Blog Post

10 Ways to Use the New Google Docs Productively

Recently, Google rolled out a new look for its Google Docs & Spreadsheets software application … not exactly a major upgrade, as the tools themselves remain the same, but it’s still a new interface for organizing your documents.

Google Docs is beginning to emerge as a productive tool for the web worker, and today we’ll take a look at some ways to make the most of it. [digg=]

First of all, why would we move from a desktop app like Word or Excel or OpenOffice? Web workers know the answer to this: It liberates you from the desktop. You can access your documents from any computer that has Internet access, without fussing with USB drives or emailing stuff to yourself or uploading and downloading documents to online servers.

There are downsides, of course, which we’ll talk about at the bottom of this article — stuff Google needs to address. But for myself, and I know many others like me, Google Docs is a viable alternative. I use it completely, and for my simplified needs it gets the job done with a minimum of fuss.

If you’re looking to give it a try, here are some productivity tips for Google Docs:

1. Shortcut to launch Google Docs. I use AutoHotKey to create a shortcut key combo so that I can launch Google Docs quickly, but you could also use Firefox’s keyword bookmarks to create a quick shortcut … go to your Google Docs bookmark in the Bookmarks menu, right click on it and select Properties, and put a short keyword in the keyword field (such as “gd”). Now, when you need to launch Google Docs, just go to the location bar (Ctrl-L) and type “gd” and hit enter. If you use Google Docs as much as I do, you need a fast way to access it.

2. Shortcut to launch new document. Do the same thing for new documents and new spreadsheets — either create an AutoHotKey shortcut or Firefox keyword bookmark, so when you need a new document quickly, it’s there in a flash.

3. Use search to find docs quickly. When you’re on the main page for Google Docs, with your listing of documents, instead of clicking through folders or scrolling to find a document, just go to the search bar and start typing. The names of documents with those letters will appear in a flash. If the keyword you’re looking for isn’t in the title of the document, but in the content, just press enter and you’ll get a quick listing of docs with that keyword. It’s much faster to use the search box than to use your mouse.

4. Shortcut to most often used docs. I have certain documents I use several times a day — a log, my list of invoices, my budget, etc. You’ll have your own frequently used documents. Create a shortcut for them too (see item 1 above), so you can pull them up at any time without having to go to your documents list.

5. Sharing. One of the great benefits of an online document such as Google Docs is the ability for people in different locations to collaborate on a document. Just go to the “Share” tab and enter the email addresses of people you’d like to view or collaborate on the document, and they’ll be sent and email with the link. Document changes will be tracked. It’s also a great way of emailing documents to people without having to download it and attach it to the email.

6. Publish. Another excellent reason to use online word processing — publishing it for others to view is just a click away. I know of at least one published Google Doc that made the front page of Delicious, so it’s an alternative to blog publishing. Of course, it’s a bit difficult to put ads on your Google Doc, but still. Also, you could publish your Google Doc or Spreadsheet on your blog.

7. Filing. Actually, filing isn’t necessary, as the search works very quickly. You can add tags (now called folders) to a document, but that’s not really necessary either for the most part. The time when tagging a document (putting it in a folder) is useful is when you want to view it in a certain way later. For example, if you want to quickly see all documents for a certain project, you can tag it with the project name. I tend to only really use the Star for my most frequently used documents.

8. Minimal view. One of the problems with the new Google Docs interface is that it eliminated the old “Archive” button (although it’s rumored that Archive will be brought back soon). This means that all your documents and folders are in sight. But for those minimalists among us, the Archive was cool because you could get all the documents you’re not actually using out of sight, and thus create a minimal view. Clean, stress free. But you can do something similar now: just tag each of your current documents or frequently used documents with a Star. Now click on the Star view on the left pane, so that only your Starred documents are showing, and minimize all the stuff in the left pane (the folders, the collaborators, etc.). Now you’ve got a minimal view.

9. Formatting. If you’re looking to add columns to your document, you can do so by creating a table (from Insert menu), with one row and as many columns as you’re looking for. When you print, the table borders won’t be visible, and your text will be in columns. You can also go to Document Settings under the File Menu to change the document’s settings for line spacing, font and background color. For margins, use Firefox’s Page Setup option in the File menu.

10. Keyboard shortcuts. Google Docs has most of the regular shortcuts used in word processors (copy, paste, cut, select all, save, undo, bold, italics, underline, for example, use Ctrl-C, V, X, A, S, Z, B, I, and U, respectively), but here are some of the more useful of the rest:

  • Ctrl-J: Full justify
  • Ctrl-Shift-L: Bulleted list
  • Ctrl-L: Left alignment
  • Ctrl-E: Center alignment
  • Ctrl-M: Insert comment
  • Ctrl-Space: Remove formatting
  • Ctrl-1, 2, or 3: Header style 1, 2, or 3
  • F2: Edit active cell (spreadsheets)
  • Ctrl-Spacebar: Select entire column (spreadsheets)
  • Shift-Spacebar: Select entire row (spreadsheets)

Items Google needs to add soon
Google Docs isn’t perfect, of course. Here are some things they need to add soon if they want to be a viable alternative to desktop apps for most people:

  • Offline mode. Probably coming soon now that Google Gears is out.
  • Edit tags better. Right now it takes too long to add or remove tags (folders).
  • Archive. Bring back the archive button! We don’t need to see every document.
  • Search like Gmail. Gmail’s search is much better, because you can use search operators such as label: and has:attachment. At the very least, the Google Docs search should have the ability to search by folder name.
  • Formatting for printing. I don’t print stuff out, but many others do. And when they do, they want it to look a certain way. Google Docs doesn’t currently have that.
  • Improved spreadsheets. Right now, Google Spreadsheets is very limited. It needs to add at least half the features of Excel or Calc.

Have your own tips for using Google Docs & Spreadsheets? Let us know in the comments.

41 Responses to “10 Ways to Use the New Google Docs Productively”

  1. Colleen O'onnell

    Google Docs is simply a “list serve” whereby people engage in file and commentary sharing. Nothing new. List serves are/were used by college professors as a form of “E-learning,” especially adjunct professors who taught their courses remotely. Nothing new folks.

  2. Google doc is definitely a great initiative and assistance to heavy users like me and not it makes all users independent of his/her own desktop.

    However, i mainly writing to convey my thanks to this particular website-webworkerdaily; since for last 3-4 hrs i was trying to format a file on google doc and failed, suddenly i got link to this page which was a great help to me.


  3. Hey everyone. Sorry to drop in, but as we continue to develop Buzzword we’ll love to get your feedback on how we can make it even better. We are also interested in hearing how you think it stacks up against the other web wordprocessors.

    If you’re interested in joining our private beta, drop us a line at with Web Worker Daily as the subject.

  4. Hi everyone!

    I really appreciated learning more about this tool.

    I have not used it, but in this discussion, I can see applications for my blog and websites, thanks to Rob, so that my view has been expanded beyond my office desk or my husband’s client needs.

    But, I can see that it will help him more than I had understood, too, so I will show him the article, as it will certainly offer more creative options, at times, beyond the company choices and email attachments etc.

    Keep up the good work here. I love this blog!

    Best to all — Em
    PS Come visit me at my blog:
    “Everyone knows someone who needs this information!” (TM)
    Use it for Prevention and for Sharing.

  5. The biggest shortcoming of Google Docs from my perspective right now is the lack of per folder or per tag sharing options. When you have working documents for an evolving group it would be handy if you could easily grant a new person access to all of the groups documents and not just those documents belonging to a single individual.

  6. I use Google Docs quite extensively. One thing that does concern me though is the lack of an easy way to back up / save a copy of all files. I would feel much safer it I also had a copy of the docs or could set it up to back them up periodically.

    Once Google Gears is in place this will hopefully be resolved. I just hope that happens sooner rather than later.

  7. One thing I thought of – especially now that there are folders – would be this would make an excellent online knowledge base either for within your organization or for your customers.

    After all it’s quite searchable and lets you store docs and spreadsheets, even allowing downloads in different formats. Best of all you don’t need to buy/download/install/configure any software.

  8. One of the key features I think it is missing, is the discussion tab for the documents. Google has a discussion tag for spreadsheets, so everyone who is collaborating can discuss revisions to be made, concepts, etc…

  9. Another thing I’d like to see added is a view option, like Word has. It’s hard to read text that scrolls across a wide page in my browser. I like to keep my browser window wide and want the option to view my documents in Google Docs at a normal printed page width.