when it’s happening.

Can Conditional Formatting Cause Excel to Crash?

In short, extensive conditional formatting rules and the inclusion of limiting memory will lead to your Excel document crashing before your eyes.

Again, the contributing factors have a lot to do with this. And the formatting itself is usually harmless…usually.

So if you think your formatting rules are to blame for your troubles, let’s start with some diagnostics to ensure you understand what you can do about it.

How Conditional Formatting Contributes to Crashes

too many conditional formatting rules

Applying too many complex rules or using entire rows or columns for conditional formatting can cause Excel to become sluggish and even crash. This is because the program has to constantly check and update the formatting based on the criteria that have been set.

Personally, I find it helpful to keep my conditional formatting to a minimum and avoid applying it to whole rows or columns to maintain optimal performance. What about you? Does the list of your managed rules read like an encyclopedia? Are your incorporated cell ranges bordering on micromanagement? 

The larger the data set, the more likely you’ll encounter issues. And with out-of-date software and poor data management practices, asking Excel to continually check your formatting rules will take its toll.

Optimizing Conditional Formatting Rules to Prevent Excel Crashes

Taking preventative steps within your Excel document can help contain the lurking disasters you might be experiencing. There are two easy methods to keep you in Excel’s good graces.

The first is to limit the number of rules applied to a worksheet. Instead of using several rules for the same purpose, consider combining them with logical operators. This will make your workbook lighter and reduce the probability of a crash.

consolidate the rules

The second trick I use is to be precise when applying formatting rules. I already touched on it, but instead of formatting entire rows or columns, only apply the formatting to the specific cells you need. This reduces the amount of redundant design and lightens up your workbook’s memory usage.

It sounds like a no-brainer, but applying your desired formats across entire worksheets is pretty standard in the workplace. A quick way to tackle this chore is to add the Clean Excess Cell Formatting add-in to your Excel ribbon.

It searches your data’s exterior (empty) cells and removes the conditional formatting since it’s unused space.

Managing Excel Workbook Size

Other than reigning in your conditional formatting, managing the size of your Excel workbook can also help prevent crashes. Not only does size management work for formatting issues but all kinds of other application problems.

Getting back to the issue of system memory, large files are more prone to crashing because they use more system resources. To tackle this issue, I follow a few steps.

review data regularly

First, I consistently review the data if I regularly work with it and remove any irrelevant or duplicate entries. This helps to maintain a clean and organized workbook. I also pay attention to excessive formatting, such as unnecessary colors, borders, or fonts. Removing these aspects can drastically reduce the workbook’s memory usage.

Moreover, I keep the number of worksheets in a workbook to a minimum. I’ve found that splitting data into several workbooks is more efficient for both my system and the performance of Excel. Plus, it goes a long way in keeping my files and folder structure organized

Finally, I make it a habit to save and back up my work frequently. This way, I won’t lose much progress even if a crash occurs.

Dealing with Crashes

Ok, you’ve got an earful of what you can do to prevent a crash in Excel. But say you’re in the middle of a crash, stuck on a white screen, swearing at that smug circling blue cursor of doom. What do you do?

Excel not Responding and Freezing Issues

If you’re suffering through a consistent freezing and non-responsive Excel file, you first need to open it in Safe Mode. Safe Mode will open a no-frills document in Excel. So any add-ins, formatting, or macros generally running in the background will be filtered out.

To get into safe mode, open the Run box by pressing the Windows button and hitting the R key. Then type “excel /safe” and hit OK. 

When Excel opens, you should see the words “Safe Mode” on the banner. 

safe mode

If your new document doesn’t freeze or fill you with the same frustration you’ve come to expect, the problem could be in one of the add-ins or, in our case, the conditional formatting you’ve applied to the other file. Otherwise, if the technical problems persist, you should look into updating your version of Excel or running a Repair

Actually, running a repair is a good idea if you aren’t just going to remove the conditional formatting from the get-go. Microsoft repairs are an excellent way to detect any bugs or corrupted files that you can’t pin down. As I said before, a crashing Excel file could have many underlying causes.

To run a repair, navigate to the Apps and Features settings through the menu or search bar, find the application for Microsoft Office, and under the advanced options, click Repair.

excel repair

Recovering from a Crash

If excessive conditional formatting has already crashed your file, the first step is to open the latest AutoRecover version that Excel might have saved. The last thing you want is to repeat hours of tedious work if you don’t need to. Lucky for you, Excel saves your work every 10 minutes for reasons like this.

The next logical step is to check the Event Viewer for any errors that must be diagnosed. The Event Viewer in Windows is a tool that captures and logs every event on your computer. This usually consists of errors, warnings, messages, and various actions related to system applications.

If you aren’t positive that conditional formatting is the reason behind your Excel crash, this log should set you on the right path.

To check your error message, type “Event Viewer” in the search bar and hit enter. In the left pane of the new window, open the folder for Windows Logs and click on Application. You can scroll through the most recent events in the middle pane or search by keyword by looking to the right in the Actions pane and choosing the “Find” action.

event viewer

Remember, the two best things you can do to put an end to your conditional formatting crashing Excel is to consolidate your rules and apply them only to the relevant cells in your sheet. 

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