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Engineering

The Spreadsheet Secrets of Great British Baking

You too can find comfort in big, organized blocks of cellular glory.

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A normal British picnic. Elena Chaykina Photography / Shutterstock.com

In Toy’s post about launching three products at once, she mentioned a tool that many of us reach for to organize our thoughts:

I went to my happy place and made a milestones spreadsheet — I mean a really pretty milestones spreadsheet. And with that incredibly useful tool I dove right into Postlight Labs…

When this post came up for discussion in Postlight’s group chat, a bunch of us were really excited about Toy’s spreadsheet. Nerds of all kinds see the mind-calming potential in an Excel sheet, the possibility of order, the potential to spend soothing hours programming automatic cell coloring while a big project bubbles away in the back of your brain.

A fine example leapt out of popular culture last week when Andrew Smyth, a finalist on this season of The Great British Bake Off, shared the spreadsheet he created to create the finale’s Showstopper, a 49-piece picnic lunch fit for the Queen. Enhance…enhance…stop.

49 baked pieces, three doughs, one oven, three timers, sorted in a glorious multipage Excel doc breaking five hours into five-minute increments

Behold the glory! Andrew, a recent Engineering grad, tackled the task the way many of us would, by bashing at Excel until the world had a bit more sense in it. Let’s take a look at what he made. If you want to look at it in more detail, we recreated his spreadsheet in Google Docs.

Simulation. Do not attempt.

Andrew did five things that made him a paragon of data-driven baking excellence:

1. Make time atomic

Andrew divided the allotted five hours into five-minute increments, which simplified some ordering and made it easier to line up the beginnings and ends of overlapping processes. I’m assuming there was some practice-timing involved to decide that five minutes was the shortest unit of time in which a person can reliably complete a task like “Grease and line tins” or “Make Cake mix.”

2. Add a summary column

The first column after the times is a summary column, giving an overview of what should be happening at that point. It’s a fine way to give a mid-challenge panicked mind a way to orient itself. What should be happening at 1hr 20mins? Ah yes, “Roll & cut out quiche pastry.”

3.Give each subproject its own timeline

Sometimes a man just needs to know what state his quiche is in. Each subproject (Cake, Tarts, Sausage Rolls, Quiches) has its own timeline, so you can tell where you expect it to be at a given time. Subproject timelines also let you glance across a row and make sure you’re not overcommitting resources! There’s just one oven, after all, and only two hobs.

4. Added colorful backgrounds for action types

Colorful backgrounds are the spreadsheet geek’s version of a Trapper Keeper: Sort a jumbly array of fields into big easily-identifiable hunks. Andrew’s colors are:

  • Green for discrete hand-work
  • Yellow for elements that need to cook on the hob,
  • Orange for elements that need to bake in the oven,
  • Blue and dark blue for the fridge and freezer (note the white type for the freezer cells),
  • and Black for plating.

5. Add a legend, even if just for you

Clearly, this spreadsheet was made for nobody but Andrew, but he still added a legend at the top. When you’re in the press of a competition with cameras on you, a legend can keep your brain in line.


The next time you’re faced with three simultaneous projects, or a massive timed picnic lunch, or any other task that won’t fit on a Post-It, try chucking everything you’re certain about into Excel, Numbers, or Google Sheets, and find comfort in big, organized blocks of cellular glory.

Andrew, the data nerds of Postlight salute you! We hope that everyone enjoys the (admittedly incomplete) Google Docs simulacrum of the Showstopper spreadsheet. We did the best we could by screengrabbing a copy of the show that… uh… fell off the back of a digital truck in front of the office. If you ever read this and are inclined to share the original document, you know where to find us.

Story published on Nov 2, 2016.