The ultimate self-improvement tool is something you already have
I’m a little intense about Google Drive.
Through years of hyper-organized experimentation with the suite of apps that includes Sheets and Docs, I’ve developed systems to streamline and simplify, well, pretty much everything in my life. Grocery shopping. Holiday gift-buying. Parenting. Financial planning. My freelance project ideas. Even my love life!
Is your Google Drive doing all it can for you? Maybe you just use it to store files, or as free writing software. But it can do so much more. Used well, it can remove the friction that stands between your life and the best, most rewarding version of it.
This long and detailed guide—essentially, a short reference book—will walk you through dozens of ways that you can use Google Drive to bridge that gap. It’s full of specific ideas and templates, many of them borrowed from my life and the lives of other writers, that you can use to solve a very wide range of problems. Here you’ll find step-by-step advice on using all the tools of Drive to do everything from project planning to having a more rewarding social life.
The table of contents below will give you an idea of what this guide covers. You don’t have to read it all the way through to get its benefits; it’s designed for skimming and dipping into the sections most useful to you. As a whole, it lays out how Google Drive can become the circulatory system for your entire life online, improving not only the way you work, but the way you do everything else, too.
Using Drive this way doesn’t have to be complicated, and you don’t need to be particularly tech-inclined to do it. To use a kitchen analogy, Google Drive isn’t baking, where one imprecise step can make your cake collapse; it’s cooking, where a little improv can lead to a delicious dinner. Consider the use cases covered in this guide to be your starting recipes, and modify accordingly.
⚒️ The same goes for the templates and samples provided throughout, marked with a ⚒️. (These are view-only, but you can click “File” > “Make a copy” to create an editable version in your own Drive.)
🖐 We’ve also included testimonials from other Google Drive fanatics who have found innovative ways to improve their lives with its tools, and in some cases, linked to stories delving deeper into those methods.
Here’s how we suggest you use the guide, depending on your level of familiarity:
👶 If you’re totally new to Google Drive, use this guide as a starting point. Start by reading the intro, then browse the chapters to find an idea, template, or use case to address a corner of your life that could use organizing. Try one out to start with, and see if it works for you.
🙂 If you use Google Drive regularly already, this guide will help you use it even better. Start by applying our suggestions for good Drive hygiene, tidying and organizing your existing Drive. Then browse the sections and templates, linked throughout, for ways to apply this powerful tool outside of how you already use it.
🤓 If you’re already a Google Drive power user, treat this guide as an inspiration file. Skip the sections that rehash what you know, and keep an eye out for the “level up” features, with tips for more advanced Drive users, marked with ☝️.
💡 However you use this guide, we hope you’ll add your own ideas for creative uses of Google Drive in the comments on this post. In my experience, other people on the internet are the best resource for figuring out better systems: Do a Google search for cooking supplies Google Sheets, and you’ll find ideas for how Drive can help you with your weekly grocery shop; search for Google Drive knitting and you’ll find a guide to laying out patterns in Docs. If you can’t find what you’re looking for in a guide or from a search, make it yourself! And please share it with us.
Here’s a clickable table of contents. (Important note: The links below work if you’re reading in a desktop browser, but not if you’re reading on mobile.)
a. Keep your house in order
b. Keep family life running smoothly
c. Streamline chores and errands
d. Get your caregivers up to speed
e. Become effectively immortal (or at least manage your own death)
a. Quit procrastinating
b. Focus on your goals
c. Gain perspective
d. Find your next role
a. Set up your systems
b. Brainstorm collaboratively
c. Learn each other’s needs
d. Be the boss
e. Manage your time (and your team’s)
a. Prioritize your people
c. Improve your dating life
d. Spice up your sex life
e. Try new activities
f. Make hosting effortless
a. Understand your body
b. Improve your mental health
c. Prepare for emergencies
d. Navigate Covid
a. Organize your financial records
a. Make travel a breeze
b. Dive into a hobby
c. Keep the creative juices flowing
d. Treat yourself
e. Engage with your faith
b. Push for transparency
c. Manage crises
d. Compile resources
Several of the use cases we’ll cover below are also excerpts from other pieces, which you can read on Forge in their entirety:
Let’s start with the basics. Google Drive is two different things:
- A suite of cloud-based software applications, including Docs, Sheets, Slides, and Forms. Many of the applications we use most often on Google Drive look a lot like software applications for word processing or spreadsheet-making. But doing your work online through Google Drive means it’s accessible from any computer or phone (handy if you use more than one device), automatically backed up, and easy to share with other people. It also doesn’t require you to purchase a software license.
- Online storage and synchronization: Even if you never use Google Drive’s applications, it can still be a handy way to share or back up your files, or to keep them synchronized across different computers.
In this guide, we’ll focus primarily on a few key Google Drive components (look for the emojis throughout as a guide):
📝 Docs, a word-processing program
📊 Sheets, a spreadsheet program
📋 Forms, a web form creator that collects information in a Google Sheet
📂 Drive, the actual system for storing and managing your files
Google itself has published a lot of terrific how-tos that will walk you through every technical aspect of using Drive, so we won’t go through all that again. Here are a few to lay a solid foundation:
Once you know how to use Drive, let’s focus on how to use it well. Here are my personal recommendations on how to set up your Google Drive for smooth operations:
Practice good Drive hygiene. Keep personal projects in your personal account and work projects in your work account. Before creating a new Sheet, Doc, or anything else, check that you’re doing it in the right place.
Set up a folder structure, and file religiously. Set up your folders in whatever way works best for your brain. I like to keep my Drive organized with a few huge categories (Writing, Household, Clients, Tech Experiments) and then within each category, I organize by project or subtopic. For example, my Writing file includes a folder for Forge, and my Forge folder includes a subfolder for Google Drive Guide, and that folder includes subfolders for Outlines and Drafts, and each section is its own document within Drafts.
Name your files consistently. I always name my files in the format YEAR-MM-DD ProjectName DescriptiveDocName. So for example, this file started as 2020–08–05 GDriveForge IntroDraft. That way files sorted by name will be chronological, and it’s easy to search for the name of the project, or the date (even if it’s just a ballpark date) when I remember working on something.
Keep shared files in a separate folder from private files. To keep track of which file is shared with whom, I keep clearly labeled subfolders in any project folder, with labels like Acme Project: Just me, Acme Project: Internal team, and Acme Project: Shared with client.
Install the Sheets and Docs apps on all your mobile devices. I never think I’m going to look at a spreadsheet on my phone—until the moment a client emails me an urgent question when I’m out on a walk. The mobile apps aren’t as powerful and easy to use as the desktop browser versions—they can be fiddly to use and lack some key features—but they’re useful in a pinch.
Star (and un-star). Even if you mostly do a good job of naming and organizing your files and folders, it can be a hassle to go digging for the file you want at any given moment. So when you know you’re going to be using a specific file frequently for a time, add a star. Drive keeps the folder of starred items easily visible in your main navigation menu. When your project wraps and you’re not using that file much anymore, don’t forget to un-star it.
Before we cover all the many ways to integrate Google Drive into your life, let’s pause and go over some security best practices. If you use Drive as the command center for your life — and, as I’ve argued, you totally should — then do it knowing that you’ve taken the necessary steps to protect your information.
In this section, Sabino Marquez, Chief Information Security Officer of the software company Allocadia, explains how.
Let’s be clear, to start with: Uploading your personal information to the cloud of the second-biggest internet company in the world is not entirely without risk. But neither is online banking, using social media, or countless other activities you probably engage in — where hackers or the harvesting of data by big tech companies are always a concern. As with most things in life, using Google Drive involves calculating how much risk you’re comfortable with.
Personal security is one aspect that every user can — and should — take responsibility for. Of course, the most secure way to use Drive is to never collaborate or use any outside apps. But abstaining from those functionalities means forgoing much of what makes Drive so powerfully useful.
The good news is there are ways to maximize security while still using Drive’s collaborative features. It means asking yourself the right questions each step of the way: who you’re letting in, and why, and to what degree.
Many of the tools and strategies for securing your Google Drive are also general online best practices: Make sure you’re running the most up-to-date versions of all your software. Use screen locks on your devices. Consider using a password generator to create a random string of characters, and saving your password in a secure password manager.
You should also turn on Google’s 2-Step verification to protect your credentials from unauthorized use; that way, if your password is ever stolen, the hacker will still be blocked from accessing your account.
If you’ve never done it before, now is the time to start using Google’s Account Security Checkup, which does an audit of your account and recommends fixes for any potential security holes. Make this a regular routine; ideally, you should do a checkup every few months. (Anyone who deals with sensitive information and is especially concerned about security breaches should consider enrolling in Google’s free Advanced Protection Program, which protects your account behind a security key, either physical or set up on your phone.)
Beyond those basic practices, Drive security offers two elements aimed at keeping your data safe from other Drive users:
Data permissions, or the level of access you provide to other people when sharing your Drive files.
App permissions, or the level of access you provide to the third-party programs that integrate with Drive. In its default setting, your Drive data is not shared.
Whenever you share a Drive document, the first choice you make is just how accessible you want it to be: Can anyone with the link get in, or only specific people you identify? Each case has its own uses, but the latter adds an additional layer of protection, as whoever you choose to share your file with will have to log into their Google account. Control this setting via the “share” button in the upper right corner of your file, or by right-clicking it in your Drive and selecting “share.”
Next, consider what granting access means in this situation. Do you want people to be able to comment? To make changes? Can they download your file, print it, share it with other people? Use Google’s instructions to restrict your sharing permissions to the uses you want to others to have.
Lastly, know that whatever you decide doesn’t have to stay that way forever. You can remove access to your data at any time, the same way you granted it, by selecting “share” and removing the person from the permission list. You can also set up access with an expiration date: Here’s how.
Whenever you first connect an app such as Zapier or Coda to Drive (more on those later), the app will ask you for certain access permissions. Approach these requests with a healthy dose of suspicion: Some apps only access the minimum amount of information required to function, while other Apps attempt to gain permission to as much of your Drive data as possible.
Some basic questions to ask and research: Does this app have positive reviews, both in the app marketplace and online (something you can glean from an online search)? Is the app asking for more permissions than necessary (for example, a weather app asking for permission to access your contacts)? Has the app been involved in any data breaches (again, something you can Google)?
If, after your due diligence, you decide the app is trustworthy, you can always review or revoke permissions down the road by clicking the gear icon in Drive and going to Settings > Manage Apps.
*One note, for transparency’s sake: I have worked with some of the platforms covered here. Google featured me as an (unpaid) expert on the company’s Digital Wellbeing site, and I have written several articles for the Zapier blog.
Okay, ready? Let’s dive in.
Putting your household operations, parenting duties, and essential documents into Google Drive doesn’t just make all that vital knowledge accessible to everyone — it also has the effect of making invisible labor visible, so that everyone in your home can do their share in making it run.
And for all the parents reading this: There is no school subject that will be more useful or relevant than learning how to organize their life and thoughts. By teaching them how to use Google Drive effectively you’ll give them a tool to learn, create, and manage life more effectively, now and in the future.
Keep your house in order
📂 📊 Household manual: It’s nice to feel indispensable, up until the moment you go away for a weekend and discover your family can’t figure out how to change the smoke-alarm battery, where to find the circuit breaker, where the stain remover lives. Whether you’re the keeper of all knowledge in your household, or every member has specialized knowledge, it helps to gather all that crucial know-how in one place. Set up a Drive folder labeled “Home manual” with separate docs and spreadsheets for each area of responsibility.
Mine includes Docs on how to use the TV (illustrated with photos of each remote); how to tidy each room (what goes where); our morning checklist (what to do before getting out the door); our daily task list (meal prep, household organizing, etc.); and emergency contacts. Then I use Sheets to list cleaning tasks (categorized as daily, weekly, biweekly, monthly, or occasional) and our recurring grocery list. You might also add a repairs Sheet, detailing who to call or how to DIY a fix when the fridge breaks or the roof springs a leak.
⚒️ Click here for a sample page of a household manual — in this case, TV instructions.
📌 Tech tip: Use Drive’s support for nested folders to create subfolders within your household manual, like “daily checklists” or “tech info,” and group the relevant Docs together.
📊 Upgrade queue: Keep a running list of all the home upgrades on your wishlist in the form of a spreadsheet. On the main sheet, list each one with columns for issue, urgency, room/area of house, estimated cost, and (once booked) your timeline. In another sheet, keep the contact info for your repair people or contractors.
Keep family life running smoothly
📂 Family policy manual: I’ve written before (in this very publication!) about the various Docs that make up our manual:
Our Google Drive policy folder offers a peek into the different areas where we’ve had conflict over the years: We’ve had to introduce a toy cupboard policy, a Minecraft policy, a candy policy, and a bathing agreement. We also revise and update our family screen time policy every six to 12 months. (This schedule includes daytime hours because I homeschool one of my kids, who needs access to the internet for online learning.) When we’re introducing a new policy, we have the kids review the Google Doc and suggest any changes before it goes into effect.
📝 Teacher meeting notes: Whenever you or your co-parent(s) are meeting with your kids’ teachers, coaches, or school officials, take your notes in Docs, even if it’s just on your phone. This way you can share the job of keeping track, and you can also use the Doc as a real-time backchannel by scribbling notes like, “Let’s point out that she didn’t realize there was a frog in her backpack when she left it on the teacher’s chair.”
To easily find past notes and track issues over time, set up a dedicated folder for notes on each kid, and keep all your Docs in one place. Begin the title of each note with the date, in the form YMD (i.e., 2020–09–20) and include both the name of the kid and of the teacher in the title. That way, even if you download your notes, you’ll always be able to sort by date and quickly find the relevant information. If you need to find discussions of specific issues, you can also search within each folder by keyword (for example, “hitting” or “math”).
📊 School project plans: Seriously, folks: It’s looking more and more like remote work and collaboration skills will be the essential skills for many future members of the workforce. So get your kids used to the idea by teaching them to organize their school projects in Drive.
A good starting point is to show them how to set up a project plan in Google Sheets. Pick a major project, then map out the steps to completion and develop a timeline, with a column to track the status of every step.
Streamline chores and errands
📊 Kitchen inventory: I am tired of being the only person in the house who knows where to find the mini-muffin tins (people! this is essential info!), so I built a Google Sheet with one column for location (“cupboard above dishwasher,” “upper pantry”), one column for shelf (“top shelf”) and one column for what’s on it (“popsicle molds”).
📊 Pantry or freezer inventory: The pandemic has inspired plenty of people, myself included, to stock up — sometimes a little too much. It’s worth getting your food supplies organized, whether or not you’re prepping for end times, so you don’t end up with 17 jars of olives and no peanut butter. Use Sheets to set up a pantry inventory that lists everything in your supply cupboard, with columns for item (“cocoa”), shelf (“second from top”), item volume or weight (e.g., “16 oz”), and number of units.
You could use a similar spreadsheet to track what is in the freezer, so you’re not rooting around for that package of chicken breasts when it already got eaten. Just make sure the rest of the household knows to update the spreadsheet when something is used (and even better, add the item to a shopping list).
⚒️ Click here for a sample pantry inventory.
📊 Task assignments: Use a spreadsheet to create a master list of all the recurring tasks in your home and assign them to different members of your household. Start with a big brain dump that captures anything that needs to happen daily (load the dishwasher); weekly (put away the laundry); or occasionally (organize and clean the kitchen shelves). Create one column for frequency, one column for the day(s) of the week when each task will be done, and another column for who will be responsible for each task.
Now you can assign the responsibility for each task to a different member of your household, and specify a day of the week when each task is to be done. Sort the sheet by day of the week, and then by responsible person, so each person can see the tasks they are responsible for on each particular day.
Share the sheet with your family members so they can rearrange schedules as needed, and then (the most crucial step!) print the whole thing out with line breaks between days of the week, so that each day of the week has its own printout. Post these on the fridge or in another common area, and flip the page each day so everyone has their daily marching orders. (Or make flipping the page someone else’s task.)
⚒️ Here’s an example to get you started, with instructions, a master list, and two sample days.
📌 Tech tip: Filters make Sheets much more useful by letting you quickly see only the most relevant rows. If you’re new to Filters, find out how to use them here.
📊 Dividing up the holiday labor: As Darcy Lockman notes on Forge, the November-through-January holiday sprint comes with a host of extra chores, from making the Thanksgiving grocery list to procuring teacher gifts and finding a photo for the family card. To make sure all that labor is split fairly — and avoid the resentment that happens when it’s not, especially when the division is along gender lines — try dumping everything into a Sheet and using that master list to divvy up tasks:
I know, it doesn’t sound very festive. But it can be a straightforward, unemotional, non-judgmental way to divvy up the labor. And trust me when I say that this is good advice not just for heterosexual married couples, but for any household, from same-sex couples to roommates to homes with children old enough to help out. (No one wins when tasks are not distributed, even those who get away with a lighter load — plenty of social science research has found that both members of a couple are happier when the division of work is more equitable.)
⚒️ You can use Lockman’s template as a starting point. No, it won’t make your home full of guests any less overwhelming, but you’ll be considerably more Zen, and perhaps less annoyed with your layabout family members, as you prep the house for their arrival.
📋 Request form for household purchases: The most efficient way to manage your kids’ purchase requests is to just hook a vacuum cleaner up to your wallet. But if you’re interested in spending less than 100% of your income on video games, music downloads, and Lego, you might want a system for tracking, evaluating, and (occasionally) fulfilling your kids’ various requests.
A Google Form set up to ask the requester some basic questions is a great way to do this: It puts the onus on the requester to make the case for why they need or want the item, and encourages them to do some research on its price and perhaps even include a link to where it can be purchased. It also automatically creates a spreadsheet so that you can assess and prioritize the asks (and it comes in handy as a wish list for birthdays or holidays).
You can use my video game request form as an example:
Get your caregivers up to speed
📝 Pet manual: If you use a pet sitter or dog walker, consider creating a Doc with all of your pet’s particular quirks and commands, as well as a list of all the necessary supplies and where to find them, vet’s contact information, immunizations, medical conditions, etc.
You can also use this yourself: When we got our puppy, I put all the documents from our breeder (about things like nail trimming, grooming, and training) in a single folder.
You can use Docs to make a shopping list of all the pet gear you need, as well as anything you’re going to buy on a regular basis, like treats or pet food.
⚒️ Here’s a version of the Doc I made as a new pet owner, with space for items to buy, useful advice, and logistical information about care.
📝 Kid manual: Like the pet sitter Doc, but for the person watching your human children. Whether you’re gone for a night out or a weeklong trip, give yourself and the babysitter some peace of mind by sharing a doc laying out bedtimes, food allergies, screen-time rules, dessert policy, and anything else the adult in charge needs to know.
Become effectively immortal (or at least manage your own death)
📝 Week One Manual: As I rounded an icy traffic circle this past winter, it struck me that if I slammed into the median and died unexpectedly, my husband would have absolutely no idea how to organize our tax files for the accountant.
Since then, I’ve been working on what I think of as the “Week One Manual”: with everything he would need to have in place for the kids’ emotional well-being and his own (“call these therapists, tell them you need emergency appointments”), the contact information of loved ones he’d need to inform, and which people he could count on for various life survival tasks in the event of my untimely demise.
📝 “How To Live Without Me” file: A will handles property distribution, but it doesn’t help share the logistical knowledge you hold in your head, phone, and computer. That’s why I’ve set up a Google Doc with instructions on all the life planning and logistics that I currently manage: which doctors are for which kids and what purposes; how our homeschooling and special needs funding is organized and administered; how I have our financial record-keeping set up; and how to plan on outsourcing the stuff I currently manage. And because my husband might be the one to step in front of a bus while checking Facebook on his iPhone, I have also asked him to document the stuff he manages as well, like how to do the laundry, how to load the dishwasher, and (especially), what to feed our children.
A sickness manual (more on that later in this guide) can live in here as well, though ideally your file should capture longer-term knowledge — everything your family needs to know to take care of themselves for the long haul, not only what they need to know about fending for themselves if you’re out of commission for a few weeks.
📝 Legal documents: Most of us should have at the very least a will, a living will, a trust, and power of attorney, but I really hope your family lawyer does not keep these online in Google Docs—where one stray edit means you’re leaving everything to your dog Rover instead of your husband Roger. Get all those documents printed, signed, and notarized, then put them in a safety deposit box.
Google Drive can, however, be a handy place to keep the information about where to find those vital documents if and when they’re needed, in a dedicated folder that’s easily accessible by your family or executor. You also can store PDF copies of these documents in your drive, but make sure to update them if you make any changes. (Here’s a longer list of papers that will be needed to settle your affairs, but consult your attorney about your specific situation for what you should have in place.)
📝📊 Social media instructions: Create a Google Doc or Sheet listing all the accounts you care about, and what you want done with each of them (Deleted? Memorialized? Do you want a post informing friends and followers of your passing?). Don’t include passwords for your accounts; store them in a password vault like 1Password or LastPass, and store the password for your password vault someplace offline and secure (like your safe deposit box).
Many people get to know Google Drive in the context of work, which means it’s often seen as simply a productivity engine — a cut-and-dried way to get things done. But what’s really exciting about Drive is how it can help you prioritize, and focus on what’s actually important to you: the things you want to learn, the skills you want to cultivate, and all the ways you want to grow, to reach your creative and professional goals.
Also, because you can never have too many reminders: Practice good Drive hygiene! Anything not directly related to your job should go in your personal Drive, and ideally not accessed from your company-owned devices.
📝 Daily task manager: One thing a Drive to-do list has that a handwritten to-do list doesn’t: the ability to link. Each day, outline what you need to accomplish in a Doc, and then for each item, link out to wherever you store the relevant details: something like “finish book proposal” might link to the Doc where you keep your proposal notes, for example, while “review French verbs” might link to the language-learning platform you’ve been using. This way, you have a global view of everything that needs to get done, all in one place — nothing less, nothing more — and you’ve removed much of the friction for actually getting through it all.
☝ ️Level up: OneTab is a browser extension for Firefox or Chrome that makes it easy to save a bunch of open browser tabs — which makes it an ideal tool for saving a group of Google files you need to refer to or share frequently. When you’re working on a project that involves a bunch of Google files, open all the files in separate tabs, then hit the OneTab button to save them all as a tab group. Lock the group (so it won’t disappear the next time you open the tab collection) and give it a memorable name. ) Now you have all your files in a handy, accessible list, and you can copy and paste that list into an email whenever you need to share it.
📊 Task triage: Here’s a system for making sure you’re spending your time on things that move you closer to where you want to go, and cutting the things might feel urgent but are actually not that important:
- Start by writing down your top three or four major goals for the next year (even if it feels hard right now to think beyond next month).
- Then dump all your current personal tasks and projects into a Sheet, no matter how large or small or half-baked.
- Create a column called project and use it to note which goal each task relates to, if any (like “write a book” or “run a marathon” or “build backyard kiln”). Now sort your sheet by project.
- Add a column for urgency: On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being most time-sensitive, how time-sensitive is this?
- Add a column for importance: On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 as the most related, how related is this to my top goals?
- Then use Google Sheets’ “sort range” command to sort your list by both importance and urgency, making importance the top criterion.
Next, skim through your list: Do you really need to do any of those 4s and 5s? What else can you step out of? Cut as much as you can by moving it to an “archive” tab.
Once you’ve thinned your list, look at whether you can actually get your remaining tasks and projects accomplished in the time you have available, and continue to cut your lower-priority items until you have a task list that is both feasible and focused on your top priorities. Now you have a roadmap for exactly where you should focus your energy in the near future.
📌 Tech tip: Sort range allows you to sort your sheet on multiple criteria at once.
📊 Excuses tracker: When Leigh Stein was struggling to write her novel a few years ago, she writes in Forge, she found the accountability she was looking for in a spreadsheet she titled “You Can Write a Novel”:
[My spreadsheet had] columns for tracking words written and hours spent writing, and I started to track how I got in my own way. In Column A, I put the date. Columns B, C, and D were for recording words written, pages written, and hours spent writing, so that I could give myself credit for whatever amount of work I was able to do that day. In Column E, I recorded my excuses on the days I wrote nothing. This would ultimately prove to be the most important column of all of them. For seven months, I tracked my progress. I dutifully noted how much I wrote (I averaged around 250 words a day; on my best days I wrote 750). And if I didn’t, I noted why.
Seeing all her excuses (among them “couldn’t get into it,” “didn’t make time for it,” and “haircut”) written out in front of her helped Stein realize that “ideal conditions for completing any long-term project simply do not exist”— a realization that ended up propelling her through her manuscript. Tracking the excuses you make around your own projects can be a reminder that for progress to happen, you need to just sit down and do the damn thing.
📊 Anti-procrastination template: Each of us has that inner voice that’s all too happy to supply reasons for not getting started. “Maybe it says something like, ‘What if it all goes wrong?’ or ‘It will take too long’ or ‘You’re not good enough to do that,’” Dave Bailey writes on Forge. “This voice goes by many names: resistance, your inner saboteur, the gremlin. Whatever you call it, it prevents you from doing what’s important.”
By countering the story it tells, you can take away its power. If your own anxiety or self-doubt is what’s holding you back, Bailey recommends using a Sheet to find the antidote, with columns for the task you’re putting off, the disabling narrative, and the enabling narrative:
Fear, insecurity, and shame lie at the root of inaction. And the only way to conquer your fears is to face them. So in the “disabling narrative” column of the spreadsheet, write out all possible reasons why you can’t or shouldn’t do a task…Now, in the “enabling narrative” column, imagine you’re a wise third party who wants nothing but the best for you. Write out a more balanced and realistic response to each one of your fears. For example, next to “I’m not good enough,” you might write, “You are good enough, and it doesn’t need to be perfect — just done.”
Bailey also has columns for impact (how much of a difference will it make if you complete this task?), effort (how hard is it?), and return (divide impact by effort to assign your task a value).
Focus on your goals
📊 Skills wishlist: Whenever you spot an enticing learning opportunity or think of a new skill you’d like to learn, add it to a spreadsheet. Make separate columns for the skill name or summary, links to potential learning resources, and why you want to learn it: Is this for fun? Professional advancement? To get more efficient/effective at doing something you already do?
Then keep track of your progress in a separate column where you mark your status as considering, beginning, developing, or mastering. When you get underway on a new skill, mark the date you started in a separate column. Over time, you’ll get a great summary of the skills you have developed — handy for your résumé or LinkedIn profile — as well as a picture of the kinds of learning projects you abandon, versus the ones you’re inclined to see through.
📊 Rejections list: The freelance writer Julia Pugachevsky explains in Forge how keeping a spreadsheet of rejected story pitches has helped her spot her own patterns and course-correct, as well as develop a healthier attitude about getting a “no”:
No matter how personally attached I feel to my idea, the Sheet neutralizes each article pitch into a data point. I approach every email to an editor with an understanding that you have to wade through a lot of “nos” before you get to a “yes.”… Viewing failure as a simple learning experience (and not indicative of your own self-worth) has tremendous impact on how you continue to grow your expertise and knowledge.
With that mindset, Pugachevsky explains, you can more easily glean lessons for the future: “Having a log of all my old ideas is actually incredibly useful information. I see the rookie mistakes I used to make, like not doing my research on an outlet and pitching too hastily, or sending an idea to only one publication and getting too quickly discouraged.”
📝 Praise list: On the flip side, Drive can also be a great place to track your successes. On Forge, Lauren Sieben suggests what she calls a “Good Shit Board” — a collection of accomplishments and kind words that she keeps in her line of sight as she works:
Some of the items on my Good Shit board for this month include an inspiring week at a writer’s workshop, a fun new assignment from a magazine I enjoy writing for, and an article pitch accepted at Forge (hi!), along with any kind words about my work, or complimentary emails from editors that I’ve received. The Good Shit board is a lifeline on days when work feels frustrating. It’s where I go to celebrate my wins, providing a confidence boost anytime my morale takes a hit after a rejection or roadblock.
Once a month, Sieben transfers everything on her board into a document on her computer and starts fresh.
Use a Doc to keep tabs on your own Good Shit, either instead of or in addition to a board, and you’ll be able to access its confidence-boosting powers anytime, from anywhere, when you need them.
Find your next role
📊 Job applications: A hundred thousand years ago, when the Earth was new, I tracked all my graduate school applications in a Filofax. (If you’ve never heard of a Filofax, ask your mom.) These days, the only way I’d track a job search or application process is with a Google Sheet.
Set yours up with seven columns: organization, opportunity (link or brief summary), contact person, contact’s email, contact’s phone number, notes, and communication. Every time you see an interesting new job posting , or hear about a potential opportunity, add it to your sheet. If you submit a job application, get called for an interview, or send a follow-up email, log it with the date under the communication column; do the same each time you hear back, so you always know whose court the ball is in.
⚒️ Click here for a template to kickstart your job search.
☝️ Level up: Streak is an easy-to-use customer relationship management, or CRM, tool that looks and feels a lot like a Google Sheet. Streak actually lives inside Gmail and integrates with it very closely, so that every time you exchange a message with your vendor or customer — or, in this case, with a recruiter or point of contact for a job — it’s automatically logged as part of your record in Streak.
📂 Work portfolio: A Drive folder is an easy, efficient way to collect a representative selection of work that you can show to recruiters or your current boss.
You can use Drive’s option of starring files to note any work that you think you’d want to show off down the road; every few months, take a look at your starred items and copy anything that you’re still proud of into your portfolio. (Note: If you’re going to share it outside your current employer, think about whether you need to anonymize or redact any portions of your work to protect confidentiality.)
Then create a “welcome” Doc that functions like a table of contents, with links to each of the Docs and Sheets in your folder, a brief explanation of what each one demonstrates about your work. (Just use the “insert link” command, then type the name of the file you are linking to in the Link field ー Drive will find the correct Doc or Sheet and fill it in.)
To give you a sense of what that might look like, here’s a welcome Doc my kid made to showcase school projects:
The days of circulating Word docs and struggling to converge seven different sets of edits are over. Drive’s biggest advantage comes not from what we’re each able to do with it alone, but what we can do with it together.
We’ll dive into some specifics in a minute, but for anytime you work with another person on a Drive project, here are a few universal best practices:
- Ask people to edit and annotate your Docs in “suggesting” mode
- If there is anything they (or you) want to draw particular attention to, highlight that chunk of text in bright yellow or green so that you all remember to talk it through later.
- Use the comments feature for general suggestions or feedback, but make any actual suggested text changes by deleting the offending words — in suggesting mode, they will show as struck through — and inserting the preferred/suggested text.
- To peel back layers of edits, you can look through version histories to see who made what change and when (it’s not the greatest user experience, but can be valuable when you decide the wording you had for your report intro three rounds ago might be the way to go after all).
With these practices, everyone on your team can collaborate in real time or on your own schedules, which means Drive makes it possible to accomplish things as a group that would be a lot more time-consuming — or even impossible — to do solo. And when working together is this seamless, you can put your own time, and everyone else’s, to the best possible use.
Learn each other’s needs
📝📂 Co-working manual: For more harmonious working relationships, consider creating a guide to for your colleagues with everything they need to know about you as an employee, such as things like hours when you’ll be unreachable, whether you prefer emails, phone calls, video chats, or Slack messages, and the best ways to give you feedback.
As with the personal user manual for your household discussed earlier, this is a good place to share deeper truths about yourself and how you work. Are you a visual thinker, a slow talker, someone who hates to be disturbed while in a flow state? Lay it all out in a short (ideally one-page) Google Doc.
For new teams working together for the first time, writing and sharing these user manuals can be an effective ice-breaker, and many who have done the exercise say they learned things about their own work style in the process.
The idea gained attention after the New York Times columnist Adam Bryant interviewed Ivar Kroghrud of the software company QuestBack, which specializes in feedback management, about it in 2013. Drawing on Kroghrud’s system and a sample version written by a CEO who posted hers on LinkedIn, Quartz suggested these questions to start with:
- My style
- What I value
- What I don’t have patience for
- How to best communicate with me
- How to help me
- What people misunderstand about me
📝📂 Working agreement: Especially for teams that are currently fully remote, navigating work-from-home life will go more smoothly if you have a shared agreement in place for how you’ll work together and what you’ll expect of each other.
In the same folder as your individual co-working manuals, create a Doc synthesizing the most salient points of everyone’s manuals so you share an understanding of logistics (like who to contact and when) and values (like what team success looks like). Be sure to include an understanding of team working hours, and what issues merit communication outside of those hours.
Set up your systems
📂 Shared style guide: Why should you and your colleagues need to start from scratch every time you make something new? Use the folder to store templates for commonly used slide decks, spreadsheets, memos, proposals, or reports. Then create an overview Doc spelling out which templates to use for which purposes, as well as any general style guidelines, like how to write your brand and sub-brand names, or when to capitalize certain terms.
📝 Team guide to Google Drive: Google Drive works much better for teams when you share a basic understanding of which files belong in which folders, what should be circulated as a Google Doc and what should be organized in a Sheet, and who “owns” each part of your shared Drive. The easiest way to get everyone in sync is to create a Google Doc like “Starfleet Academy Guidelines on Using Google Drive,” mapping out what you’ll use different kinds of documents for and how you’ll organize and share them.
A portion of your guide can also help you deal with Google Drive resisters— you know, the people who still insist on emailing documents as Word files instead of sharing them as Google Docs. You can offer these folks a bit of a carrot by outlining the benefits of using Drive and the guidance that makes it easy to get started (feel free to quote this guide!). And if you’re the boss, you can also make it clear that participating in this organizational system is expected, not optional.
⚒️ Click here for an example of a team Drive Guide (and a hidden joke for fans of the criminally underrated workplace comedy show Better off Ted).
📝 Shitty first drafts: Dump your ideas into a document as quickly as you can. Once you have something between a draft and an outline — let’s call it a “draftline” — invite your colleague, a collaborator, or even a trusted friend or family member, to come in and take a look.
Get them to add comments and edits in “suggesting” mode, or if you really trust them, to just dive in and start turning your notes into a decent draft. Or, if you’re someone who does better with the polishing, collaborate with someone who is the opposite, and get them to drop their ideas onto a Doc as a starting point.
You can also brainstorm in real time, or work collaboratively by throwing all your thoughts into a Google Doc simultaneously, then going through and sorting them together into an outline. Then assign someone the task of writing the first draft, or divide up the work.
The point is one that prolific writers have sworn by since long before Google existed: Be less precious with your ideas, and get used to asking for input early in your process. You’ll write faster and better this way.
📝📂 Group note-taking: Forget the practice of deputizing someone to take notes during your weekly meetings or client calls. A better practice (and a fairer one, since this type of office “housekeeping” typically falls to women) is to create a folder for each of your recurring meeting types, along with a template for meeting notes.
At the beginning of each meeting, duplicate the template and then paste in the meeting agenda. Encourage everyone in the meeting to add information as it unfolds. You’ll end up with better notes, and ensure that everyone stays engaged, too.
📝 Project feedback: If you’re looking for feedback (or asked to give feedback) on a project or report, putting everything in the same Google Doc is a no-brainer — as long as you and your colleagues can agree on the protocols.
Ask people to edit and annotate the Doc in “suggesting” mode, and if there is anything they (or you) want to draw particular attention to, highlight that chunk of text in bright yellow or green so that you all remember to talk it through later.
Use the comments feature for general suggestions or feedback, but make any text changes by deleting the offending words in suggesting mode (they will show as struck through) and insert the preferred/suggested text.
Note: Great input begins with the right kind of invitation, so make sure you invite people into your Doc thoughtfully. Instead of sending off a generic invitation or dumping a link to the doc in a Slack message, write a separate email linking to the document and letting people know whether this is an FYI or a request for input. If it’s the latter, you should also specify what level of input you’re looking for, and when you need it by. Let folks see who else is being invited into the doc by putting everyone into the TO or CC fields; if they don’t all know each other already, make those introductions in the invitation email
Be the boss
📊 Customer Relationship Management: So much of management comes down to contact management: keeping track of not just email addresses and phone numbers, but the conversations or message exchanges, the follow-up actions, and the outcomes.
Yes, there are huge fancy pieces of software built for this exact purpose (hi, Salesforce), but if you’re just trying to keep track of, say, the 11 freelancers you periodically tap for content marketing, a full-on CRM system might be overkill. A Google Sheet with the name, contact info, and contact logs for each of those vendors or prospects is easy to set up and use — and even easier with Streak. It’s also an easy format to export and then import in a more full-featured CRM if and when you outgrow your Sheet.
☝️ Level up: ⚒️ Google offers its own CRM template that’s a bit more advanced than what I describe (feel free to pick and choose the different components according to your needs).
📊 Simple timesheets: When I hire people to do work for me, I just set up a simple timesheet in Sheets, with a separate file for each person. I have columns for date, start time and stop time, total hours worked, and if I have someone working on different kinds of tasks, I add a column where they can let me know what they did with their time.
Whenever I need to pay an employee, I use a separate column to add all the hours since their last payment, and multiply that by their hourly rate. Then I record the payment right there, in the spreadsheet, noting the date and total amount paid, along with the payment method.
⚒️ Click here for a basic timesheet template.
📊📋 Interviewing: I have hired a lot of people over the years, and I often use Google Forms to set up a basic set of screening questions. If I’m hiring a project manager, for instance, the screening form will ask questions such as, “In one or two sentences each, describe three different projects you have managed” or “List any roles where you have been responsible for managing multiple concurrent projects.”
I also keep a set of interview questions in Google Sheets. If I’m interviewing a candidate as part of a panel of interviewers, I share this with my co-interviewers to keep track of the questions we’re asking and ensure we’re covering all the necessary areas without overlapping.
Manage your time (and your team’s)
📊 Delegation spreadsheet: This is like the task-triage system in Part 2, but instead of prioritizing personal projects, it helps you figure out what work tasks might be better handled by someone else on your team. Once again, put all your to-dos in a spreadsheet, sorted by project (this time, those projects might be things like “sales” or “hiring” or “transformational cross-department digital synergies”). Then add columns rating time-sensitivity and importance from 1–5, with 1 as the most, plus a column labeled delegate. In there, note who else could potentially take over the task in question — a colleague, a freelance hire, a direct report? For any 4s and 5s, consider handing the reins to the person you’ve identified.
⚒️ Click here for a Sheet to customize with your own priorities.
📊 Project planning: It would surprise no one to learn that I am a recovering project-management software addict. For more than a decade, I’d fall in love with a new application every year, moving my team and projects onto Basecamp, then Central Desktop, then Asana. But I eventually realized that for most of my purposes, all those fancy features (and software bills) were overkill.
I really just needed a Sheet for each project, mapping out tasks in one column, due dates in another, and assignments in a third. And, fine, sometimes a Coda, too.
☝️ Level up: Coda, a flexible platform that integrates with Drive, allows users to create documents, spreadsheets, and presentations all in one place. It has enriched and extended a lot of what I do with Google Drive: Now, whenever I start a major project, I create both a Coda doc and a Drive folder for the project. I also use Coda’s integration with Gmail and Slack to pull in email or conversation threads and to send key updates directly from Coda via my Gmail account.
📊 Time tracking: One of the trickiest things about management is making sure you’re dividing up the work in a way that’s equitable, based both on everyone’s time and on the nature of the projects being assigned. I put together a more accurate picture by looking at how long it takes folks to get things done in Google Drive.
If I’ve asked someone to turn my outline into a blog post, I can look in Docs and see when they first started working and when they finished the job. If I ask someone to look up 50 social media profiles in a Google Sheet, I can see how many they get through in an hour.
It’s a great way to figure out how your team paces their work, and to get a realistic sense of how long different assignments actually take to complete. It’s also a way to make sure you aren’t overloading any one person or showing any unconscious bias in how you delegate (such as giving the more interesting work to the white men, or always tasking women with non-work “extras” like planning the office happy hour).
📊 Capacity planning: Drumming up business is important, but so is making sure you don’t take on more work than your team can deliver. Create a Sheet with one tab listing the total available hours for each person on the team (I recommend basing this number on about 70% of their actual work hours, to ensure you don’t overbook or forget about business development or other internal tasks).
Another tab can list the anticipated hours for each project, with columns for each person on the team. Before taking on a new project, add its anticipated hours to your spreadsheet to see if you actually have the staff availability to get it done.
Staying close with the people in your life was hard enough even before the global pandemic took hold. There were conflicting schedules to contend with, crushing workdays, family obligations, geographic distance, and the constant lure of our screens.
These days, of course, screens are pretty much all we have. But even long after this era of Zoom is past, Google Drive can help you nurture your relationships by making it easier for you to invest your time and energy in the people that matter most.
Prioritize your people
📊 Gift planner: Facebook may do the job of tracking when your friends have their birthdays, but I am still waiting for the Facebook-Amazon-Etsy integration that orders the right gadgets for my techie friends, and the right pieces of hand-painted pottery for my artsy friends, and ships them out to arrive in time for the big day.
That’s where Google Sheets comes in: Just set up a Sheet with the names and birthdays (and graduations, and anniversaries) of the most important people in your life. When you spot something that you think would be a great gift for someone you love, jot the idea down in a gift ideas column next to their name. Then use Zapier to connect the sheet to your calendar so you get a reminder two or three weeks before the big day, or manually set up alerts, and pop into your gift planner to see the gift ideas you’d already marked down. Gosh, you’re so thoughtful!
⚒️ Click here for a sample gift planner to get you started.
☝️ Level up: Zapier is a tool that lets you connect different web services, such as Slack, Dropbox, and of course Google’s suite of services. I use it to link Google Sheets to my calendar and other parts of my online life.
📊 Friends and enemies list: On Forge, Lauren Larson details an unusual but kind of brilliant quarantine project: organizing every single person she knows.
Categorizing your friends and family in a spreadsheet might sound rather cold-blooded, but it can actually be a way to ensure thoughtfulness, Larson explains:
The need to prioritize the people in your life who matter most has never been greater than in quarantine: Everyone is going through something, and your friends and family need your unfettered support. Besides which, one can only do so many Zoom happy hours. So I started a Google Sheet and called it “Friends and Lovers.” I began with five tiers, but over the coming weeks, as I added people who popped into my head, I found it necessary to create micro-tiers. I ended up with 15 categories.
The categories run from close family and friends in the upper tiers to exes and enemies (professional and personal) at the bottom.
It’s an exercise that’s helped Larson feel closer than ever to the people that matter most. And, she observes, “The really lovely revelation of nursing my Google Doc during a pandemic: People have only moved up.”
(This kind of categorizing can also improve your social media experience: Create Facebook lists that parallel your categories, and use them to focus your attention on different groups of people, depending on the day and your mood.)
⚒️ ️You can use or adapt Larson’s tiering system here.
📊 Logistics of death: After her mother’s death, Siobhan Adcock writes on Forge, she and her sister used Google Sheets to clean out her house and distribute her belongings to friends and relatives:
We went through the house and took photos of things on our phones. Then we uploaded and organized the photos into shared Google Photo folders, sorted by room and by type. We also created a shareable Google Sheet listing all the objects and pieces, and linking to their respective photos in the shared folders. Then we sent emails with links to everything… The shareability of the spreadsheet made it possible for people to see what others had already claimed, and to leave notes for us and for each other in the cells. “I remember when she got this. I loved this picture. I would love to have it, if that’s all right with you.”
Because Adcock, like her mother, has always been a spreadsheet person, using one in this context “felt like a relief,” she writes. “It felt like something about this whole horrible experience that I could organize and make some sense of. The one island, in an ocean of sadness, that made sense.”
📂 A voice from beyond: As Kate Morgan writes, Drive can be a place to store memories and even the actual voice of a loved one — and a way to keep the memories of that people close:
My grandmother Irene, who I called Nanny, died in 2017, but she’s still alive in my Google Drive. Her voice is, anyway. She was one of the most singular people I’ve ever met, and she left the best voicemails.
“Katie Lady,” they often begin, “It’s Nanny, will you please give me a call? But if it’s after 11, I’ll be at mass. And then I’m going to Rose’s — so you can call me there. Or try me here, after, oh, 5? Ok, love you, bye bye.”
I have dozens of these voicemails, most of which I still haven’t listened to. At first the repository formed by accident — I’m bad at listening to voicemails and have a tendency to let them pile up — but once I knew she was dying, I decided to leave them unheard, and to move them somewhere safe. Accidentally deleting one from my phone suddenly felt like an unbearable risk.
So now Irene’s voicemail archive lives in its own folder on Google Drive, alongside a folder full of photos of her over the decades. One by one, I clicked into each voicemail, then hit the “share” button to export it to Drive, which I’d installed as an app on my phone. Every once in a while, when I really miss her, I dip into the vault and listen to a new one. Eventually, I know, I’ll have heard them all. But even then, that folder will be a place I can visit from anywhere, anytime, to hear her voice — there’s something about it talking directly to me that makes her presence feel fully alive.
📂 Grief processing: Using Drive can also help you work through more complicated forms of grief. On Forge, Farahnaz Mohammed explains how keeping a Google Drive folder with memories of her ex, who passed away months after their breakup, helped her manage her emotions in the wake of his death:
I gathered everything I thought I would someday want to see or hear again, memories of Greg at his worst as well as at his best — photos, text messages copied into a Google Doc, copies of voicemails — and dropped them in a Google folder.
I named it something deliberately innocuous: ‘2014’, the year we’d been together….For a while, I opened the 2014 folder a lot. Then, a few months in, I deleted the first thing for good — a copy of an email he’d written. It wasn’t a particularly momentous occasion, but seeing it gone felt strangely good. And that’s how it started. Little by little, I chipped away at the folder as some memories faded or others solidified, or I became less angry at fights never resolved, or more accepting of the fact that there was no good ending to this story.
Eventually, Mohamed got to a place where she could delete the folder altogether, she wrote: “Within the framework of Google Drive, alongside shared documents and photos, there was also space for healing.”
Improve your dating life
📊 Exes spreadsheet: When Kyla Marshell was newly single, she writes in Forge, she took to Google Sheets to better understand her own dating history, creating a spreadsheet of former flames with the goal of learning more about her own preferences. “I was looking for patterns in the data,” she explains, “clusters of like qualities or flaws that would help me in my future romantic endeavors”:
The format was simple enough: I made one column each for name, age, how we met, and profession. I also added columns for positives, negatives, and “lessons learned.” I included anyone I’d ever gone out or had a significant “thing” with….[It] led to some interesting conclusions. The phrase “lacked the confidence to pursue his dreams,” or some variation of it, appeared a whopping seven times in the Negatives column.
This was the first major revelation The Sheet yielded, something I never could have grasped through journaling or regular self-reflection. I had to see it, all sorted out: I like doers, not talkers.
Your own clarifying moment may be waiting in a spreadsheet, too. “Treat the Sheet like an oracle,” Marshall writes. “Perhaps, with the data right in front of you, you just might learn what you like, what you love, and where to go next.”
Spice up your sex life
📊 Sext-o-matic spreadsheet: Nothing keeps the relationship fires stoked like the occasional sexy text message. The thing is, between work, and the kids, and your CrossFit schedule….well, who has time for sexting a partner, let alone an original idea of what to send?
Enter a creation I’ve named the Sext-o-matic: a Google Sheet I set up to automatically generate sexy text messages to send to my husband. I created columns for our respective body parts, sexy adjectives to describe them, and verbs that capture what we want to do (or have done). Then I use the CONCATENATE and RAND functions in Google to combine the different columns in random, creative ways. To send the results, I can either copy and paste or send outbound SMS messages from Sheets via Zapier.
At one point, I wondered if I’d be better off using a tool like the Slutbot, a virtual sexting coach, to get better at writing dirty messages myself — but when I saw him dive into the Sext-o-matic and replace all the naughty bits with references to Star Trek starship parts, I realized that this is one guy who’s probably happier with a sexy spreadsheet.
(I only use the Sext-o-matic with my husband, with his enthusiastic participation. It shouldn’t need to be said, but affirmative consent is necessary for any such communication, which should only happen between adults.)
📝 Sexual wishlist: Pore over Cosmo all you like, but those sex tips will go a lot further if your partner knows about them, too. If you’re too shy to pass along the how-tos and gotta-try-its that you come across in the course of your reading (or viewing), consider setting up a wishlist in Google Docs.
Anytime you read about a position or activity you’d like to try, copy and paste it into your Doc, along with the source link or title. Share the Doc with your partner, and encourage them to paste in their own finds, too. (Just be sure to discuss anything new in real time before trying — again, affirmative consent is a must.)
📝 Collaborative erotica: Trying to make it work long distance — or to find a new way to pass the time in quarantine together? Consider a collaborative erotica project in Google Docs. Start a sexy story, then invite your partner into the Doc, and keep writing together. Bonus points if you decide to re-enact your literary creation once you’re done.
Try new activities
📝 Group writing project: The same idea as collaborative erotica, minus all the sex. Create a Doc, set the purpose — do you want to create oral history of a favorite college memory with old friends? Write a fairy tale with your kid? — and then take turns imagining or reminiscing on the page.
📊 Game inventory: If you’re a board-game enthusiast, use Google Sheets to make an inventory of all the games on your shelves and then treat it as a to-do list, so that Trivial Pursuit Classic Edition you bought on a whim doesn’t gather dust.
If you really want to get detailed, include a tab for optimal number of players and age-appropriateness, so you can find just the right game for the right occasion (a wine-fueled hang with friends probably calls for something different from, say, your third-grader’s group playdate).
⚒️ Click here for a sample game inventory.
Sheets can also be useful for role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons: Set up a sheet with all your characters, with columns for each character’s stats. Use another tab as a placeholder at the end of each gaming session, writing down exactly what each player and non-player character is up to when you suspend play, so you know where to pick up the story when you resume.
Make hosting effortless
📊📋 Event organizing: A Google Form plus Sheet is a great starting point for a party or event. If you want outside input, set up a simple form asking crucial people for their thoughts on key details, like what days or times work best, who you should invite, or what dishes people will bring to a potluck. Use the answers you collect to map out the basic parameters of your event in a Sheet (or just map them out on your own if you skipped the form) and then turn those parameters into a task list of all the things that need to get organized.
Once you have your tasks, add deadlines and details: when you’ll send out your invitations, when you’ll buy and prepare food, when and how you’ll take care of any special requirements like a celebratory video or balloon drop. If you are going to rent specialized gear like A/V equipment or a chocolate fountain (yes, I have rented a chocolate fountain), compile your list of potential vendors and prices in a separate tab. You can also create a tab for your guest list to track RSVPs, or move it into an invitations app like Evite.
Here’s an example of a form I made for a party I hosted, back when parties were still a thing:
📊 Care and feeding guide: Someday, when this pandemic is over, you may once again have your friends over for dinner. When that happens, it would be really unfortunate if the friend who successfully avoided Covid fell ill after eating your homemade pad thai because you forgot about her nut allergy and threw in some peanuts. To avoid any hosting snafus, set up a Sheet where you make a note anytime a friend mentions a food allergy or dietary restriction, so you don’t have to keep asking them over and over. Update it if their restrictions change.
You can use the same approach to compile a list of pertinent facts, both sensitive and silly, about the people in your life: who just went through a nasty breakup, who hates horror movies, whose dad is battling dementia, who’s still traumatized from their years of summer camp (don’t invite them on a camping trip). Being a good friend involves paying attention — but if you have a leaky memory, a Google Sheet can give you some extra help.
⚒️ Click here to get some inspiration with a sample care and feeding guide.
📊 Party in a spreadsheet: On OneZero, Marie Foulston describes the experience of re-creating a house party using Google Sheets, inviting guests to chat in different tabs representing different “rooms”:
Coats are cut and pasted into the coatroom tab. In the kitchen, people loiter as floor tiles are painted. A cheese and pineapple hedgehog appears, a bucket of beer, some Veggie Percy Pigs™, and a bowl of mysterious punch… Someone has animated the dance floor. An elaborate backyard has appeared with a perfect lawn, flowers, and a hedge maze. A new sheet is made, it briefly has no purpose. Someone paints every cell blue, and it becomes “the blue room.” The band Blue appears.
That’s the beauty of a Google Sheets party: You never quite know where the night is going to take you.
⚒️ ️Get your party started with a copy of the Sheet Foulston used for hers.
📝 Itineraries for visitors: Create a Google Doc that works as an itinerary or travel guide for people visiting your neck of the woods, with your favorite neighborhood parks, attractions, shopping, and restaurants. If you’re a Yelp, OpenTable, or TripAdvisor user, you may already have a lot of reviews accumulated in your account to use as a starting point, or you can just think about the spots you enjoy yourself. The next time someone lets you know they’re coming to town, or asks for your specific recommendations, send them a link to your Google Doc. (For guests staying in your home, this has the benefit of allowing them to entertain themselves when you need a little downtime.) You can also set up a Google map marking every location on your Doc — more on that here.
📝 Vacation rental hosting: If you ever rent out your home or ask friends to housesit, create a manual with essential details like your Wi-Fi password, TV/AV system instructions, garbage directions and schedule, and instructions on where guests can find extra linens, soap, etc. Maintain your current version as a Doc, then periodically copy it over to the rental site(s) where your space is listed, and print out an updated copy to keep in a binder for your guests when they arrive. You can include a version of your visitor itinerary in there as well.
⚒️ Here’s the manual I’ve used in the past (with personal details omitted).
No, it can’t floss your teeth for you. But Drive can simplify nearly every other aspect of caring for your physical and mental health — and it’s especially useful during a pandemic.
Understand your body
📊 Health records: I had babies before Google Drive was invented (gosh, that makes my kids sound old!), so I maintained their health records in a printed-out Excel table. But these days, I’d use Sheets to set up my daily log with columns for the date, wake-ups, poops, and feedings.
Sheets has helped me organize other health data points, too, like tracking my autistic son’s mood and meltdowns so we can identify meltdown triggers, or logging my own fitness goals.
📊 Fertility tracking: A Google Sheet can be a straightforward, illuminating way to track your body’s monthly cycles, as Lauren Allain writes:
I started using a Google Sheet as a method of birth control for an admittedly unusual reason: I was going to be living in rural China for a year.
I had no idea what medications my local pharmacy would carry, but I was guessing they might not have the specific and uncommon type of birth-control pill my doctor and I had found that worked for me after trying half a dozen. My insurance company would only give me a three-month supply of my pills at a time. So after consulting my doctor, I decided to go off the pill and begin monitoring my own cycle. (A necessary caveat if you’re trying to avoid pregnancy: Fertility awareness, also known as natural family planning, isn’t as effective at condoms or hormonal contraception, and of course it doesn’t protect against sexually transmitted diseases.)
I studied what expensive handheld fertility computers were tracking and realized I could replicate those elements in a color-coded spreadsheet and a cheap thermometer to measure my basal body temperature. It was comforting to know I had a tool I could access from anywhere, that couldn’t be misplaced.
My Sheet unexpectedly yielded new insights about my health. I suffer from sporadic and terrible migraines — the kind where one second I’d be fine and the next my head had turned into a multicolored-strobe-light party. When I added a “migraine” column to my Sheet, I realized my migraines are heavily linked to hormones and where I am in my cycle. Being able to track this let me anticipate which days I might have a hard time going for a run, or when I should try to avoid major plans in order to cut myself some slack.
I’ve since moved back to the U.S., and have access to my birth control pills again. But I’m perfectly content with my Google Sheet, which hasn’t just helped me to manage my cycle; it’s also helped me get to know myself.
📊 Sleep tracking: We’re all used to hearing about how bad screens are for our sleep. But as Maria Bengtson explains, a Google Sheet can be a valuable weapon in the fight against insomnia (just don’t check it right before bed):
Anyone who has suffered from insomnia knows that wanting a good night’s sleep doesn’t actually get you any closer to achieving it. I learned this firsthand last fall, when I found myself waking up in the middle of every. Single. Night.
I started using Google Sheets to track my sleep. Each morning I would note whether or not I had slept through the night, using a system of ones and zeroes to keep things simple: 1 for yes, 0 for no. In separate columns, I noted if I’d engaged in specific behaviors before bed (like caffeine, alcohol, or evening screen time, etc.) or experienced various sensations (loud noise, full bladder, etc.). Over time, I started adding more variables, like the temperature of my bedroom.
After a few months, I looked through my data and sorted my Sheet by the first column, so all the nights I slept through were grouped together, followed by all the sleepless ones. My target was to find variables that were consistent with either my good nights or my bad ones. Anything that showed up evenly across both types of nights was abandoned; for example, I realized that giving up caffeine didn’t make any difference.
After eliminating several different variables, I had a breakthrough: I realized I was always slightly chilly when I woke up. This left me three levers to pull: I tried changing the thermostat, but then my husband got too warm. I tried a thicker blanket, but then I got too hot. Finally I tried warmer pajamas. Success! Without my tracking system, I would have never guessed there was such an easy solution.
📊 Dream logs: Once you do manage to fall asleep, use Google Sheets to remember and understand your dreams. Anthony Tait writes:
Here’s my most recent entry in my most-used Google Sheet:
“I heard a sound like crystal chandeliers shattering as I froze the beast that was hurtling through the air. ‘Do you not see what this is?’ I asked the empty room. From behind a nearby veil, a young sorceress smiled and said, ‘It’s beautiful.’ Just then, I realized that it was picture day at school and I was unshaven and unshowered. Carl Jung was set to shoot the portraits and said that he’d dim the lights so that no one would notice how unkempt I was.”
I started tracking my dreams because it came highly recommended by a shaman I met in Mexico. (Really!) Every morning, before I shake off the fog, I slide open the phone and tap out a description of my dream from the night before. I’ve now done this over 500 times, using a simple and elegant template that I threw together with the help of Google Sheets.
When I first created this spreadsheet, I set up columns for each dream’s date, description, symbolism, contextual notes, and links to any research I dig up. I also track how long I’ve slept, what hours, and the quality of my sleep on the night I had the dream. Recently, I noticed a correlation between the food I consume and how vivid my dreams are — and so I added a column for that, too. (Turns out, when I eat fish, my dreams have much more detail.)
I know that when I track my dreams, I’m more likely to remember them. I understand them better now, too. Looking back at my spreadsheet feels like gaining access to my subconscious fears and desires.
I think of my dreams as my mind’s efforts to resolve things from my waking hours, to piece together a fragmented image, or to fill gaps in misunderstood experience. Being more mindful about this aspect of life can be a key to understanding yourself better. And if you can do it half asleep from your phone, why not?
Improve your mental health
📝 Therapist briefing note: How many times can you brief a new therapist on all your childhood traumas? I know, talking about all that stuff is supposed to be therapeutic in and of itself, but once you’ve had four different therapists help you process that blowup fight with your mother when you were 18, maybe the fifth therapist can just know that it happened, and the salient points, without you having to waste a whole billable hour rehashing.
This is exactly why I wrote up my therapist briefing note: a summary and timeline of my life history I can add to and amend over time, and share whenever I switch therapists, so that I don’t have to go through the whole journey all over again.
📝 Personal user manual: Remember the co-working user manual from Part 3? The format is also a great way to set up what Melody Warnick refers to as a “personal user manual”—a document that spells out your needs and pain points, so that your partner, family, or roommates can figure out how best to live with you.
You can cover your physical requirements (How much sleep do you need? How much alcohol can you consume before things go downhill?); your social and emotional parameters (With which kinds of people do you not mix well? What’s the best way to frame a difficult conversation so you can actually engage?); your stress cures (How can someone recognize and help if you’re reaching your limit?); and your own triggers.
Map this all out and put it in a Google Doc you can share with the people you trust, and you’re actually making their lives easier, too. You might even encourage a reciprocal exchange of manuals within your family or friend group.
⚒️ Click here for a blank personal user manual (add and edit the questions according to your own needs).
📝 📊 Gratitude lists: On OneZero, Angela Lashbrook recommends capturing everything you’re grateful for in a Google Sheet:
Gratitude lists, in which one regularly lists the things they’re grateful for, have been shown to improve mood and decrease symptoms in subjects with depression. It’s a method my own therapist has recommended, and which I’ve found helpful. Compelling yourself to remember the things in your life you like and are happy about can edge out any mental space you might devote to dwelling on things that make you anxious or unhappy.
Lashbrook explains her preference for a Sheet: “A list in a word processing document can appear unstructured and difficult to navigate,” she writes, while “a spreadsheet — with clearly delineated columns and rows, color-coding, and the ability to have the program itself organize the content — can make lists considerably easy to review.” If you find a Doc easier to maintain, though, full speed ahead.
Prepare for emergencies
📝 Personal health contacts: To ensure that anyone in your family knows what to do in case of an urgent health situation, create a Doc with the phone numbers, emails, and addresses for all the relevant primary-care providers, specialists, therapists, and dentists, as well as the nearest emergency room and walk-in clinic (and perhaps the nearest Covid testing site).
If someone in your home has a chronic illness, you can also include instructions on when to call a doctor or emergency medical care. Consider making Covid-specific instructions as well, in case someone develops symptoms that can’t be managed at home.
📝 Sickness manual: My biggest worry about Covid is that my husband and I might get sick at the same time, leaving my two teenagers to look after themselves and care for their parents. So I put together a family Covid readiness manual.
In addition to our kitchen inventory (more on that in a bit), it has information on how to order groceries, with links to the appropriate websites and my username and password for each option; a meal plan doc and a few basic recipes based on our pantry and freezer supplies; and a doc mapping out basic sanitation and health provisions, with links to all the relevant government guidance on caring for Covid patients. (You can copy part or all of your health contacts Doc in here, too.)
⚒️ Click here for a version of the manual I created for my own family and shared with my social circle.
📂 Covid bubble merger: Merging quarantine bubbles with another friend or family, no matter how well you know them, requires trust. To facilitate that trust, and to make sure everyone’s on the same page about expectations for mask-wearing and physical distancing, consider drawing up a Covid agreement in Google Drive.
Start by setting up a folder where you can collect relevant guidance from the CDC or your local public health officials, as well as any other guidelines that spell out the rules people must follow in your jurisdiction or industry. (You can collect these as PDFs, or copy and paste into individual docs; just be sure to include the source URL so you can regularly re-check to ensure you have the latest info.)
Use these rules as a starting point to collaboratively figure out your own standards as a group: Which set of guidelines you’ll follow (the CDC? your state?); which activities are okay and which are off-limits; what you’ll do if any household is worried about potential exposure.
If this is an agreement with someone who will be working in your home, spell out the plan for pay if someone gets sick or has an exposure risk.
⚒️ You can use my agreement as a starting point — but remember, I’m not a lawyer or a doctor, just a Google Drive nerd.
I used to be one of those people who hated all money-related tasks and left everything to my bookkeeper and accountant. And I was hardly their favorite client: I was so bad at holding onto receipts, let alone organizing them, that my financial records were a perpetual disaster.
Then I discovered that Google Drive could be a game-changing tool even, or maybe especially, for accounting-averse people like myself. By using an app to get all my financial transactions in one place, and then importing and reorganizing all those transactions in Sheets, I found it was suddenly easy to see into this black box that I’d been afraid of for so long. (If you haven’t read the security section at the top of this story, I’d recommend checking it out before putting your financial information on Drive.)
☝️ Level up: TillerHQ, the tool I currently use, is a lot like the more well-known app Mint (which I used to use) — except it’s actually native to Google Sheets. That means I have a continuously up-to-date list of all my banking transactions, in spreadsheet form. To protect the privacy of my financial records, Tiller is the only third-party app I connect to my finance spreadsheet; any connection represents a potential security risk, so I am only comfortable having my financial information connected with a tool that (like TillerHQ) uses bank-level encryption to protect my privacy.
Nowadays, one multi-tab Sheet is the engine that powers my financial life. Keeping all your financial records in Google Sheets—particularly, all your income and expense records—makes it easy to compile your taxes when it comes time to file. And once you know how you’ll need your financial records organized, you can start to shape the rest of your money-tracking ecosystem on Google Drive.
Because so much flows from getting this system set up right, I’m going to slow down a little here and explain in detail, step by step, how to get it in place. Once you have your own system up and running, you can put it to use in so many different ways — more on those in a bit.
⚒️ ️Here it is: one Sheet to rule them all.
Organize your financial records
Step 1: Get all your bank records into Drive
You have a few options here. One is to export your account records directly from your bank’s web interface. Most banks provide the option to download your records as Excel or CSV files, but this can be cumbersome: You may have to export your records one account or one month at a time. If you’re just trying to get a feel for how this works, or if you’re uncomfortable logging into your bank accounts from a third-party app, you can use this option. Otherwise, you can use TillerHQ to keep your transactions continuously synced with Drive.
Step 2: Separate expenses and income
Once you have all your transactions in Drive, you need to create separate worksheets (these can be separate tabs in the same Sheets file) for expenses and income/deposits.
If you use multiple accounts, you’ll be consolidating debits from each one into a single Sheet, and then doing the same for your credits. The fastest way to do this is to just sort your entire sheet based on the column that labels each transaction as either credit or debit, duplicate the sheet, and then delete all the credit transactions from one version and all the debit transactions from the other.
Note that transfers between accounts will show up twice, once in the account you’re paying from, once in the account you’re transferring into. In a similar vein, credit-card payments can leave you with a distorted picture of your spending, because you’ll have an entry for each individual credit card purchase, and then an aggregate entry for each month’s payments. You can handle this problem by creating separate transaction categories for transfers and credit-card payments (so you don’t count them as income or expenses) or you can just move all the credit card payments to another tab of your workbook, and do the same for one side of each transfer (I recommend removing the debits and leaving the credits).
Step 3a. Create your categories
Categorizing your transactions is crucial for tracking your spending, budgeting, and preparing your taxes, and it will be easier if you create a “categorization plan” tab to map out your categorization structure. In that tab, create two columns: subcategories (column A) and categories (column B). Categories are the big-picture expense categories you’ll probably need for your taxes: medical, education, home maintenance, and household expenses, for example. Subcategories are the more detailed categories that may be useful to track, such as dental, tutoring, appliance repairs, and groceries.
Step 3b. Apply your categories
Now you’re ready to categorize your individual transactions. Go back into your expense and income worksheets and add a subcategory column. (You’ll find this guide easiest to follow if your subcategory column is column F, and your transaction amounts are in column D.) For now, you only need to label each transaction with a subcategory, not the larger category: We’ll use formulas to group and total those subcategories into categories when you’re ready.
Depending on how you exported and uploaded your transactions, you may already have a category column in your spreadsheet filled in with information applied by your bank’s system, or by TillerHQ. If so, just rename this column to subcategory and use it as your starting point — you’ll likely need to do a bit of cleanup to make sure everything has the right label (more on that in a minute).
If you want to manually categorize each transaction, your best bet is to sort your expense sheet by the item description, so that every purchase you’ve made at Starbucks appears one after the other — that way you can just apply your “coffee shops” subcategory once, and then drag it down the subcategory column to apply it to all of your Starbucks purchases. If you keep your categorization scheme open in a separate window, you can be sure you’re consistently using the correct labels for each transaction type.
☝️ Level up: This manual process works fine, but it’s time-consuming. That’s why it’s better to set up rules that apply your subcategories consistently and automatically. In TillerHQ, you do that with AutoCat: a feature that uses recurring patterns to recognize which transactions belong in which category. For example, you can create an AutoCat rule that automatically categorizes any transaction with “parking” in the description as a parking expense. You can even get fancy and tell TillerHQ to categorize a transaction as “business parking” or “personal parking” by looking for “parking” in the description, and then noticing whether you paid with your personal or business credit card.
An important note here: Even with rules or a little bit of A.I., categorizing your transactions is by far the most demanding part of this process, especially when you’re first setting up your rules or training your categorization engine. It is also so incredibly boring that I could be sued for Google Drive malpractice if I don’t encourage you to watch TV while you do it. So I’ve pulled from my TV spreadsheet (you can read about that in Part 7 below) to create this list of suggestions for TV shows to watch while doing mind-numbing financial categorization work.
Step 4: Clean up your categorization work
Categorizing even a few months of transactions gets messy, especially the first time, so it’s important to take the time to clean everything up and get it right.
Start by copying the subcategory column for your expense sheet into column B of a new, blank tab you can name Expense Categories. When you copy your subcategory column over, you may have hundreds or even thousands of rows, with tons of duplicates (my own column must have the word “coffee” at least 500 times). But you want a list that only has one entry for each unique subcategory, and Sheets can get you there — go to the menu at the top and click “data,” then “remove duplicates,” and you’ll be left with one list where each subcategory appears only once. Title this column (column A) subcategory.
Next, title column B category. Place each subcategory in the correct parent category by typing the category name into column B — for example, when you see “coffee” in column A, you might type “personal” into the column B cell next to it. Finally, sort the whole sheet alphabetically by category, and within each category, by subcategory. Then do the same with your income categories, in a fresh Income Categories tab.
By the time you’re finished, you may have a set of income categories and subcategories that look exactly like what you mapped out in your original categorization plan tab in Step 1, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll likely discover that you’ve grown a few new subcategories or accidentally created overlapping subcategories with slightly different wording — like “dental” and “dentist.” Now is your chance to catch these mistakes: Once you’ve finished sorting each tab, highlight any categories you need to consolidate and correct. Then go back to your income or expense sheet, sort by subcategory, and correct all your mistaken subcategories to whatever you’ve chosen as the correct term.
Step 5: Create your summary sheet
Once you have one Sheet with all of your expenses categorized, and one Sheet with all of your transactions categorized, you’re ready to build your summary tab: the Sheet that tells you where all your money came from and where all your money went. This is also the Sheet that will make your accountant looooove you.
Start by copying columns A and B of your Expense Categories tab into your new sheet — but copy them into columns C and D. To create some visual separation between your income and expense categories, leave a few blank rows, then fill a row with a background color. Now, paste in columns A and B of your Income Categories tab, so that they’re below your expense categories, once again pasting into columns C and D.
If you haven’t already sorted your expense and income subcategories by category, do that now — just be sure to select only the expense rows, and sort them, and then do the same for the income rows, so your expense and income subcategories don’t get mixed in. Once you’ve got everything sorted by category, add a couple of blank rows between each category for scannability, and then use column A to enter the category name — you only need to do this for the first row in each category, which will be the row that contains the first subcategory.
At this point, your summary sheet should look something like this:
This is where the magic happens — by which I mean, time to bring on the fancy formulas! We’re going to automatically summarize all your transactions by category using a SUMIF: a formula that basically says, total up all the amounts in my transactions tab if the subcategory matches the subcategory in column C.
Let’s say your first expense category is auto and travel, and your first expense subcategory is air travel. In column E, in the same row as air travel (let’s call it row 3), you’d enter this formula: =SUMIF(‘Expense Categories’!F:F, C3,’Expense Categories’!D:D).
Here’s what that formula is telling Sheets to do:
1. Look in column F (the subcategory column) of the Expense Categories worksheet.
2. Look for any row where column F (the transaction expense subcategory) matches column C in this sheet (where I’ve entered the subcategory I want to total).
3. If it’s a match, add the transaction value in column D to the total for this subcategory.
Now you’re going to create the category totals in column B. Next to each category name in column A, enter a SUM formula in column B: Just…
1. Type =SUM(
2. Select all the transaction subtotals for that category in column E
3. Close parenthesis, and hit enter.
In my example, I end up with =SUM(E3:E10) in my Category total for Auto and Travel.
Copy the formula in cell E3 down column E until you get to the bottom of the expense categories. Then take the same formula and copy it into the income portion of your summary sheet (but updating the formula so it refers to the Income Categories sheet instead.) Finally, go back through your sheet, adding up the column B totals for each category.
Step 7. Revel in the glory of your financial summary
The Sheet you have now created is pretty much what I create for my accountant each year at tax time, and it has made both of our lives so much easier. (Mine is a little more complicated because in addition to managing our family finances, I manage all the financial record-keeping for our small business — and both our business and personal finances are split between Canadian and U.S. currencies.) If you use an accountant for your taxes, you can do the same thing — or you can go whole hog on this financial-responsibility thing and actually fill out your own tax returns based on this info.
A key caveat: Your electronic list of transactions is unlikely to meet the standard of evidence needed in the event of an audit. I handle that problem by stuffing all my paper receipts in giant Ziploc bags that I label by month; when the nice people at the tax office asked me for evidence of my medical claims, I went through my email for electronic receipts and paid my teen to dig through the plastic bags for any medical-looking paper receipts. (I now keep my medical receipts in a special folder, but all the other receipts still go in my Ziploc bags.)
☝️ Level up: A more robust option is to subscribe to an expense-tracking service like Shoeboxed. For somewhere between $200–850 a year, depending on your plan, you can mail in those bags of receipts and have them converted to a digital form that even the IRS will accept. Plus you’ll get your records back in a form you can use in Google Sheets, just like you’d use your Mint or TillerHQ transactions list.
And the financial summary sheet is valuable well beyond tax time. Once I’ve got my financial records compiled in Sheets, I find myself regularly referring to my category totals, or even my transaction lists, to answer the sorts of money-related questions that pop up all the time in the course of daily life: How much should I be budgeting for summer camp? (Too much.) How long have I been paying for this web service I never, ever use? (Sooooo long.) Would buying a home projector and 100-inch screen cost really cost less than I spent on movie and theater tickets last year? (Yes, so when you think about it, it’s really paying for itself.)
Once you get this basic system in place, you can refer to it, build on top of it, or add to it with all kinds of Sheets that help you solve more specific or more complex financial challenges. You can also use it to run your business — Sheets to be helpful tracking things like cashflow, receivables, and exchange rates, for instance — but I’ve found that personal finance is where a Drive-based system can be truly life-changing. The rest of this section will show you a few more examples.
📊 Subscriptions audit: Each year, during my detailed review of my records during tax time, I inevitably discover a half-dozen online services or web apps I signed up for on a trial basis but forgot to cancel. To reduce the number of these accidental subscriptions, I have a Sheet where my husband and I log any website or subscription we sign up for and the moment we give them our credit card information. Since so many electronic transactions show up with cryptic names that don’t necessarily reflect the name of the service or website you joined, keeping a running list is the best way of remembering what you’ve joined and what you need to cancel.
☝️ Level up: Bonus points if you connect your Sheet to your calendar or task list via Zapier or IFTTT, so you get reminders when you’re a few days away from a free trial flipping over to an actual credit card charge.
☝️ Level up: IFTTT (which stands for “if this, then that”), similar to Zapier, is a tool that integrates different apps and programs across your devices — for example, you can set up a command so that when you text yourself your latest flash of brilliance, IFTTT pulls it directly from SMS into your designated Sheet.
📊 Shopping spree tracker: Because I often zip down from Canada to the U.S. for a day or weekend of shopping (well, I used to), I am in the habit of reporting my purchases to customs agents at the borderーbut my system for reporting at the border is also useful at home. I use a Sheet to keep track of each shopping trip, noting each expenditure with the vendor, amount, and category (because different categories have different import rules). That can be handy even if you don’t have a border crossing to plan for at the end of your shopping spree.
📊 Build a doomsday budget: In These Uncertain Times, as they say, it makes sense to plan how you’d stay afloat some of all your income flow were halted. A good way to do this is to lay out in detail a hypothetical worst-case financial scenario — what the writer Erin Lowry calls a “doomsday budget”:
A doomsday budget, or a bare essentials budget, is different than the classic “emergency fund.” An emergency fund is a pool of money set aside and best utilized when you’re walloped with an unexpected expense, or when you lose all income at once and need to live off reserves. A doomsday budget is a plan that’s deployed when there has been a significant reduction in income. Mine assumes an income drop of 70% (and that my husband’s job would stay stable), and outlines exactly how we’d scale back on discretionary spending, savings goals, and student loan payments.
Manage your money with your partner
📂 Documenting your documents: If you’re the person who manages the money, think carefully about which Sheets and Docs you need to share with your partner.
Open communication about finances is essential in a relationship, and your partner should know the basics of how your family income and spending works. But you’ll want to set your spreadsheets up so that a well-intentioned but klutzy spouse doesn’t break your precious formulas.
Put all your financial documents in a single Drive folder, with subfolders for “Just Me” and “Shared.” Then create a Doc or Sheet that acts as a table of contents for your shared folder. Use this Doc to map out what each file does, how to use it, and just as crucially, what not to change or edit.
📌 Tech tip: Still worried about someone (it could even be you!) accidentally deleting crucial portions of a Google Sheet? Use the “Protect sheets and ranges” option to lock them down. Find guidance in this article.
📌 Tech tip: Make a download habit: At least once a quarter, download all the files in your financial folder to your local computer. That way, no matter what happens, you’ll always have an intact (if dated) version of your files from your last download.
📊 Planning for big expenses: If you’re the kind of person who, just hypothetically, might be tempted to impulsively splurge on a 100-inch projection screen and a 4k projector, it can be helpful to create a spreadsheet for planning your major expenditures.
You and your partner can agree on the threshold over which you’ll jointly evaluate your priorities before making a purchase: Perhaps you want to say that anything over $500 requires a conversation, for example. Keep a Sheet as your running wishlist, with columns for the desired item (4k projector), exact or approximate price ($6,000), and rationalization (”so we can watch Hamilton on a large screen in high def”). You can either review the list once a month, or just look it over when you get a windfall such as a tax refund. It’s a great system for ensuring you make sensible financial decisions, like getting a much more economical 1080 projector ($750) for those Hamilton viewings instead.
📊 Comparison shopping: You can use a version of your “big expense” spreadsheet to compare prices on pretty much anything you’d want to purchase, from tracking which grocery store has the best deal on beans to sorting through options for a new backpack.
You can even use it to pick an insurance plan: When my family last shopped for an extended benefits plan, I set up a Sheet with rows for each major insurance company, and columns for the monthly price and the annual benefit limits in each category (such as dental, physiotherapy, psychotherapy) so we could pick the best plan for our needs and budget.
📊 Insurance file: Speaking of insurance — once we chose a plan and had our benefits in place, it became crucial to track our medical expenses so we knew what we needed to claim, what had been reimbursed, and what was not claimed or reimbursed (but could therefore be claimed as medical expenses on our taxes).
📊 Solving financial mysteries: Even with all my record-keeping in place, there are always a few mystery transactions come tax time — expenses or deposits I can’t quite reconstruct from our financial records. When I get to that point in the tax-prep process, I copy a list of all my mystery transactions into a Google Sheet, and then divide the Sheet with my husband, so we can each take on the job of tracking down some of the mystery items.
Based on the amount, the currency, the bank account, and whatever cryptic info is attached to the transaction in our banking records, I usually have some clue of who is more likely to be the person behind the mystery transaction, so that’s who I assign to the job. But sharing all the info in one Sheet makes it easy for us to each search our own records (for example, searching our email histories for any reference to the amount $538.26, or searching our respective calendars and photos to see what we were each up to on March 18, 2019) so our mysteries are much easier to solve.
You are your own most important project. Your personal goals, dreams, and extracurricular activities deserve the same kind of focused attention and planning that you give your job, but when life is hectic (and, honestly, when is it not?) it’s easy for those things to fall by the wayside.
Google Drive can help you bring them back front and center. Think of it as a toolkit, giving you the strategies you need to pursue what’s really important to you, and have some fun in the process.
Make travel a breeze
📊 Vacation itineraries: For anyone who gets stressed out by vacation logistics, I can enthusiastically recommend the Google Sheet system I’ve developed for each of our family trips.
The first column has all the days we’ll be away, including the day of arrival and departure. The second column contains our accommodation plan for each night, with the relevant contact info and reservation number listed on the first night we’re staying somewhere new. The third column has any transportation logistics, like the flight numbers and times for arrival and departure, noting any days we are driving from town A to town B, and details on car rentals.
The fourth column is where I plan out our activities. We don’t always stick to the game plan in that fourth column, but I find that capturing all the ideas of what we want to do helps us to prioritize on the fly, and to find the right balance of ambitious adventures and chill-out days. If there is any other logistical info we need for our trip, like the manual for our Airbnb rental or the details on how to use a destination pass, I add that info into a Drive folder that I share with the whole family, along with the itinerary sheet. Giving everyone access also ensures that you’re not the sole keeper of the knowledge, so you can relax a little bit — everyone can look up the plan for themselves.
⚒️ Click here to see the Sheet I made for our family trip to Los Angeles, with bonus tabs listing food and activity options.
📊 Travel bucket list: Just because your travel options may be limited right now, doesn’t mean your imagination has to be. Use Sheets to maintain a bucket list of all the places you want to go, with one column for the time of year when it’s best or most economical to visit, and another for any specific activities, attractions, or accommodations that have caught your eye. Be sure to add links in your wishlist to the articles or event reviews that inspired your longing. The next time you’re in a position to take a real trip, you’ll already have a great list of options to choose from, and won’t miss opportunities.
📝📊 Quarantine rules by destination: If you’re planning a (safe, socially distanced) getaway in the near to medium future, your logistics will be dictated in large part by what’s happening with the pandemic. Start a Doc or Sheet where you can track the specific entry and quarantine requirements for any place you would like to travel, as well as the implications for any restrictions you’d face on your return. Given how quickly the situation and rules can change, you’re best off undertaking this research right before you’re planning to book a trip.
📊 Outfit planner: For chronic over-packers, haphazard packers, or anyone who’s feeling a bit overwhelmed by stuffing a full week of their life into a suitcase, Google Sheets can be a lifesaver. Make a list of all the items you want to wear while on the road, separating them into columns for tops, bottoms, jackets/coats/sweaters, one-piece outfits, and accessories.
Then add a column of dates; for each day, note what you are going to wear, factoring in whether you’ll be able to do laundry at your destination. This helps you plan out how to mix and match the different items in your suitcase — and helps you make sure you’re never stuck hiking in flip-flops, or heading to a fancy dinner in jean shorts because you ran out of pants.
⚒️ Click here for a sample packing spreadsheet.
Dive into a hobby
📊 Craft plan: Before you pick up that hot-glue gun, make an actual project plan. Start by making a supplies list in Sheets, noting for each material how much you’ll need and where you’re going to get it.
If this is a project with a deadline (like a Halloween costume or a birthday gift), use a separate tab to plan out the deadlines for each phase of your project. If it’s a collaborative project, add an assignments column to both tabs so that other people know what materials they’re responsible for procuring and when they need to have their own pieces of the project complete.
I find it helpful to add images to my planning docs, like screenshots of the TV characters I’m trying to re-create as Halloween costumes, so that I have that available as a reference while I’m sewing, knitting, decoupaging, or wiring.
📊 Tools and materials inventory: I buy fabric and yarn like the end times are coming and it’ll be my job to outfit the entire neighborhood for the apocalypse. (I felt briefly vindicated recently, when a flurry of mask-making made my fabric inventory look downright prescient.)
To keep track of all that material — and just as importantly, to keep it out of the sticky-fingered hands of my teenage crafter — I’ve found it helpful to maintain a Google Sheet with a list of supplies, the quantities I have of each, and any projects for which they’re earmarked. That way, I don’t accidentally waste the fancy satin I bought for a kimono jacket by turning it into a pillowcase.
📊 Fishing log: As John Ore explains, a Google Sheet can be a budding fisherman’s best friend:
Fishing encourages nerdery. Beyond the seemingly infinite combinations of rods, reels, line, bait, and tackle, a dedicated fisherman also needs to pay attention to the weather, moon phases, and water temperature and clarity, not to mention the seasonal rhythms of these living creatures.
It’s a lot to process — something I quickly learned this past spring, when I decided to devote myself to becoming a better bass angler. Once I actually started catching a few fish, I needed an easy way to remember what was working, beyond a scattering of selfies in my phone’s photo library. So I turned to a spreadsheet.
In my work life, spreadsheets are just a part of the landscape. So it’s natural for me to reach for Google Sheets when I want to organize a bunch of information. Initially, my “Catch of the Day” Sheet was meant to simply be a log of what I caught, with places to note the fish species and size, the weather, the location, and the equipment I used.
Early on, I was just approximating things like the size of the fish: for example, 14″ was based on the size of my thumb in the selfie with the fish, because I didn’t have a scale yet. I was using vague locations — “between dock and reeds” — based on what I remembered during the frenzy of the catch.
And then I started catching even more fish, and suddenly, that rough log felt inadequate. I started playing around with the data, finding patterns in what I’d used, what I’d caught, and when I caught it. I even used my Google Sheet to create some rudimentary charts.
At some point, I need to up my data visualization game and find correlations between fish size (I’ve since added fish weight to my spreadsheet — yes, I purchased a scale), bait combo, and time of day.. I’d also love to integrate something with Google Maps latitude/longitude to pinpoint where on the lake I’m catching the most fish, and with what gear. But that may require me to buy some expensive GPS and fish-finding electronics, which doesn’t make a ton of sense because I don’t own a boat. Maybe someday. In the meantime, I have my Sheet to tide me over.
Keep the creative juices flowing
📊 Writing plan: If you still think of writing as something that starts and ends in word processing software, you are missing one of the greatest powers of Google Sheets. Whenever I tackle an ambitious writing project, I begin by mapping out the structure in a spreadsheet.
Depending on the project, I might use it to plan out a classic three-act story structure, or I might diagram the structure of an already published book I’m using as inspiration. I’ve found it’s much easier to figure out how to structure a writing plan when I’m using a proven template as the starting point. Once I have the skeleton of the project in column A, I use column B to flesh out my own content or narrative.
📝 Project editing: When it comes time to do the actual writing and revising, using Docs makes it easy to layer new thoughts, questions, and half-formed ideas on top of your prose: You can track your changes, highlight, leave yourself comments, and invite others in to do the same when you’re ready for a set of fresh eyes. Plus, autosave means you never have to worry about losing your magnum opus in an ill-timed computer crash.
📋 Inspiration form: The right Drive setup can make it easy for you to capture and review your ideas — and the more meticulous you are about capturing all your ideas, the more easily they’ll come to you. To remember all brilliant ideas that come to you when you’re away from your computer, set up a Google form; that way, you can just type your idea into the form from your phone and have it feed directly into a spreadsheet.
☝️ Level up: Alternatively, you might find it convenient to set some kind of Zapier integration with Sheets, so that it’s easy for you to capture your ideas from your notes app, your Echo, or whatever other tool’s within easiest reach.
📊 Inspiration file: When you’re back at your desk with your Sheet open, that’s when the organizing fun can start. Make a point of regularly reviewing your Sheet to refine and categorize your ideas. As a writer, I have columns for quality (with a rating from 1 to 5, depending on how enthusiastic I am, with 1 being the most), theme (what topic areas this idea relates to), outlet (where I want to pitch my story idea), and status (from idea to pitched to accepted to published).
I also like to maintain an inspiration source column so I can track the particular people, activities, books or websites that are most likely to spark a new idea.
⚒️ Here’s what my inspiration file looks like.
📊 Content calendar: If you have a creative outlet with any kind of audience —whether it’s a Medium profile, an Instagram feed, or a YouTube channel—you need a plan to keep it regularly updated. Use Sheets to set up a simple content calendar.
If you plan to post on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, enter the first two weeks of dates, and then fill down so that Sheets knows to create rows for every M-W-F. Use the next column to map out what you plan to post on each day. If you’d like, use a third column to note any deadlines (like when you need to finish a first draft or photo shoot to get a post ready in time). If you’re keeping an idea file, you can pull from it directly to schedule your ideas into your feed.
📊 Movie and TV wishlist: On the rare occasions when everyone in the family is actually available and interested in watching a TV show or movie together, don’t waste time hunting around for the right thing to watch. My family maintains a Google Sheet with a list of all the shows and movies that we think look promising, based on a mix of friend recommendations, Facebook threads, Metacritic reviews, and Common Sense Media age ratings.
I recommend having one tab for movies and one for shows; on each tab, we have columns for title, genre (so we can quickly find a comedy, sci-fi or action title, depending on our mood), and links/reviews/trailers (in case we want more info). You can also keep separate tabs for things to watch with your kids, with your partner, or on your own.
⚒️ Click here to see what my family’s wishlist looks like.
Shopping wishlist: On Forge, Ashley Abramson explains how keeping a running Google Doc list of objects she likes helps her feel more in tune with her real self:
My husband is a neutrals-loving minimalist; ever since we met in 2010, I’ve slowly traded in my loud, colorful aesthetic for his quieter one. Several years into our relationship, I ended up with a dresser full of gray and black shirts, a living room filled with industrial furnishings, and a strange feeling of being bored by and disconnected from my surroundings.… I’m whimsical and feminine and fun-loving, and my style expresses those things. Keeping track of things I love might seem materialistic, but it reminds me of what I like, which connects me to who I really am.
“Slowly, under the guidance of my Google Doc, I’ve reintegrated clothes and furniture that make me feel like myself,” she writes.
Starting your own list can help you remember who you are, or maybe even discover some new things about yourself.
Engage with your faith
📝 Guide to life with hijab: As Tasmiha Khan explains, Google Drive can be a handy way of communicating your religious needs and preferences:
On top of all the usual stresses that come with planning a wedding (even before pandemic times), two friends of mine faced an extra challenge as they prepared to get married. Like me, they’re both observant Muslims, and they needed to figure out how to work with their photographer to create a wedding-day photo shoot that reflected their religious values — modest, hijabi-friendly, and without overt public displays of affection, but still cute and fun.
I was one of the close friends who would be accompanying them on the shoot, so I offered to organize the group to brainstorm settings and poses that all parties felt comfortable with. I liked that the privacy settings allowed me the freedom to share the doc with the people I wanted to share with — and only them.
My friends and I searched a variety of potential ideas and sample pictures and pasted them into a large Google Docs file, which we shared with the photographer. We also left comments noting what we liked about a given image or location type, and what would be feasible in terms of props. More than once, after a change of heart, we dipped back into the “version history” function to recover an idea that had been dismissed and deleted.
The end result? A gorgeous collection of photos of the happy couple, clearly depicting the fun they had day-of — without any uncomfortable conversations with the photographer or anxiety that values would be compromised.
📝 Prayer: Several years ago, after struggling to connect to her religion, Abramson found an unexpected home for her spiritual life in Google Docs. She writes on Forge:
I went to a quiet space in my basement and tried to pray quietly, clumsily attempting a meditative state. But it didn’t feel right. I couldn’t maintain focus. I’ve always been able to organize my mind more easily on the page, but trying to capture my mile-a-minute thoughts with a ballpoint pen? I may as well have prayed for a hand cramp. So I got out my laptop. For the next 60 minutes, I typed. I wrote about my anxiety. I wrote about my kids. I wrote about my career and my marriage and whatever else came to mind. I wrote my way back to myself, and back to God, in a Google Doc.
In Abramson’s case, using a Doc was a way to fit prayer more seamlessly into the rhythm of her daily life, rather than treating it as something to be segmented off from everything else. “If God can read my thoughts,” she writes, “he can certainly hack into my Chromebook.”
Whether you’re a nonprofit manager, a grassroots activist, or simply someone who wants to put their time and energy toward one of the many urgent issues currently plaguing us, Drive offers useful tools for bringing volunteers, dollars, and ideas together.
📋 Volunteer recruitment and management: A Google Form is a cheap and easy sign-up tool that can yield a spreadsheet of potential volunteers. Use one like this to track your volunteers’ commitments and hours, with columns for special skills, pledged hours per week or month, and the next date your volunteer has committed to.
Here’s an example of what that could look like:
📊 Fundraising tracker: If you’re running a community fundraiser, Google Sheets is a good way to keep track of goals and pledges. (Don’t use it for credit card information, though!)
Certain donation platforms, such as CharityGiving, GivingFuel, and Donately, have Zapier integrations, making it easy to connect them directly to a Google Sheet. For more ideas on how to bring those pieces together, check out this detailed example of setting up a pledge drive for the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation.
You may also find a Google Doc to be an easy way of creating a script and guide for phone-bank fundraisers.
⚒️ Here’s a template for managing a fundraising drive from the software company Smartsheet.
📊 Mutual aid: When the Covid crisis created an overnight demand for neighbor-to-neighbor support in the form of food deliveries and errand-running, mutual aid spreadsheets sprang up across the country. Most of these spreadsheets simply asked people to add their name, contact information, and volunteer offers (like “I can pick up groceries” or “I can walk your dog”), or, conversely, to enter their contact information and requests for help.
The concept of mutual aid isn’t new, of course; many communities had networks in place long before this current crisis, and many will continue to have them long after it passes. And while there are safety and privacy concerns to be aware of with these spreadsheets — after all, people are potentially sharing their address, health status, and other sensitive information — they offer community organizers an easy and accessible way of connecting people quickly and getting them exactly what they need.
Forge editor Kelli María Korducki spoke with Anna Moccia-Field, the coordinator for Clinton Hill/Fort Greene Mutual Aid, a mutual aid network of over 1,200 volunteers serving two neighborhoods in Brooklyn, to find out why they use Google Docs to coordinate their volunteer efforts:
Moccia-Field said that the Clinton Hill/ Fort Greene Mutual Aid group got started by using Google Forms to sign people up to receive volunteer services. Anyone could view or edit the information from the signup form on a corresponding Google Sheet, and it was a quick, easy way to gather a lot of information at once. They wanted to crowdsource vital information, like which grocery stores were open during Covid, what their hours were, and the like.
“Creating an open-edit Google Sheet is the best way to do that because it’s user-friendly,” says Moccia-Field. She also notes that their group uses separate Google Sheets to organize individuals for specific tasks, like driving to grocery stores for housebound neighbors. “It’s almost like a mixture between an instructional website and a sign-up form, but one where everybody has access to all pieces of it and can change all pieces of it.” In this movement, collaborative ownership of information is key.
Push for transparency
📊 Salary disclosure spreadsheets: The culture of secrecy around salaries at most workplaces is a major contributor to race- and gender-based pay inequity: If only top bosses and human resources staff have a full picture of pay, those who are underpaid for the same work (often due to race or gender bias) don’t know it.
Google Sheets have become a popular tool for addressing that problem, and giving workers the tools they need to ask for fair pay in their salary negotiations. A few years ago, a secret spreadsheet of salaries at Google itself sparked a trend of people sharing their pay rates in different organizations or fields. If you think there’s an equity gap in your own organization or sector, you might consider starting your own salary disclosure Sheet.
📊 Anonymous #MeToo spreadsheets: As the #MeToo movement gathered steam following the exposure of filmmaker Harvey Weinstein’s many crimes, the media world went through its own reckoning, sparked by a spreadsheet: The Shitty Media Men list was a crowdsourced Sheet collecting instances of alleged sexual harassment and assault in print and digital newsrooms. A similar list was subsequently created for sexual misconduct in academia, and soon such spreadsheets had proliferated in other industries and fields.
So-called “whisper networks” are nothing new: Sharing information about predatory men has always been a way women look out for each other when employers fail to protect them. But these spreadsheets, which can be edited by anyone with a story to share, took these networks to the next level, and made them much more public.
A significant caveat: The easy shareability of the crowdsourced Sheet can also be a liability and subject to abuse. There is no way to vet such a document for the veracity of allegations and weigh the credibility of both the accuser and the accused in any meaningful way. For example, the author of the media list faced personal backlash after it went viral, as well as at least one defamation suit from a man named in the spreadsheet. For that reason, we’re not including a template for making such a list, but we would be remiss to not mention that they’re a powerful and prominent recent use of shared spreadsheets.
📊 Disaster safety spreadsheet: As Jessica Powell writes, a Google Sheet can be a valuable safety tool during a disaster, natural or otherwise:
These days, we hear a lot about how dehumanizing technology is. But time and time again I’ve also seen how it’s made it much easier for people to support each other in ways both big and small.
In March 2011, a 9.0 earthquake hit off the coast of Sendai, Japan, triggering a tsunami that would kill nearly 20,000 people. I worked in Tokyo, almost 100 miles from Sendai, but our tall office building swayed like it was on rollerskates. It was scary, but the city escaped largely unscathed. There were some small fires; near my home, a boutique filled with beautiful glass bottles was destroyed. Phone lines were shut down, but the Internet worked.
In the minutes immediately following the quake, employees in our Tokyo office created a Google spreadsheet. The first order of business was obvious: Was everyone safe and accounted for?
But then the spreadsheet quickly became something else. The trains were shut down, and some people commuted over an hour into Tokyo to get to work. The spreadsheet asked who of our 500-plus employees needed a place to stay. There was a column to note if you had extra room, and if so, how many people could you take? No one had much extra space in such a dense city as Tokyo, but people came together to pool resources and ensure that their co-workers were supported. And the use of a cloud-based spreadsheet — not the norm at that point in time in Japan or most countries — was a powerful real-time tool that everyone could access simultaneously.
📝📊 Donation and volunteer opportunities: For any cause, you can create, add to, and circulate a list of organizations in need of financial help. Bail funds are one example: At the beginning of the Black Lives Matter protests, Google Docs became a hub for compiling lists of funds across the country, with Docs like Bail Funds/Legal help by City pointing users toward ways to post bail for activists who were arrested while protesting.
Drive has also become a hub for organizers to disseminate information on Covid-specific opportunities. On Forge, Kate Morgan highlights one example: a project from Prawallika Gangidi and Medium’s Yamini Bhandari, two New York-based friends who, at the beginning of the pandemic, set out to consolidate all the resources and volunteer calls they were seeing in disparate places across the internet:
They pulled together a Google Sheet to track ways people can contribute, organizations looking for help, and big ideas that need people on board. It’s set up so anyone can edit and add information. “We hope it can be a place where people with ideas can collaborate with each other and find fellow-minded people,” Bhandari says. The spreadsheet currently includes volunteer opportunities and donation requests from national, regional, and local programs — and, importantly, fully remote ways to pitch in if you don’t plan on leaving the house.
The document, organized by city with a section for remote opportunities, includes ways to help that might not be captured by typical donation or mutual-aid lists, such as phone-banking with isolated seniors and fostering animals displaced by closed shelters. There are also opportunities geared toward tech experts, such as Covid hackathons. For maximum reach within your community or field, consider starting a similar Sheet focused on creative opportunities to help out.
📝📊 Learning opportunities for social change: Want to become a more effective nonprofit leader or community organizer? Look no further than the nearest Doc or Sheet, both of which can be powerful tools for crowdsourced information on how best to focus your energy.
This Google Sheet, for example, offers a resource list of learning opportunities for nonprofits while under lockdown. This Doc offers a long list of resources for nonprofits that need help navigating the Covid crisis. If you can’t easily find what you’re looking for gathered in one place, and find yourself going by word of mouth or research, consider compiling a resource list in your own Doc or Sheet, and circulating it among those who could use it.