Getting Things Done with Google

Andrea Carbert | June 27, 2017 | 17 Min Read

I had always admired how organized and efficient my boss was, and so I asked him his secret. He told me about how he used Getting Things Done (GTD) to structure his work and I was inspired to follow his lead.

As a working mother of a toddler, I always have more work than time. I’m no longer able to stay late at the office, or work on evenings or weekends. And yet, in the 40 hours a week I work, I now feel more productive and organized; I’m never (okay, rarely!) worried that I’ve forgotten to do something. How do I do it? I’ve implemented the principles of David Allen’s Getting Things Done with the Google suite of products. Want to know the details? Keep reading!

Before I had returned to work as a Project Manager back in the fall of 2016 I had purchased a new Android phone. With that phone, I had access to work emails and, as I soon discovered, a preloaded app, Google Keep, a cloud-based note taking app that’s similar to Evernote. Macadamian uses G Suite for our business systems, so with my phone, I also had access to my calendar and all of the documents stored on our Google Drive.

On the day I got back I received a brand new laptop from IT and it had none of my old files; I had a blank slate; it was a fresh start! I realized that I didn’t need to keep anything on my local machine. Leveraging our Drive, I could keep everything in the cloud, meaning that I could access it from anywhere. This has two benefits:

  1. I don’t have to bring my laptop home with me every night in case I need to unexpectedly stay home with a sick child, etc. I can use any computer to access my work.
  2. I can access everything from my phone when I’m out and about. I can use my downtime during my commute on the bus, or waiting in line at Starbucks, to read emails, schedule meetings, note actions, and review documents.

This system became even more powerful when I learned about David Allen’s Getting Things Done. I had always admired how organized and efficient my boss was, and so I asked him his secret. He told me about how he used Getting Things Done (GTD) to structure his work and I was inspired to follow his lead.

In a nutshell, the GTD method involves taking everything you’re keeping track of (action items, things you’re waiting for, ideas) out of your brain, writing them down, and then organizing them into actionable items (the common GTD refrain is ‘What’s the next action?’). You then put your energy towards doing work, instead of remembering what you need to do. To work well, you must fully commit to the GTD method; you must record everything, no matter how big or small, both personal and professional.

via: Getting Things Done



Clients: Gmail in web browser on Mac, Gmail app for Android

Like most people, the majority of my work comes via email. However, unlike most people, I am not afraid of an email avalanche when I open my inbox! Here’s how I do it:

I practice inbox zero. In a nutshell, this means that I read every email each time I visit my inbox and decide what to do with it right away; I do not postpone categorizing or actioning them. With inbox zero, I know that an important and urgent email from my customer has not become lost in a sea of other emails.

I have taken the GTD structure and applied it to my inbox, through the use of labels. Emails are then tagged with the appropriate label(s) for future follow-up. There are three basic labels:

  • Action
    • Any email that requires action on my part gets put here. If the action has a deadline, I would instead place it on my calendar. For more details, see the section on using your calendar.
    • This is the first place I go when I have time, to see what work I should do.
    • I clean this out on a daily basis to ensure that the actions are still relevant, etc.
    • I often send myself quick reminders via email, that I tag with the Action label.
  • Waiting For
    • Emails that are waiting on someone else (for an action, response, etc.) get this label. These could be emails I’ve written or emails that my team has sent to the customer.
    • I don’t need to remember that I’ve sent an email to someone and that I’m waiting on them for an action. This label does the remembering for me.
    • I review this bucket every couple of days to chase for response, or to remove the label if I’ve received the response in a different way (eg. it was answered in a meeting).
  • Reference (Project Labels)
    • Information that I might need to refer back to later gets stored away in the relevant folder. I tag both items as I receive them, or send them.
    • If I receive files that I need to save for future use, I transfer them into Google Drive, into the appropriate project folder.
    • I have a set up my labels so that it mirrors the Project Document Library that we use in Google Drive. It makes it very easy to find things in either system. Handily, our folder structure follows David Allen’s suggested system.
    • The structure is as follows:
      • A-E
        • A Customer…
      • F-K
        • J Customer…
      • L-P
        • M Customer…
      • Q-U
        • R Customer…
      • V-Z
        • Z Customer…
          • Project 1…
          • Project 2
            • Customer Documentation
            • Deliverables
              • Development
              • PM
              • QA
              • UX
            • Project Management
              • Financials
                • Change Requests
                • Contract
                • Expenses
                • Invoices
              • Status Report
            • Retrospectives

For added speed, I also use:

  • Shortcuts
    • The browser client has a number of keyboard shortcuts. Switch on shortcuts in your settings, type Shift+?, learn some shortcuts, and watch your productivity rise! To reinforce learning the keyboard shortcuts, check out the KeyRocket extension for Chrome.
    • In the Gmail app for Android, you can use the swipe gesture to archive or delete messages. Set it up in Settings.
  • Canned Messages
    • These are templates for frequently sent emails. I use this for things like status reports or action reminders.
    • Set up the Lab for Canned Responses through Settings.
    • Use the Canned Response in the Compose screen, by accessing the More Options (⌄)
    • This is also known as Templates in Google Inbox.

Try It

  1. Set up your labels: Action, Waiting For, Reference
    • Try structuring your Reference labels in the same way that your structure your Google Drive.
    • Remember that you can nest labels.
  2. Clean out your inbox to get to zero
    • Set aside some time to catch up on your backlog of emails.
    • Label emails as necessary. Label as many or as few emails as you want.
    • Select all emails in your inbox (label: inbox) and archive them. This removes them from your inbox, but does not delete them; you can still search, or browse by label, and find them.
  3. Maintain your inbox.
    • Set aside time each day to review your inbox.
    • Read each email and decide what to do with it.
      • Immediately send a reply.
      • Put it in your Action file.
      • File it away for future reference.
      • Delete it.
    • As you send out emails, if you expect a response, label it with ‘Waiting For’ so that you can easily follow up later.
  4. Enjoy your peace of mind and freedom from an avalanche of emails.


Clients: Keep desktop app on Mac, Keep app for Android

Keep is my memory! It’s always with me, either open on my desktop or my phone. It’s got the power of Google behind it; using your phone, you can dictate notes, take pictures and quickly add it to a note, have a note act as a reminder, or quickly create a note from a widget. On any platform, you can also quickly share notes with a colleague, or use them as a basis for a Google doc.

Here’s a few ways that I use it:

  • Note taking
    • Every project that I manage has a main note that I record all meetings, etc.
    • I add pictures of whiteboards, etc. using my phone
    • If needed, I can share the notes with colleagues quickly
  • Action Lists
    • Each project has its own action list, with checkboxes
    • I recorded actions here that come up in meetings or conversation with colleagues (i.e. work that didn’t come from an email)
  • Agendas
    • I keep running lists of what I need to talk to a given person about, eg. my sales guy, my boss, my customer, my doctor
    • The next time I’m talking to them, I can quickly see what I need to cover. I never worry that I’m forgetting to cover an important topic!
  • Checklists for repeated actions
    • I don’t like reinventing the wheel. I keep generic checklists for common things that I do like starting a project, or removing someone from a project.
    • Each time one of these activities needs to be done, I copy the list and get to work! No more missed or forgotten steps.
    • I periodically update the list when I refine my process.
    • I can also easily delegate tasks, because I already know what needs to be done.
  • Incubator
    • I have ideas that I’d like to pursue further, but they’re not immediately relevant.
    • I record these in various lists in an Incubator file (David Allen calls this his ‘Tickler’ file).
    • Lists include local restaurants I’d like to try, webinars I’d like to review, or blog posts I’d like to write.
  • Reference
    • I keep a section for things that I’d like to be able to refer back to.
    • These could be things like my meeting bridge connection details, or a picture of my glasses prescription.
    • Having them in Keep and tagged as Reference makes them easy to find.

To keep the notes organized, I use labels. Each note can have multiple labels, and there is a good search function to find things. As an example, this is my structure:

  • @Action
  • @Incubator
  • @Reference
  • Agenda
  • Project specific notes
  • Checklists

You can also ‘pin’ notes to keep them at the top of your list in any labeled section.

Try It

  1. Set up your labels in Keep, based on your needs
  2. Set up your notes:
    • Action lists for each project
    • Project notes to collect meeting notes, etc.
    • Agenda notes for important conversations
    • Incubator notes for future inspiration
  3. Pin Important Notes to find them easily in each section
  4. Set up prefilled Checklists for common activities
    • Think ahead, or the next time you do it, create a generic checklist for this activity
    • Your future self will thank you!


Clients: Calendar in web browser on Mac, Calendar app for Android

My calendar ensures that I’m working on the right thing at the right time. At the end of each day, I review the next day my calendar to prepare, and ensure that I have everything I need to be successful. I also have the calendar pinned as a tab in my browser, and I look at it first thing in the morning to set me on the right track. I then get notifications in my browser and on my phone in advance of all scheduled meetings.

I use my calendar to keep track of all of my time dependent activities and information. For it to be an accurate reflection of my time, I view my personal and work calendar together, so that all of my commitments are in one place. Any time I have made plans for a specific activity with someone, it goes in my calendar (yes, I even send my friends invites to the movies!).

These are the things that fill my calendar.

  • All day reminders of things that I have to do that day.
    • My calendar acts as my memory and prompts me to do things that I have to do on a regular basis.
    • For example:
      • One off reminders, eg. call a customer on a particular day about a recent situation.
      • Regular reminders
        • Send a weekly status report on a given day
        • Monthly invoicing activities
  • Meetings I have scheduled with other people.
  • Blocks of scheduled time to complete a given task.
    • I use this very rarely, and only if there is a very tight deadline for something.
    • I prefer to prioritize my work according to urgency, time available, and my energy levels. I find I often get sidetracked when I commit myself to working on a specific thing at a specific time.
  • Vacations and Holidays
    • I note the holidays and vacations for myself and all my team members as all day reminders.
    • I can quickly see for a given period who will be working.

To further structure my calendar, I have set up individual calendars for my projects. The two benefits to doing this is that you can easily isolate the view to what’s happening for that project (eg. who’s taking vacation on Project X), and secondly, that you can transfer ownership if your project gets moved to another project manager. To further differentiate between projects, I select different colours for each project.

These calendars are shared with the team members via the project’s Google Group. Two calendars are set up:

  • Vacation Calendar
    • All team member vacations are recorded as all day activities
  • Meetings Calendar
    • All meetings for a given project are scheduled through the project calendar
    • The project’s Google Group is invited to the meeting
      • By inviting the group, instead of individuals, if your project members leave/join, the meetings will automatically disappear/appear according to their membership in the Google Group.

To set up additional calendars, click on ⌄ next to My Calendars on the left-hand side, and then follow the instructions. When you create new items in your calendar, you can easily choose which calendar to put it on.

For added bonus:

  • Control the meeting
    • Offer to be the one that books the meeting. That way, you can schedule it at a time that’s convenient for you, and you can be the one to move it if you need to.
  • Remind people of the meeting
    • If you use Slack, try the /remind function to tell people when you’re meeting. You can even include the link to your Hangout or other remote meeting client.
  • Create remote meetings directly from your calendar in one click and meet from anywhere!
    • Set up a Hangout easily by clicking ‘Add a Video Call’
    • If your company uses other remote meeting software, check out if they have a chrome extension to schedule meetings. We use GoToMeeting. It makes setting up meetings painless.
    • Make sure that you have the apps for your meeting client installed on your phone. They should prompt you when you have a meeting.

Try It

  1. Get all your calendars in one view
    • Add your personal and professional calendars
  2. Set up calendars for each of your projects
    • Vacation and Meetings as separate calendars
    • Assign a unique colour to each project
    • Share the calendar to your team’s google group
  3. Book your project meetings through the related calendar
    • Invite the team’s google group, not individuals
  4. Set up all day event reminders
    • Vacations (on the relevant project calendar)
    • Repeated tasks


Clients: GDrive in web browser on Mac, Drive app for Android

Gdrive is Google’s online cloud storage that is available to all users. We use it to create, share, and store all of our project and company documents. You can use Google’s office suite to create your documents, or upload your own files for storage. Google can also sync with local storage, allowing you to have offline access to your documents, or automatic backups of your local work.

With this, I can access any of my project documents on the go. I can even create, edit, and comment on documents, even offline, using Google’s Docs, Sheets, and Slides apps on my phone.

Permissions to our Project Document Library are controlled by Google Groups. The benefit to using Google Groups is that you only have to add or remove someone in the group to have the permission changed, as opposed to going through all your folders/documents.

Google has lots of other options for sharing, that provides for a lot of flexibility:

  • On – Public on the web: Anyone can search on Google and get access to your file, without signing in to their Google Account.
  • On – Anyone with the link: Anyone who has the link can access your file, without signing in to their Google Account.
  • On – Your domain: If you use a Google account through work or school, anyone signed in to an account at your work or school can search for and access your file.
  • On – Anyone at your domain with the link: If you use a Google account through work or school, anyone signed in to an account at your work or school can access your file if they have the link.
  • Off – Specific people: Only people you share the file with will be able to access it.
    • Note: you can also share with Google Groups using this method.

Through Gmail, if you send an email with a link to a Gdrive file, it will prompt you to change the sharing settings if not everyone has access. The default is to provide View Only access. The benefit of sharing the Google file, instead of providing attachments, is that you only have one file; you don’t have to manage multiple versions or collate comments from multiple sources. Moreover, Google Docs allows you to comment and reference certain people in the document, and assign tasks to them. This review feature cuts down on email noise. In short, you have real-time collaboration of documents.

Every project at Macadamian has the same folder structure, which makes it easy to find what you’re looking for:

  • A-E
    • A Customer…
  • F-K
    • J Customer…
  • L-P
    • M Customer…
  • Q-U
    • R Customer…
  • V-Z
    • Z Customer…
      • Project 1…
      • Project 2
        • Customer Documentation
        • Deliverables
          • Development
          • PM
          • QA
          • UX
        • Project Management
          • Financials
            • Change Requests
            • Contract
            • Expenses
            • Invoices
          • Status Report
        • Retrospectives

Google Drive also allows you to keep a local copy of files and sync to the cloud, this allows you to work offline in a pinch.

For Bonus Points:

  • Templates
    • Drive allows you quickly and easily submit documents as templates that you can share with your team.
    • You could have templates for status reports, risk logs, business cases, etc.
    • I find it useful to have a generic company branded document that can be used for project deliverables. This makes our work look polished with barely any effort, a boon for developers who don’t know much about formatting word documents.
  • Use Cloud Search
    • If your company uses Google for Business, you have magical search powers, thanks to Google Cloud Search.
    • It is a tool that allows you to search across all of your personal and shared Google products (g drive docs, emails, contacts, calendar, groups, etc.). Think of it like your personal Google.
    • It even can make suggestions on what items will be useful for you to look at, based on your upcoming meetings, or where you spend a lot of time.
    • An Android App is also available.

Try It

  1. Create a folder structure for your project(s) that mirrors your email label structure.
  2. Move all your documents to the cloud from local storage.
    • Set up Google Drive on your computer to sync documents.
    • Install Google Drive and the associated program applications for your mobile device.
  3. Share your folders and/or files with your team using a Google Group.
  4. Share Google docs in your email as embedded links, instead of attachments. Your recipients will all work on the same document in real time, saving you the need to combine their individual comments into a new version.
  5. Create templates for your frequently used documents.


Clients: Hangouts in web browser on Mac, Hangouts app for Android

Hangouts is Google’s meeting tool for enterprise users, available both in your desktop browser and on your mobile device. It offers instant messaging, and free voice and video calls, complete with screen sharing. This is a great place to run your meetings with your team, for free, with limited set up and complications.

Hangouts can be set up through:

Try It

  1. Run your next meeting using a Google Hangout.


Clients: Chrome as web browser, Chrome app for Android

I use Chrome as my go-to browser. For me, it makes sense: I’m using Google’s browser to use Google’s products. I use it on my Mac at work, my Android phone, and my Chromebook at home. I’m signed in across all three – it remembers my bookmarks, my passwords, and my history. This consistency makes my life easy!
I use my browser to do the majority of my work. Since I use a Mac, I rarely turn off my computer; I’m able to set Chrome up once and leave it running. Here’s how I stay organized:

  • Pinned Tabs
    • The websites that I use frequently, I pin. This means that it changes into a smaller tab, with just the site’s icon, and there’s no button to close it.
    • I pin:
      • Gmail
      • Calendar
      • Drive
      • Jira (our development task management system)
      • Clarizen (our project management system)

  • Bookmarks
    • For each of my projects, I create a folder in the Bookmark Bar.
      • I then bookmark the specific pages for that project in our systems that I regularly visit:
        • Jira
        • Bamboo
        • Confluence
        • Google Drive
        • Google Groups
        • Test Pad
        • Gerrit
        • In-House Permissions tool
        • Etc
      • I never have to hunt around to find stuff. I know which system I need to go to, and my bookmark does the rest.
    • I also have a bookmark folder for all of the other systems, eg. HR, Expenses

Try It

  1. Pin the websites that you always have open.
  2. Create bookmark folders for each of your projects, and bookmark the project specific pages in each of your systems.

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