Getting Things Done With Google Drive

Photo by Maksym Kaharlytskyi on Unsplash

I’m old enough to remember the early days of cloud storage. I used to tell teachers that it was like having a filing cabinet that you could access anywhere you wanted, and on any device you felt like using. Then I realized the error of my ways. Every physical filing cabinet I had ever used had files that were neatly labeled and meticulously organized with the aid of those ubiquitous green file folders. Somewhere along the way, we lost some of that organizational structure when we started using cloud storage. However, help is at hand.

How to Organize Google Drive

If your Google Drive is getting out of hand, relax. You’re not alone. In this unit, we are going to fix that by using the same GTD methodology that we used with Google Tasks. The five-step process to “Capture, Clarify, Organize, Review and Engage” works really well for Getting Things Done with Google Drive. Here’s how it works.

1. Capture

The first step is simple. Capture. Get it all in one place. Now, you might be thinking that you already have everything in one place, (and maybe you do), but I am going to encourage you to take just a little bit of time to do a self-audit and consider all the possible locations of the files that you use. You can’t have an effective organizational structure for your digital files until you have all of your files together. So, where should you look for these rogue elements?

Do you have a Dropbox account or a OneDrive account? If so, consider moving all those files to Google Drive. Splitting your files between multiple services is not a great strategy unless you have a very defined personal vs work approach to your digital files. Another place to look would be the hard drive of your computer. Do you have things in your Documents folder? You can move those to Google Drive too.

Lastly, think about hard copies of documents that you might still use. Do you have paper copies of things that were never digitized? If so, now might be a good time to scan them and move those to the cloud as well. There are lots of great scanner apps for iOS or Android that will let you do this for free.

2. Clarify

The goal here is to reduce the number of files you have. If you take a little bit of time to do some digital dusting now, it will save you time later. Delete files you no longer need and you will have less to work with when you start moving things into your newly minted file structure.

The truth is, everyone has files in their Google Drive that no longer serve any meaningful purpose. For instance, I often create Google Docs and slide decks to demo features when I am training teachers on how to use Google products. Eventually, these “ghost” files just clog up my Drive, but if I use the search bar in Google Drive to search for “demo” or “untitled” as the file name, I can quickly find the files that need a one-way ticket to the trash.

Next, it’s time to create your ideal file structure. You probably already have some kind of structure, but it may not be the best that it could be. Today you are going to map it out so we have a plan of where we would like to be. It doesn’t matter what it looks like now. In an ideal world, if you could wave a magic wand, what would your Google Drive look like?

An example file structure for Google Drive

Many people find value in sketching this out on a piece of paper or using a mind-mapping tool to create a flow chart of the folders that you need and how they will be organized. The finished product will include top-level folders as well as multiple layers of sub-folders, (a folder inside a folder).

While making your file tree structure, consider adding an “Archive” folder that has subfolders sorted by years. For teachers, this allows you to store all the files from a given academic year. For everyone else, it can be a quick way of finding tax returns and other important documents.

3. Organize

Now that you have your file structure mapped out, it’s time to bring it all to life in Google Drive. It is important to recognize at this point that you may already have folders in your Google Drive, and that is fine. Leave them where they are for now and go ahead and create the additional folders that you planned out earlier. Start with the top-level folders, and then go deeper and create all the sub-folders.

Tips for Creating Folders in Google Drive

  • To make your new folders easier to find you can put a period or a zero in front of the folder name. This will automatically surface them to the top of your file structure in the sidebar because Google sorts those folders by alphabetical order.
  • You can also right-click on any folder and select a color for it. This is a great way to visually tag folders you create and help you find the ones that you are looking for.
  • Some people even add emoji to the folder name for some additional personality. You can do that quickly from a mobile device, or using the emoji keyboard on a laptop.

When you create your folders, try to think of a clear naming convention that accurately describes the content of the folder and can be used consistently across your Google Drive. You need to know exactly where your files are located so don’t make them ambiguous or repeat folder names across your system. If you do, it will quickly get confusing and cost you time as you dig through multiple folders looking for the file you need.

Moving Files and Folders in Google Drive

4. Review

The hard work is done. You created a plan and executed it with precision. However, is it really everything you hoped it would be? I mean, it might be, but a successful system is something that you will only be able to measure over time. Consequently, step four of this process is to review, and this is a step that I would encourage you to revisit regularly.

You see, when you sat down and made your mind map of where everything will live in your Google Drive, it was a one-time deal. You took stock of what you had and you made a plan for where it should all live. When you review, it is an ongoing process. You need to continue to challenge yourself and ask yourself whether this system still works for you, or not. 

Of course, the only real way you will know if this new system is working for you is to use it. As you begin to work within this new organizational system you created, you may well find that you want to make some changes. What kind of changes? Well, maybe you will want to merge some folders, rename some folders, or add more sub-folders. I’m not talking about re-mapping your entire file structure, just looking for areas where it can be refined or optimized.

5. Engage

The final step in this process is to engage with your system. Sounds simple, right? Just use it! Well, yes and no, because an important thing to consider is that your system will grow over time. You will start new projects, teach new content, and join new teams. All of these new things will need new documents, and these new documents will need a space to live inside your Google Drive. Your folders may already exist for that, but will you use them?

In order for this to last, you have to embrace it. New files have to live in the new system, otherwise, chaos will descend once more. If you weren’t good at this before, you have to turn over a new leaf and develop a new habit. You need to work within the system you designed so that you can stay organized and find everything that you need to find.

If you are in a new document, you can go to File > Move to choose a location where you would like it to live. You can also click the folder icon to the right of the document name to reveal the same options.

What About Shared With Me?

Many people feel the need to organize their “Shared With Me” files. They can’t stand the clutter and chaos that they see every time they come here. However, that option simply does not exist. These files cannot be organized like My Drive, and the files will stay here until you manually remove them.

If this is frustrating for you, try thinking about Shared With Me as a filter for your Drive. It shows a subsection of your files; the ones that have been shared with you. If you would like to include one of these files in your My Drive, you can right-click on it and use Drive Shortcuts to add it to a folder of your choice. It doesn’t move it out of Shared With Me, instead, it creates a shortcut that you can store anywhere you want.

If you do want to remove files from your Shared With Me, simply right-click on the file and select, Remove. This does not delete the file, but it will remove it from your Shared With Me list. The original owner, and any other collaborators on this file, will still have access to the file if you remove it from your list.

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