Learn8 Google Docs Tips You May Not Have Known About


writes on July 1, 2013

Like many web professionals, I use Google Docs every day to create and share information. It’s a fantastic suite of tools that’s perfect for collaborating with your coworkers and interacting with clients. In fact, I think mastering Google Docs has become an essential professional skill.

At Treehouse, we use Google Docs documents and spreadsheets for everything from writing video scripts to analyzing data and statistics. I’m always looking for new tips and exploring the menus, because in a tool that I use every day, small efficiencies can add up to big time savings. In this post, I’ll share a few uncommon Google Docs tips I’ve learned over the last few years that will make you into a document-wrangling, cowboy-ninja, spreadsheet-wizard… person.

1. Show all keyboard shortcuts.

Using the mouse to click on things may feel easy, but it’s slow. Keyboard shortcuts are one of the fastest ways to get better at any piece of software (especially StarCraft). Whether you’re viewing a spreadsheet, a doc, or you’re in the list of documents, you can bring up a full list of shortcut keys. Just use the following (you guessed it) keyboard shortcut:

  • On Mac, press ⌘ + /
  • On Windows, press Ctrl + /

When you hit these keys, you should get a contextual overlay that gives you the hotkeys for the current view; they’re different for each app. It looks something like this:

2. Use Gmail shortcuts in the list view.

If you’ve mastered the shortcuts in either Gmail or the Google Docs list view, then you’ve actually mastered both. When you’re traversing lots of documents, it’s often helpful to make some bulk edits or star some documents to find them quickly later.

Here are the most important keys for navigating the list view:

  • J  Navigate to the next item in the list
  • K  Navigate to the previous item in the list
  • X  Select/unselect an item
  • S  Star/unstar an item

3. Free yourself from distraction and edit fullscreen.

If you need to stay hyper-focused on a document in a distraction free environment, this is for you. In a document, go to the View menu and select the Full screen option.

A screenshot of the View menu in Google docs

The controls will disappear so that you can focus on your content. I recommend setting your browser to full screen for maximum effect. To get out of fullscreen mode, simply press the Esc key.

4. Hack the custom header styles to quickly add formatting.

When you’re editing a Google document, it’s helpful to create headings so that each section of your writing is clearly defined. The default headings are good for most purposes, but if you frequently need to apply special formatting, you can make your own “headings” and apply them to any inline text. For example, I use the special headings to highlight parts of Treehouse video scripts that include motion graphics, special camera moves, blocking, and computer code.

A screenshot of the Title menu in Google Docs.

To create a new header style, simply format your text how you’d like and highlight it. Then go to the Title menu, click one of the right facing arrows next to a header, and select Update ‘heading X’ to match with X being the header number.

Then, when you need to apply the same formatting, you can simply set the text to one of the title styles in the menu as you would normally.

Note: This will only apply to one document at a time, so don’t worry about ‘messing up’ the default styles for other documents or other people in your organization.

5. Get started with a template.

Google maintains a directory of templates that you can use to get a jump start on your next document. There’s a pretty huge selection and it’s easy to filter and sort. Whether you’re setting up a personal finance spreadsheet or writing a resume and cover letter, there’s probably a template in there that can seriously cut down on your setup time.

6. Automagically create a table of contents.

When I create outlines for new courses on Treehouse, the documents tend to get pretty lengthy. Fortunately, if you structure your document using the various header levels in the Title menu, Google Docs can automatically generate a table of contents for you. This TOC allows you to jump to any part of the document, making navigation quick and easy for long documents.

In a document with several headings, place your insertion point at the top of the document. Then, go to the Insert menu and click Table of contents to add a TOC. Here’s a picture of the finished result:

Screenshot of a Google Docs table of contents.

Note: This probably won’t work properly if you use the header hack in tip 4 to format inline text. I only use TOCs for creating outlines and not scripting videos.

7. Use conditional formatting to color spreadsheets.

Maybe you’re not surprised that spreadsheets in Google Docs are capable of coloring cells based on conditional formatting. Yet for some reason, very few people know about this feature when I tell them. If you’re working with numerical data or dates, coloring cells can help you quickly distill and comprehend large datasets.

I created an example data set that represents a traditional classroom with test scores (and in the process, I also learned about the random number generators in the function list). Let’s say you’re a teacher, and you want to visually identify students that scored 75 or below on a test. To do this, hover over the column header and click the arrow icon that appears to bring up a menu. Then click the Conditional formatting… option towards the bottom.

Note: In the image below, there are numbers in column B that are covered by the menu.

Screenshot of the conditional formatting menu in Google spreadsheets.

When the conditional formatting modal appears, you can add rules that will color the cells. In the image below, you can see what these rules look like for our example. Any numbers at 75 or below will be highlighted in yellow. Everything else will be green.

Screenshot of the conditional formatting modal in Google spreadsheets.

Here’s what the data looks like with the added color. Even better, when we sort Column B, we’ll see a visual that depicts the ratio between low scores and high scores. The block of yellow cells will be set against the block of green cells. Conditional formatting is like a grappling hook for climbing the DIKW Pyramid. It’s a tool that can help you make the leap from data to useful information.

Screenshot of a Google spreadsheet with conditionally formatted cells.

8. Extrapolate sets of related terms.

Are you ready for some magic? Google spreadsheets allows you to take two cells and find other related terms. First, fill two cells with related items and highlight them, like so:

A screenshot of a Google spreadsheet that says luke skywalker and darth vader in the first two cells.

Now we need to drag out the set. On a Mac, hold down option. On a PC, hold down Ctrl. While holding down the modifier key, click on the small blue box in the bottom right corner of the highlighted cells, and drag downwards.


Google will fill in other related terms. In this case, Google magically filled in the remaining cells with other Star Wars characters. It’s not perfect, but it works pretty well for most things. From what I understand, this technology is what’s left of Google Sets, a defunct Google Labs project.


It’s hard for me to say exactly how you can use this one, but it’s definitely a fun curiosity that’s helped me brainstorm related ideas in sort of a fuzzy mind-mapping fashion. I’m hoping to see some clever ideas in the comments!


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27 Responses to “8 Google Docs Tips You May Not Have Known About”

  1. And yes, another article I’ve spent time reading on, learning absolutely nothing. The things you mention are hardly specific to Google Docs (G Suite). Hacking a paragraph style (heading) to use inline is of course a no no.

  2. Dustin Soodak on November 6, 2017 at 5:13 pm said:

    Do you guys know any way of setting up google docs so it is useful for coding?

    I’ve figured out how to set fixed width font, but it has an annoying habit of converting 4 spaces to a single tab seemingly at random. This ends up completely destroying the formatting of code copy/pasted between a google doc and any other text editor (ASCII diagrams are mangled beyond all recognition).

    I’ve already tried changing the document type to “text”, importing/exporting the whole text file (instead of copy/paste), and manually replacing spaces with non-breaking spaces (along with a bunch of other things which I can’t remember right now). So far I’ve not been able to discern a pattern in when it chooses to perform this auto-conversion so I can’t even write a script to translate.

    Google docs is extremely convenient otherwise so any help would be greatly appreciated.

  3. David Allan on June 6, 2017 at 11:29 am said:

    Is there a way to create a google doc which you can create to fill in the blanks for say a blog post and then have it add the html in once you’re done.

    For example, It has a place for title, intro, bullets, links which are repeated in the same format each and every blog post. So it just has the blanks to fill in these variables. Then it reveals or adds the HTML necessary for the blog post so I can just cut and paste.

    It’s just I don’t want to have to cut and paste into a text document or something I just want to write everything ONCE.

    Hopefully, I’ve explained this properly 😛


  4. Can you give details on point 4. The INLINE heading is not working for me. Whenever I am trying to do what you have suggested above it does it for complete line.

  5. Hey this is somewhat of off topic but I was wondering if blogs use WYSIWYG
    editors or if you have to manually code with HTML. I’m starting a blog
    soon but have no coding experience so I wanted to get guidance from someone with experience.

    Any help would be greatly appreciated!

  6. Hi There!

    I have a shared sheet with some ppl,

    I wanna make sure that if the person1 is making enteries sheet shouls automatically write Person1 in the google sheet in the respective column!!

    Can google sheet allow this for detecting the user who is making the enteries!

  7. This blog awesome and i learn a lot about programming from here.The best thing about this blog is that you doing from beginning to experts level.

  8. Nice weblog right here! Additionally your site quite a bit
    up fast! What web host are you the usage of?
    Caan I am gettiing your associte link to your host?
    I desire my websitre loaded up aas quickly ass yours lol

  9. I would like to create a keyboard shortcut to insert a text box on the slide. Do you know if this is possible? I have a macbook and powerpoint2011


  10. any tips on highlighting? how to create shortcuts to use the colour to highlight subsequent selections?
    i find it a chore to “select”, click on the A icon, then colour i desire.

  11. Hi there,
    Thanks for this info. This may be a stupid question, but, when I create a TOC, I can’t actually click on the items in it to nav to them in my doc. It just clicks into them to allow me to edit them. Is there a way to remove edit functionality and switch to being able to click the items to nav to them?

  12. great article..
    and…’Conditional formatting is like a grappling hook for climbing the DIKW Pyramid.’ ..is just a gem of a line. 🙂

    Btw, I think no. 8 doesn’t work anymore! :-/

  13. Rebecca on August 14, 2013 at 6:51 pm said:

    Do you know if it possible to make a bulk google docs edit of my ALL documents?

    For example:

    A website developer told me that we are not allowed to have double spaces between the words on the google docs he will be using for the webiste as it would cause problem later.

    I have a lot ofdocuments to scan through and edit, does anyone know a way to mass replace using Google Doc?

  14. Holy mother of …. number 8 jsut blew my mind.

  15. Let's Brainstorm on July 7, 2013 at 5:19 am said:

    Very cool post indeed : )

  16. Thanks! Totally helpful!

  17. Hey Nick. Thanks for the great tips!! I’ve just jumped into Google’s App Scripts for Spreadsheets to get more custom functionality out of them. I can’t wait to implement some of your tips there too. I’m new to Treehouse and was wondering if Treehouse has any plans on classes for analyzing data on websites.

  18. Not so often tips on GDocs appear, thank you

  19. Daniel D'Alonzo on July 1, 2013 at 6:11 pm said:

    Great post!

  20. flanger001 on July 1, 2013 at 4:20 pm said:

    Nick, these tips are great and I wanted to say thanks!

  21. rhazor on July 1, 2013 at 1:53 pm said:

    As a new user to this, it just redirects me to Google Drive and I cannot see anything related to Docs.

    • Yep! Google Docs and Google Drive are sort of interchangeable terms still. I’m old school and have been using Gdocs for ages, so I still say Google Docs. It’s essentially the same set of tools though. 🙂

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