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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