How to Organize Google Drive for Research & Writing

This post is part of a series on Personal Knowledge Management, or how to save your notes, files, and other important info in a simple-to-use, organized way.

Intro: Setting Up a PKM | Part 1: Google Drive | Part 2: Zotero | Part 3: Taking Notes in Notion

You already use files every day and probably have some way of organizing them, even if it’s throwing a folder on your desktop called PROJECT X (ahem, like some people I know and love). Whether this is you, or whether organizing is your hobby (hi), you can make your work life immeasurably better by thinking through how you organize your files. I hope this will give you some ideas and helpful tips, especially since there doesn’t seem to be a lot of use cases out there to give you examples of how to structure your storage drive.

If you use a cloud drive other than Google, like OneDrive, Apple, or Adobe, you can still use these basic ideas for thinking through how to structure your file storage on whatever service you use (or your local hard drive, if you roll like that).

Table of Contents

Getting Set Up

This is not going to be a comprehensive technical guide, more like a quick-start guide for the purposes of talking about organizing your files. So, Google Drive is Google’s personal cloud drive. It provides 15GB of free storage (currently). After that you can choose to pay for more storage if you want. Google also offers sharable family plans that are bundled with other perks, like a VPN. My family has a shared 2Tb plan.

Desktop & Mobile Apps

You can access your Google Drive via any web browser, desktop or mobile. However, both on desktop and mobile you can also use the Google Drive app.

To install Drive as a web app in Windows 11, navigate to it on your regular web browser and look for an option in the browser menu to “Create Shortcut.” (In Chrome it’s in the hamburger menu > More tools > Create shortcut.) Then make sure to tick the box that says “Open as window.” This will allow Drive to run as an app (you can pin it to your taskbar, open it separately, etc.).

For mobile, there are dedicated Android and iOS apps, and you can use multiple Google accounts with them easily. (Like, no long workflow every time you need to shift accounts.)

Google Drive for Desktop

In addition to the version of Drive that runs in your browser or as a web app, both on Windows and Mac you can install Google Drive as a full application (download it here). This accomplishes two things. One, it integrates your cloud drive with your operating system, so that cloud folders work similarly to local folders. And two, it allows you to sync your local and cloud files, including backing up local files. This means that changes you make will be saved everywhere. On the one hand, you’ll never have to wonder if the file you just opened is the most current version. On the other, if you delete a file, you won’t be able to find it sitting around someplace else.

You can connect multiple Google accounts to Drive for Desktop.

Sync Settings in Google Drive for Desktop

There are two primary ways you can set up syncing. One is to stream files and the other is to mirror files. Streaming means your files aren’t stored locally, only in the cloud, and require an internet connection to access (unless you manually make them available offline). This is the option I have selected for my work account, seen in the image above.

The other option is to mirror your files locally. This takes up more local storage but allows you to work with cloud folders in exactly the same way you work with any folders on your computer. For example, you can save directly into your cloud drive or drag and drop files between drives. You can also work offline automatically. This is the option I have selected for my personal account.

Photo Handling (vs. Google Photos)

One important thing to note, especially for people who are in the Google ecosystem, is that photo files can be handled differently on Google Drive than other kinds of files. If you use Google Photos to store and backup your photos, you will not find those files sitting in your Google Drive. (You can tell Google Drive for Desktop to treat folders on your local hard drive as picture folders that upload to and handle like Google Photos, on a folder-by-folder basis.) This is handy because backup and syncing are automatic for photos from your phone and elsewhere. Also, you don’t end up with thousands of files called IMG555 sitting around to search through on your cloud drive. However, if you need to use a particular image file, like to upload elsewhere, you’ll need to navigate to the picture in Google Photos and download it.

This is why, for image files that you need to manipulate, you can also, separately, save them as files on Google Drive. For instance, all the images I use on this blog are stored on my Drive and not in my Photos. In addition, I have copies of old family photographs in a family tree folder on my Drive, as well as copied into my Google Photos. It’s good to be aware of this distinction, especially if you use a lot of image files in your work.

Defining Top-Level Folders

Okay, once you have all those technical details and preferences worked out, you get to the real work: conceptualizing how you’re going to organize your files. My basic recommendation is to come up with a system that is as simple as possible (but not simpler), with few top-level folders and few levels of folders. If you have to think to remember where something goes or where to find it, your system is probably too complicated.

I have only three top-level folders: Official Documents, Professional, and Personal. Everything (well, every file) in my life can be sorted into these three basic areas.

Official Docs is my digital filing cabinet. I have copies of all our important documents in there, like birth certificates, passports, and taxes, which are shared to all family members. The Professional folder is for everything I do in my work life: writing, teaching, websites, CVs, article pdfs, notes from shiur, etc. Personal is for stuff like family tree files and craft pattern pdfs.

This is what my Google Drive looks like on my Android phone.

I color-code each area, so that I can immediately recognize which of these three top-level categories a subfolder belongs to.

The color-coding doesn’t carry over to the operating system interface, but I only use that for very occasional technical operations anyway. Here’s what my Drive looks like in Windows:

Creating a Subfolder System

Most of the organizing work takes place on the subfolder level. I highly recommend two things: (1) categorizing—meaning your subfolders describe categories and not projects—and (2) creating a relatively flat hierarchy—meaning you don’t have many nested folders creating multiple sublevels. The goal should be that once you click on a top-level folder, you are be able to see all your basic categories, but not individual projects or files, on the subfolder level.

If you’re a visually-oriented person, you can use color coding to group your subfolders in a visual way. I use greens for my Professional docs, with different shades for different areas (reference, professional stuff, writing and teaching, learning). You can see the sub-folders in my Professional folder below.

The sub-folder level contains all you’ll need to remember when saving or opening files. Saving a new source sheet? It goes in, yep, Source Sheets. Want to riff of your that talk you gave? Check out Teaching & Talks. And so on.

Third-Level Subfolders

Within subfolders, I use sub-subfolders sparingly to organize materials where needed. My goal here is that when I open the subfolder, I see everything I need arranged logically before me, without having to remember the organizational scheme. For example, the inside of my Writing folder is organized by type of publication. It’s easy for me to figure out where I stuck a given file based on its type.

Deeper-Level Subfolders

If I need them, I’ll put individual projects one level deeper, so for example, a book project (“Rishonim Book”) gets its own folder under “Book Projects” (making the hierarchy four layers deep: Professional > Writing > Book Projects > Rishonim Book). But, I don’t have to remember all the book project subfolders (level 4) or even all the different types of writing subfolders (level 3) because levels 1 and 2 are obvious and flat. Is it professional? Is it a writing project? Open up Professional > Writing and you’ll see what you need to get your file! No sorting through tons of project folders of all types.

For example, here’s what my fourth-level subfolders look like under Gemara, where I keep my notes from Gemara shiur:

The idea is that if I ever teach, say, Pesachim, or want to review, I can simply open up my Pesachim folder and find all my work and notes filed there. It also means that I can file future notes under this scheme, amass a body of notes, and easily see what I’ve covered. (As to how to organize individual notes, we’ll get to that in more detail in the Notion note-taking post.)

Backing up your Google Drive

As a cloud drive, Google Drive is automatically backed up to the cloud, as well as locally, if you’ve chosen that sync setting. However, it’s always a good idea to keep a backup in case you accidentally delete something, a file gets corrupted, there’s a sync error, etc. I do this manually once a month (go schedule a reminder in your calendar and/or task manager right now if you don’t already have one!). I literally just plug in my external hard drive and drag-and-drop my three top-level folders with all of my files inside, replacing any modified files.

Image: Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel on Unsplash.

Tamar Ron Marvin Avatar

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