It may not seem like a second or two would make a big difference in your workday. But seconds add up to minutes, and the momentum of being able to strike a few keys and keep typing makes an impact that's difficult to quantify. That's why I try to avoid using my mouse whenever possible: the more I can do without taking my hands off the keyboard, the quicker I can keep plugging away on the important stuff.
Let's start with the basics: learn as many keyboard shortcuts as your brain can store. You probably know a few (Ctrl+C to copy and Ctrl+V to paste, for example), but there are dozens of others that can replace the clicks you make all day long. Here are a few I can't live without:
- The Windows key (or Command+Space on a Mac): If you need to launch a new app, don't go clicking through your Start menu or Applications folder. Just press the Windows key—or hit Commnand+Space on a Mac—and start typing the name of the app in question. When its icon appears, press Enter, and you'll have launched it without ever reaching for the mouse.
- Ctrl+F: Ever search for something on Google, find a result that promises it has the phrase you're looking for, but you can't seem to find it in the 5,000-word article? Press Ctrl+F and you'll get a little search bar that helps you find any word or phrase on a page, instantly transporting you to the information you're seeking. (Bonus: you can then use Ctrl+G to scroll through the results.)
- Ctrl+L: In a browser, press Ctrl+L and your cursor will automatically jump to the address bar, ready for you to type in a new search or web address. I probably use this underrated keystroke more often than any other shortcut on this list.
- Ctrl+S: Save the document you're working on. Do this as often as possible, lest you lose everything when your computer crashes/loses power/your cat accidentally closes Microsoft Word.
- Ctrl+T and Ctrl+Shift+T: Instead of clicking that tiny New Tab button in your browser, press Ctrl+T to instantly open a new tab and start searching. (Bonus: if you accidentally close a tab and want to bring it back, press Ctrl+Shift+T. Like Thor's hammer returning to his hand, the tab will reappear in an instant.)
- Ctrl+Shift+V: Ctrl+Shift+V: You probably know you can press Ctrl+V to paste, but that often brings a lot of baggage with it—if you're copying text from a website, it could include the original font, links, and other formatting you don't want. To avoid this, many apps let you use Ctrl+Shift+V to paste a block of text without links and other garbage, so you don't have to waste time switching the font back to normal. Its behavior can vary a bit from app to app, but give it a try—on Mac you may find Command+Shift+V works in some apps, while Option+Shift+Command+V is required for others.
- Ctrl+Arrow Keys: I used to have a boss who could work his way around a long document with nothing but the keyboard, and it amazed me. Turns out, he was holding Ctrl and using the arrow keys—left and right move the cursor between words, while up and down move it between paragraphs. (Bonus: if you hold Shift while moving the arrow keys, you'll select that text instead of just moving the cursor.)
If you're on a Mac, you'll need to substitute the Command key for Control in the above shortcuts.
There are dozens more we could talk about here, especially once you drill down into specific apps. Maybe you're a heavy spreadsheet user, in which case you should search for the most powerful Excel shortcuts out there. Or maybe you live and die by your inbox, in which case Gmail has a bunch of handy shortcuts you should know. If my editor had a hypothetical gun to my head (help) and I could only pick a few, the above shortcuts are my favorites—but seek out new ones to replace the tedious tasks that slow you down. You'll be whipping through work in no time.
If the above is old hat to you, it's time to start making your own shortcuts. Maybe an app doesn't have built-in hotkeys for the actions you want, or maybe certain shortcuts are too difficult to reach with one hand (I'm talking to you, Ctrl+Shift+Esc). There are a few ways to customize these hotkeys—some easy, and some a bit more advanced:
- Remap individual keys with SharpKeys: I used to be a Mac user, and after switching back to Windows, I never got used to using Ctrl instead of Command. So I fired up SharpKeys, changed the Alt key to act as Ctrl (and the Windows key to act as Alt), so my keyboard would be more Mac-like—and it's changed my life. All my shortcuts are easier to hit one-handed, and my muscle memory is untouched. If you're just looking to remap one key to another, SharpKeys is the solution. (On a Mac, you can remap a few modifier keys from System Preferences > Keyboard > Modifier Keys.)
- Look for in-app keyboard shortcut customization: Some apps—like Photoshop or MediaMonkey—have a whole page of preferences dedicated to keyboard shortcuts. You can add keyboard shortcuts to menu items that don't already have them, or change ones that already exist, allowing you to craft the perfect set of shortcuts for your favorite programs. If you're on a Mac, you're actually able to adjust in-app shortcuts system-wide—just head to System Preferences > Keyboard > Shortcuts, click App Shortcuts in the sidebar, and you can click the plus sign to create a new keyboard shortcut for any menu item you come across in your apps.
- Create entirely new shortcuts: When the above options fail, it's time to break out the big guns: create your own shortcuts from scratch. If you have a keyboard from a company like Logitech or Razer, it may come with software that allows you to create or "record" macros for custom key combinations. If not, you can turn to the slightly more complex AutoHotkey, which is a very powerful scripting language that can turn anything into a keyboard shortcut—if you take a bit of time to learn how it works. (I'm no coder, but I still figured it out with some beginner guides and strolls through the documentation—you can too. We even have our AutoHotkey guide here.)
You can see this rabbit hole goes deep, but it's worth it. I'm still using shortcuts I created in AutoHotkey almost a decade ago (you know that Pause key no one uses for anything? I turned that into a "go to sleep" button for my computer). It takes a bit of time to dig through this stuff, but that initial investment will likely serve your productivity for years into the future.
There are certain things I type over and over again, without fail, every day. I send my address to people in text messages, I type certain URLs in Chrome's address bar, and I send the same email to every person that joins the group I lead at church. Text expansion lets me type those strings of text with a keyboard shortcut.
For example, I have my address assigned to the shortcut ''',add'''. When I type ,add in a document, my text expansion program of choice recognizes that and replaces it with my full address. I type ,join to paste the two-paragraph email I send to all my group joinees, and even ,deg to type the degrees symbol (°). There are so many clever uses for this I couldn't fit them all into one article, but suffice to say anything you type more than a couple times a week can benefit from this.
Mac users have it easy, once again: this feature is built right in to macOS, under System Preferences > Keyboard > Text. Just click the plus sign to add a new shortcut—make sure it's something you wouldn't type normally (that's why I use the comma-word format above)—and add the text you want to appear when you type that shortcut. Windows users can choose from a few different third-party programs, though I personally recommend PhraseExpress for most folks. It's powerful, free, and easy to use once you create those first couple phrase expansions. When I use a computer without a text expander—or any of the shortcuts above—it feels like I'm trudging through molasses. Once you get used to these time-saving keyboard tricks, you'll never want to work without them.