Five productivity-boosting Google Drive tips

Convert the text of an e-mail into a Google Docs file automatically, save storage space by deleting old file versions, download all your data in a ZIP file, limit file syncs, and learn the only keyboard shortcut you'll ever have to remember.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
5 min read

Twice in the last month I had to become reacquainted with Microsoft Office because a company I was working with required a genuine Office file. Both experiences made me appreciate Google Drive's simple, straightforward apps all over again.

Yes, there are tasks Google Drive's word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation program can't handle well or at all, but for 99.9 percent of the files I work on, Google Drive fits the bill nicely. Here are five ways to use Google Drive to shave minutes off your workday.

Keyboard shortcut opens a list of keyboard shortcuts
After a couple of decades of computer use my memory capacity for keyboard shortcuts may have reached its limit. Still, there's no better way to work faster than to eschew the mouse in favor of keystroke combinations for common operations.

Google Drive provides a slew of specialty keyboard shortcuts, most of which CNET"s Ed Rhee described in a post from last April.

For us memory-challenged types, the last shortcut on the list is the most important one: type a question mark (or Shift + /) to open a window listing all Google Drive keystroke combinations. (The shortcut list can also be opened by clicking the "Keyboard shortcuts" option on the Settings (gear icon) drop-down menu in the top-right corner of the main window.)

Google Drive keystroke combinations
Type a question mark on the main Google Drive page to open a window showing the service's keyboard combinations. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Note that back in February, Ed provided a list of Gmail keyboard shortcuts, which you can likewise access from the main Gmail window by typing a question mark.

E-mail text becomes a Google Docs file
In a post from last May, I described Josh Sullivan's free Gmail Attachments to Drive extension for Google Chrome that adds a "Save to Drive" option to messages that have attachments.

Unfortunately, there's no way to save the message itself to Google Drive in an editable format. (You can open the message and choose File > Save Page As > Google Drive, but the resulting HTML or "Web archive" file isn't editable as a text document in Google Drive.)

The free Mail2Drive extension for Google Drive provides you with a unique e-mail address you can use to convert the message text into a plain-text Google Docs file.

After you install the extension and sign into your Google Drive account, visit the Mail2Drive page and click Launch App to open the program's welcome screen. Choose "Click here to get started" to generate the e-mail address.

Mail2Text e-mail-to-Google Docs file converter
The Mail2Text extension for Google Drive generates a unique e-mail address you use to convert the text of a message to a Google Docs file. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

To avoid having to copy and paste the Mail2Text address each time I wanted to convert a message to a Google Docs file, I created a Mail2Text contact in Gmail. This lets me forward the message and start typing "mail2text" in the To: field to enter the Mail2Text address.

The first few times I forwarded messages in this manner, the messages never made it to Google Drive. You have to remove the "Mail2Drive" prefix from the address in the To: field for the message to make it into your Google Drive store. Also, you may need to export the resulting file to Google Docs before it can be edited.

One other limitation in using Mail2Drive is that the files the extension creates are placed in folders under the main My Drive list. You can't specify another location when you send the message to Google Drive.

Of course, you can reorganize the files and folders by selecting them and choosing the folder icon to open Google Drive's Organize window.

Limit Google Drive syncs to specific folders
The Google Drive feature I've come to rely on is the ability to have the most-recent versions of all my files available on all my computers and devices automatically, whether or not I'm currently online. This level of file duplication can quickly take a big bite out of the machines' hard drives, however.

To conserve space on a particular PC, limit the Google Drive folders that sync with the system. Click the Google Drive icon in the taskbar and choose Preferences. Check "Only sync some folders to this computer," choose the folders you want to sync in the sync options window, and click "Apply changes."

Google Drive preferences settings
Sync only the Google Drive folders you select with the PC you're currently using via the Google Drive Preferences dialog box. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

As the Preferences dialog box indicates, files that aren't in a Google Drive folder will always sync. To disable all file synching, uncheck the "Sync Google Docs files" option that appears below the folder window.

Save storage space by deleting unneeded file versions
Google Drive retains all versions of your files for 30 days or up to 100 revisions. Depending on the type and size of files you're storing, the versions can take up a big chunk of your available storage.

To prevent Google Drive from deleting previous versions of a file, select the file and click More > Manage revisions. (Note that this option isn't available for files that don't have multiple versions.) Check the file's option under "Do not auto delete."

Google Drive Manage revisions options
Prevent Google Drive from automatically deleting a previous version of a file by unchecking its auto-delete option in the "Manage revisions" dialog box. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Create a single archive for all your Google data
Several add-ons promise to back up your Google Drive files, but the Google Takeout archive service may meet your backup needs without having to download and install yet another program.

Start by signing into your Google account and opening the Takeout page. In addition to your Google Drive files, you can archive all the data in Google+, your Circles, contacts, profile, Picasa images, Google Voice, and other Google services.

To archive everything, click the Create Archive button under the "All of your data" tab, or to be more selective, click "Choose services" and pick the ones you want to back up before clicking Create Archive.

It took only a few minutes to prepare the ZIP archive of about 150MB of Google data, the bulk of which was comprised of Google Drive files. Click the Download button to begin the download.

Google Takeout download page
Google's free Takeout archive service creates a backup of your Google Drive files and all your other Google Data and downloads it as a single ZIP file. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

When the download completes, simply unzip the file to view your data in each app's respective folder. I only wish the archive included my search and browsing history. Then I might know as much about myself as Google knows about me.