Keyboard shortcuts dramatically speed up everyday computing tasks, but the wide variety of software we use make it hard to remember all the different shortcuts. That means that even though we all know shortcuts are useful, few of us bother using them. Here's how to learn to make full use of keyboard shortcuts (and a handy cheat sheet with the 20 most common you need to learn).
How Keyboard Shortcuts Speed You Up
You've probably heard keyboard shortcut enthusiasts raving about how they're so much faster than using a mouse. But that's not the whole story. Coding Horror's Jeff Atwood explains the issue well:
I've long been an advocate of two-fisted computing -- using both your keyboard and your mouse to the fullest. That's what keyboard shortcuts are to me. I'm not sure why this always has to be spun as a cage match between the keyboard and the mouse. Keyboard shortcuts don't replace my mousing; they complement it.
This is a sensible way of looking at it. There are some tasks, such as clicking on links on a web page or editing images, where a mouse will always be essential. There are others, such as text entry, where the keyboard reigns supreme. In between are a large range of things you might typically do with a mouse, such as selecting text, which can be much faster once you know the right keyboard shortcuts.
Keyboard shortcuts sometimes get a bad rap because they seem arbitrary and hard to remember. As well, learning just one keyboard shortcut doesn't seem like it saves you a lot of time. However, once you learn a full set of shortcuts, you'll definitely notice a boost to your productivity simply because you're not unnecessarily using a mouse. You'll reach for that mouse or trackpad when it actually makes sense to do so.
How To Make Yourself Learn New Shortcuts
Many of us don't bother with keyboard shortcuts because they feel like they require too much mental effort to learn. One way to force yourself to learn shortcuts is to disconnect your mouse, but few people want to go to that extreme.
A better way to learn shortcuts is to install software designed to teach them by showing you keyboard shortcuts whenever you perform an action with a mouse. For example, if you use your mouse to click Edit > Copy, the software will display the relevant shortcut (Ctrl+C for Windows or Cmd+C for Mac).
Another approach is use drills to train your muscle memory. Shortcutfoo runs through a training program that teaches you shortcuts for programs including Excel, Photoshop and Gmail by having you repeatedly enter them.
If you want a quick reference guide to lots of keyboard shortcuts across multiple apps, Ultimate Windows 8 Shortcuts and CheatSheet for Mac display up all the keyboard shortcuts for an app so you can reference them quickly. The cheat sheets are very helpful when you're learning the ropes, and you might be surprised at how much you can do with a keyboard.
Advanced Keyboard Uses
Using keyboard shortcuts means making everything else you do on your computer simpler. Once you've mastered the basic keyboard shortcuts built into popular apps, you can take your keyboard usage to the next level. Here are some useful strategies.
Use app launchers to do anything you like with a keystroke: With software such as Launchy for Windows or Quicksilver for Mac you can make your keyboard perform almost any action you want. You can launch apps and perform actions with the built-in search tools on your desktop, but app launchers will give you many more options and let you customise them.
Make your own shortcuts: Chances are you have a lot of unused keys on your keyboard. Maybe it's that totally useless Scroll Lock key, or the End key you never discovered a use for (in fact, End is very useful for navigating through documents). On Windows we favour AutoHotKey to customise those keys (as well as creating other useful custom shortcuts). On a Mac you create custom shortcuts using AppleScript.
Use text expanders to save you hours of typing: If you really want to speed up your day with keyboard tricks, few things work as well as text expansion. On Windows we like PhaseExpress and on Mac we like TypeIt4Me for text expansion. Think of text expansion as a word-based keyboard shortcut. Type a couple of letters, and the text expander replaces it with a whole word. It saves you a lot of time, especially if you're always copying and pasting the same text.
Learn Your Favourite Program's Shortcuts
You don't need to learn every single keyboard shortcut for every application you use. It's more useful to focus on the shortcuts in the software you use the most regularly. Here are some of our guides to keyboard shortcuts in popular programs:
- The 10 Most Useful Windows 8 Keyboard Shortcuts
- The 10 Most Useful Windows 7 Keyboard Shortcuts
- Basic Mac Keyboard Shortcuts Cheat Sheet
- Learn Ubuntu's Keyboard Shortcuts With Wallpaper
- Master Gmail's Shortcuts
- Highlight Text Like A Keyboard Ninja
- The Power Users Guide to Chrome
- The Power Users Guide to Firefox
- The Facebook Keyboard Shortcut Cheat Sheet
- Microsoft Word Shortcuts Printable Cheatsheet
- The Six Most Useful Excel Keyboard Shortcuts
- Become a Command Line Ninja With These Time Saving Shortcuts
We regularly feature new keyboard shortcuts on Lifehacker; it's amazing how much easier some tasks become when you realise there's a built-in keyboard option.
The 20 Most Common Shortcuts
Knowing the most common and effective shortcuts will save you a lot of time. Help yourself learn these by setting this image up as a desktop background, or print it and place it on your wall:
Teaching yourself keyboard shortcuts can feel time-consuming, but it's worth it in the end. Once you get the hang of it you'll be a cyber-ninja who can instantly jump to anywhere in a text document, launch a web browser and research a term, and then jump into a spreadsheet to quickly create a table without ever touching a mouse. You'll won't ever ditch the mouse completely, and that's not the point. It's about making yourself faster and choosing the best option.