An Introduction to Keyboard Shortcuts

7 minute read

The computer mouse is a fabulous invention. It makes many things that would be extraordinarily frustrating without one (editing images and videos, finding options in complicated programs you hardly ever use, panning around 3D models) easy.

It also has a fatal flaw: no matter how often you perform a particular task with a mouse, you still have to pay attention to where you’re moving the mouse and targeting and clicking, and there’s no way to make this task any faster or more reliable. This problem has only gotten worse over the years as monitors have gotten larger – in order to avoid having to move the mouse vast distances across the desk, we’ve had to make our mice more sensitive, which means a difference of a millimeter in the position of your mouse on the desk can now make the difference between hitting a small button and missing it.

That’s where keyboard shortcuts come in. Unlike pointing and clicking using visual feedback, pressing a particular sequence of keys using touch can become automatic and unconscious, so you can get faster at activating the same functions and, even more importantly, stop having to think about how you’re doing them. The fewer things you have to consciously think about, the more concentration you can apply to the actual task you’re trying to accomplish.

Top-quality software applications should absolutely have excellent support for navigating around intuitively using a mouse. It should also be completely unnecessary to use the mouse unless you want to. When using a truly well-designed program that you’re intimately familiar with, you can unplug your mouse and put it across the room and continue using the software just fine.

I recently heard an anecdote about a guy who had mastered one of the old line editors, where you can’t actually see a visual representation of the file you’re editing but instead type funny commands like :23,43p and +3t and s/\([a-z]\){3}-\([0-9])/\2\1/g (for the uninitiated, no, that’s not a joke, that’s a regular expression) to view lines of and make changes to the file. The video card in his computer stopped working while he was in the middle of an important project, so the monitor no longer displayed anything. While he was waiting for a new video card to come in, he printed out a copy of the program code and, referencing it and making notes with a pencil about what he had changed in the system, continued typing blindly, writing and editing code productively for four days without being able to see anything on the screen. That’s what a well-designed keyboard interface can do for you. It may not be quite so intuitive at the beginning, but once you take the time to learn it, it’s a more effective way to use the machine.

Learning shortcuts

The best way to learn keyboard shortcuts is two or three at a time. Start paying attention to what actions you take on your computer most frequently. Once you identify some that you take particularly often or that are particularly slow or annoying to perform with the mouse, look near the buttons you’re clicking or hover your mouse over them to get the tooltip and see if a shortcut is listed. If there’s nothing shown, don’t give up yet – hit Google and search for something like myprogramname myaction keyboard shortcut. There are often hidden shortcuts that don’t appear anywhere in the interface (this is poor design but unfortunately quite common).

Once you’re using those shortcuts without thinking about it, pick another couple. Before long, you’ll be zooming around with your hands still on the keyboard.

Here are a few broadly useful shortcuts to get you started. If you’re using a Mac, unless otherwise noted, replace “Ctrl” with “Command” and “Alt” with “Option”.

Top 5 General-Purpose Shortcuts

If you don’t know all of these shortcuts, you should drop everything and learn them immediately – they’ll save you time and trouble every single time you touch a computer.

  • Ctrl-X: Cut the currently selected text to the clipboard.
  • Ctrl-C (sometimes also Ctrl-Insert, if that’s more convenient for whatever reason): Copy the currently selected text to the clipboard.
  • Ctrl-V (sometimes also Shift-Insert): Paste the contents of the clipboard at the cursor location.
  • Ctrl-Z: Undo your last action, if possible. (Unfortunately, this one doesn’t work in real life when you spill your coffee or say something stupid.)
  • Ctrl-F: Search through the current page or document for text you specify. If you didn’t know this was an option when trying to find something in a large document, this feature might blow your mind!

Top 10 Browser Shortcuts

Most people spend a lot of their computer time in a web browser nowadays. Here are some helpful browser shortcuts.

  • Ctrl-L (in certain browsers, Alt-D, F4, or F6 might also work): Jump the cursor into the address bar so you can search for something or type a new URL. Press Enter when you’re done typing.
  • Ctrl-T: Open a new tab.
  • Ctrl-Tab and Ctrl-Shift-Tab: Move forwards and backwards through your open tabs. (This one still uses Control even on a Mac.)
  • Ctrl-F4 (or Ctrl-W): Close the current tab.
  • Ctrl-Shift-T: Reopen the tab you just closed.
  • Alt-Left Arrow (or Backspace if you aren’t typing in a text box): Go back to the previous page. (This is Command-Left Arrow or Delete on a Mac.)
  • F5 (or Ctrl-R): Refresh/reload the current page. Useful when it’s not responding or seems to be out of date.
  • Tab and Shift-Tab: Move to the next/previous element on the page. If you’re filling out a long form, instead of clicking on each field, you can just press Tab to move to the next one.
  • Space and Shift-Space (or Page Up and Page Down, but the spacebar is a much bigger target): Scroll down/up by one page. Useful when you’re sitting back in your chair reading a long webpage or trying to skim through something quickly.
  • Home: Jump back up to the top of the page. (Newer Mac laptop keyboards don’t have a Home button. In this case, try Command-Up Arrow instead.)

Dealing with missing keyboard shortcuts

Occasionally a function you use frequently won’t have a keyboard shortcut. This is extremely annoying, but there are ways around it, depending on your operating system.

Here’s a sneaky trick: even if a menu option doesn’t have a normal keyboard shortcut or you don’t remember it, you can get to it without touching the mouse. Here’s how:

  1. Hold down your Alt key. If they weren’t already there, you should see underlines appear under certain letters on the menus (for instance, File will usually have F underlined). Even if the program doesn’t normally display a menu bar, pressing and releasing the Alt key will often make one appear.
  2. Press the underlined letter on the menu you want to open. The menu is selected. (Usually, you can press this letter either while holding down Alt or after releasing it, but it depends on the program and operating system. If one way doesn’t work, try it the other way.)
  3. Continue pressing underlined letters until the item you want is activated. You can also use the arrow keys to move around once you have a menu open; press Enter to select the item.

Additional tips:

  • Occasionally a poorly designed program will have two items with the same menu access key. If this happens, you can move between them by pressing the letter repeatedly, then press Enter when you reach the right one.
  • A poorly designed program might also have some menu choices without access keys. If the choice you want doesn’t have an access key, you can use the arrow keys to select it.
  • This works on Microsoft’s Ribbons too – just press Alt and the access keys will appear next to their associated buttons.
  • Some programs put underlined letters on buttons. For instance, a Cancel button might have the C underlined. This is also a cue that you can hold down Alt and press the letter to activate it.

Custom keyboard shortcuts (Mac)

For some odd reason, Macs have never supported menu access keys. However, you can set up a custom keyboard shortcut for any function that’s on an application’s menu, which at least helps if you need to access that function frequently. You can find this option in System Preferences → Keyboard → Shortcuts → App Shortcuts:

[alt text][sysprefs-link]

Click the + button, type the name of the menu item and choose the application it should apply to, and next time you look at the menu item, your new keyboard shortcut should show up next to it.