Using Keyboard Shortcuts to Boost Your Productivity

I am not a big fan of computer mice. Every time I have to take my hand off the keyboard, it costs me a few seconds. This may not sound like much, but it adds up over the course of a day.

A Slow Shutter Speed Showing the Speed of a Typist

Photo courtesy of ©

Instead, I like to keep my hands on the keyboard. With a little memory work and the right tools, you can boost your productivity and run circles around your mouse-dependent colleagues.

The trick is to use keyboard shortcuts. What are these? They are combinations of simultaneous key presses that perform specific actions that might otherwise require pointing and clicking multiple times.

Keyboard shortcuts usually require a combination of modifier keys (command or ?, option or ?, control or ^, and shift or ?) plus other keys—either a letter or number.

Here are five ways you can kick the mouse-habit:

  1. Learn system-wide keyboard commands. For example, on the Mac, these keyboard shortcuts generally work in every program:
    ?, Set the application preferences
    ?A Select all text
    ?B Bold the selected text or turn on the bold style
    ?C Copy the selected text to the clipboard
    ?F Find text
    ?G Find next occurrence of text
    ?I Italicize the selected text or turn on italic style
    ?N Create a new file
    ?O Open an existing file
    ?P Print a file
    ?Q Quit the current application
    ?R Preview the elected document
    ?S Save a file
    ?T Show the available fonts
    ?V Paste the text from the clipboard
    ?W Close the current window
    ?X Cut (and delete) the selected text but places it on the clipboard
    ?Z Undo the last action

    This just scratches the surface. You can find numerous online references with a complete list of shortcut keys. One of my favorites is the MacRumors: Guides. Windows has similar system-wide keyboard shortcuts.

  2. Learn application-specific commands. In addition to system-wide commands, each application has it’s own specific commands. For example, I live in Apple Mail. Common Mail shortcuts include:
    ?R Reply only to the sender
    ??R Reply to all
    ??F Forward message
    ?1 Goto inbox
    ?2 Goto outbox
    ?3 Goto Drafts
    ?4 Goto Sent
    ?5 Goto Trash

    Every application has its own unique shortcut keys. Usually these are listed in the applications documentation. It may be a little “geeky” to read through it, but I’ve found it worth the investment.

    Alternatively, you can use a program like KeyCue (which I use) to display all the keyboard shortcuts for any application. All I do is press and hold the ? key. I instantly get a screen that shows all the shortcuts for that application.

    KeyCue Pop-up Screen for Apple Mail

  3. Create application-specific shortcut keys. This is where the Mac operating system really shines. You can create a shortcut key for any menu item in almost any program.

    Let’s say that you often find yourself taking Mail offline, so you can focus on your work without being constantly distracted by new mail. (You are doing this, right?) Ordinarily, you would select Mailbox | Take All Accounts Offline with your mouse.

    However, you can automate this by assigning a keyboard shortcut to this menu command. Go to System Preferences by clicking on the Apple (?) in the upper left-hand corner of your screen. Select System Preferences, then select Keyboard.

    Now click on the Keyboard tab and then select the Application Shortcuts in the left-hand side of the dialog box. Click on the plus key (“+”). in the Application field, select Mail.

    Now type the name of the menu title, exactly as it is listed in the application. In my example, type Take All Accounts Offline. Tab to the Keyboard Shortcut field and type the shortcut you want to use. For this particular one, I use ^??-hyphen (control-option-command-hyphen). It sounds more complicated than it is.

    I have a similar shortcut for taking all accounts online. I use ^??-plus (control-option-command-plus). This way I can toggle my online and offline status very quickly. It has become second-nature.

  4. Use a keyboard application launcher. This is what takes it to an entirely different level. Typically, on a Mac, you launch an application by clicking on an application in the dock (via the mouse) or going to Finder, selecting the Applications folder, and scanning through all the application files.

    With a keyboard launcher, you can launch an application by typing a few keystrokes. I use iKey. I simply press a keystroke combination to launch specific applications.

    All of mine shortcuts begin with ??? (shift-option-command) and then the first letter of the application name (if possible). For example, ???-m launches Mail, ???-s launches Safari, and ???-t launches Things. I have a keystroke combination for every program I use on a regular basis.

  5. Use a keyboard macro program. This type of program takes a few keystrokes and expands it into a word, a phrase, a paragraph, or even an entire document.

    I use Typinator. When I type “~ws ” (for Web site), the program replaces that text with the URL of my Web site: If I type “addrh” (for address, home), it replaces the text with my home address.

    The possibilities are endless. Basically, you can create a macro for anything you find yourself typing over and over again. Typinator even comes with several preloaded sets of abbreviations, including spelling corrects and HTML snippets. TextExpander is a similar program.

Every time your hand comes off the keyboard to grab the mouse, consider it a penalty. And while you’re at it, think how you can create a keyboard shortcut, using one of the methods above to avoid ever having to do it again.

Questions: Do you make extensive use of keyboard shortcuts? What tools do you use? How has it impacted your productivity?
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  • jonathanrose

    This is quite remarkable!

    I have never really considered the inefficiency of using a mouse. I will have to employ the above methods and return with my findings.

    Thank you for yet another useful and edifying blogpost MH!

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  • Dan Miller

    If we are really concerned about speed, isn't it time to move away from the QWERTY layout? We know that was designed to slow down typing so the keys wouldn't jam. How long will it take until we move on to a keyboard layout that matches our speed capability today?

    It seems like creating shortcuts for an outdated keyboard may be a little like pushing a Ferrari. It will move but not in the way it is capable of.

    Moral of the story – habits and tradition are very difficult to break even if we know better. (Think health, transportation, religion and family patterns.)

    • Michael Hyatt

      Yes! The key is to tech kids an alternative, so they don't have to unlearn anything. I have tried to move to a Dvorak keyboard a few times. I found it very frustrating. I know it is faster, but the time it takes to rewire your brain is significant.

      • @jlhuge

        There are multiple issues above and beyond the organization of the keys. The literal layout where everything is angled left is also an efficiency breaker. Of course then you also have to take into account the fact that typing in and of itself, is going to be a slow method when compared to thought.

  • Geoff Webb

    Wow! Great post chuck-full of great tips.

    I was lucky enough to have a lab partner in college who turned me on to keyboard shortcuts. I remember thinking he was crazy. I can't imagine not using them now.

    I'd add the shortcuts for switching between stuff (on a Mac):
    Between programs: Cmd-Tab (and Cmd-`[the key right above it] to go the other way)
    Between files in a program: Cmd-`[once again, that key above the Tab key :) ]
    Between tabs in Firefox: Ctrl-Tab

    From this post, I see I've got to room to grow – thanks!

    • Gammell

      Holding down the shift-key will also reverse the order when cycling through windows or applications. One handy feature of Cmd-Tab is that if you hold down the Cmd button, the pop-up displaying all your open applications remains visible. You just need to tap tab again to select a different application, but it won't switch until you let go of Cmd. If you hit Q while still holding down Cmd, it will send a Quit command to the application currently selected. If you ever need to close out a background application or several of them, this makes it much quicker. I'm not sure if there are other commands that can be sent through that pop-up as well.

  • Cyberquill

    You seriously add up the extra seconds you save over the course of a day? Wow. That's what I call productivity. I probably should start doing the same, although perhaps I'll start slowly by adding up the months and weeks I'm wasting, then I'll gradually work my way down to becoming mindful of squandered days and hours. If I ever get to worrying about lost minutes, I'm good. Seconds? Um … well … I guess I'm not exactly CEO material.

  • christopherbmac

    Good post Mike, I've never delved into the custom keyboard shortcuts on my Mac but might now. For some more great productivity tips check out David Pogue's (@Pogue) Productivity Secrets from June of 2008.

    • Michael Hyatt

      I really liked that David Pogue article. Thanks for sharing.

  • Chris

    This may be heresy, but does anyone know where I could find a similar map of keyboard shortcuts for a Windows pc instead of the Mac?


    • Michael Hyatt

      I hope someone shares one. I haven't used a PC in about five years. I was using one then, but I can't remember the name.

      • Pauline

        If no one has posted one, you might be able to find something useful by adding transcription to a google search. I did transcription as a job during college and loved keyboard shortcuts. When you’re paid on production, every time you take your hands off home row, you’re losing money!!! I’ll check this thread when I get home later; if no one has shared a list by then, I know I have one on my computer.

  • John Richardson

    Great list, Mike. As a new Mac user, I'll print out your list and give it a try. I use Windows at work and the "windows" key (the one that looks like the Windows logo on the bottom row of the keyboard) is very useful in combination with other keys. I use windows-E to open up explorer, windows-L to lock the keyboard, windows-F to open up a search box and windows-M minimizes all open windows.
    Everyone who uses a Windows PC should learn that CTRL+X is Cut, CTRL+C is Copy, and CTRL+V is Paste. These can be used in most Windows programs such as Word, Excel, and Outlook.
    If you use Powerpoint, while in a slideshow use the "B" key for black screen, the "W" key for white screen, and if you press F1 during the show it will open up a complete list of key commands… very helpful!

  • Gammell

    I use Quicksilver to speed up a lot of tasks that would otherwise require the mouse. While I mostly use Quicksilver as an application launcher or file search, it's quite expansive in its ability to hook into other applications. It's fairly trivial to use it to open a file in a specific application, or to generate an email message to a contact with an attached file from a single search box. Development of the program has been rather spotty, but nobody seems to have developed another application quite its equal in flexibility yet. LaunchBar is getting very close and I know quite a few former QS users who have switched over for its superior stability.

    One feature I use a lot with Things is the global Quick Entry dialog box. I have mine set to F6 so I only have to hit one key and I can quickly add a task to my inbox without using the mouse or switching applications. I like being able to rapidly get nagging thoughts out of my head and focus on the task at hand.

    • Michael Hyatt

      Yes, I use LaunchBar. In my first draft of this post, I included it, but I didn’t want to overwhelm people with too many options. I have also used QS. Both are excellent.

  • Roland

    What about special characters? I've spent quite a bit of time pecking around trying to figure out the key combinations required to type special characters such as © or ®, for instance. On a Mac you used to be able to call up a keyboard layout from the systems preferences menu. No longer.

    • Michael Hyatt

      Try ⌥⌘-T (option-command-t). On my system, that brings up the special characters menu. I have saved the one I use the most often in the favorites tab. (That's how I entered the keyboard characters in the first sentence.)

      • Roland

        Perfect! Thank you!

  • Benjamin Neeley

    I have been working on this practice for years. I would rather hit "tab" five times than go grab my mouse. If only I could cut back on the times that I move my hand from the keyboard to a pop-tart, I would be the epitome of productivity.

  • Guntar

    The best concise mac keyboard hack I've ever read. Thanks a lot! :-)

  • Crystal Renaud

    without shortcuts i'd probably get about 40% less accomplished a day. and about a year ago i actually stopped using a mouse all together.

  • ThatGuyKC

    Thanks for the tips! I'm a relatively new Mac user and these will be tremendously helpful.

  • Lynn Rush

    These are great!
    I'm a short cut person, myself. You should see my "s" button. From hitting command "S" to save every few minutes while writing. . . . it's gotten worn through on the keyboard. LOL.

    Great post, thanks for the tips.

  • matt

    Shortcuts – don't know what I'd do w/out 'em. Akin to using our old PowerBook G4 mousepad where you have to use one finger to scroll & one to click after using the new trackpads for a while. The old way just feels so ancient :)

    It would be interesting to hear how you use some of these apps together…feels like I could spend a whole bunch of time just organizing my organizing, you know? Evernote has been a huge addition help to the way I work, and Things looks incredible…but it looks like there's some overlap there. For instance, how do you use Evernote-Things-iCal? I don't want to create more work for myself, so I'm curious how you streamline all these apps to work for you.

  • alisa hope

    I'm intrigued by how efficient you are.

    • Randy Willis

      Michael, thanks for sharing some of your systems for productivity. Very helpful.

      Have you tried using the new (built-in) feature in Mac OS X Snow Leopard (10.6) which allows text substitution / abbreviation expansion? I haven't used the text expander programs so I can't compare but according to David Pogue's description in his "missing manual" on Snow Leopard, it does the same thing.

      It can be found by going to System Preferences > Language & Text > Text (tab).


      • Michael Hyatt

        Actually, I haven't. I need to do that! Thanks for the reminder.

  • Steve

    When I started using the computer at work in 1988, I figured out quickly the mouse wasted time. Here is how I learned the shortcuts. Every time I need to perform an action, I would use to mouse to find it on the menu. I would look at the shortcut and then use the shortcut instead of the mouse. After a while, the shortcuts become second nature.

    • Michael Hyatt

      I’ve done exactly the same thing. It is a great way to learn. I also have a peculiar mind that seems to remember all these shortcuts.

  • Hans Schiefelbein

    Michael, great stuff. So you're telling me you need to pay for KeyCue and iKey? That seems so odd to me. Why isn't this feature offered as part of the OS? Still, very interesting to see how the pros use tricks to make their day more productive.

    When filling out online forms, do you know why pressing "tab" doesn't work when you come up to a pre-defined list, (i.e. filling in States like WI and TN). My cursor always skips that field. Also, when filling out forms and my cursor is trying to select a login previously typed, I can't hit "tab" and have it move down the list. I'm using Firefox. Any ideas?

    • Michael Hyatt

      Unfortunately, you do have to pay—but only if you want to use the software. ;-) Thankfully, they have trial versions available.

      I can't answer the question about your tab key; I use Safari. Maybe someone else will jump in with an answer.


      • teachkidsart

        Just a warning about KeyCue…. I installed the trial version but never used it, so I didn’t pay for the permanent one. It seemed to always stay open in the background, and would give me a pop-up asking me to purchase it every time I’d restart my computer. Then yesterday my computer started repeatedly crashing, so I figured I’d delete KeyCue in case that was the culprit. But it won’t let me drag it to the trash or even close it. I’ve googled how to uninstall applications on a mac and I’ve tried everything… nothing works. So I’m going to make a 30 minute drive to the Genius Bar this week just to get rid of this thing. So unless you’re sure to want to pay for KeyCue, I recommend staying away from the free version!

  • Reagan Lynch

    Being that I'm totaly blind I love keyboard shortcuts. I do everything with the keyboard, but I need to try these text expander tools you mentioned.

  • Joe Ebel

    How can I set a shortcut for a second-tier menu? I can't seem to figure it out. For example, using the Terminal program, I want to assign a shortcut to the creation of a new tab, but not in the default color scheme. With a mouse, that requires clicking on the top-level menu item "Shell", then hovering over New Tab to expose the dropdown menu, then selecting, say, "Grass" as the New Tab theme. How can I assign a keyboard shortcut for this?

    • Jack Repenning

      In general, you set sub-menu shortcuts in the same way as top-menu short cuts, entering the menu item name (in your example, “Grass”). But you’re right, this doesn’t work for these particular commands. I notice there are two things rather special about these commands:
      1. They’re user-definable: you can create your own themes
      2. They appear in several sub-menus, below both the “New Window >” and the “New Tab >” menus

      I speculate that one or the other of those special properties prevents this setting.

  • @kylereed

    That apple G made this whole post worth it.
    Did not know about that one.

  • Anonymous

    Hi great post. Just a quick question – has anyone found an app (will pay!) that only brings all my Mac Mail accounts online every 60/90/etc minutes

    (Because they’re IMAP the setting in Preferences doesn’t apply)

    Your keyboard shortcut is halfway there, but I don’t want to go as far as Freedom (another great program btw), just be able to work on my email (with web access), without being distracted by incoming messages.


  • Dale Melchin

    Mac is too rich for my blood, do you know a PC guru who has written an article similar to this?

  • Dale Melchin

    Found it on lifehacker ;-)