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Using Keyboard Shortcuts

Now that we know what keyboard shortcuts (and keyboard combinations) are, we can start talking about how to use them.

keyboard mouse

Built-In Keyboard Shortcuts

Keyboard shortcuts are useful everywhere. Almost every program I've ever seen has some support for keyboard shortcuts. They exist in Internet Explorer, Firefox, AOL Instant Messenger, Notepad, Microsoft Office, Outlook, your anti-virus program, and even in Windows itself. In fact, you've probably seen them but didn't realize what they were!

For example, click on your browser's Edit menu at the top of the browser window to see something similar to Figure 1 for Internet Explorer and Figure 2 for Firefox.

Figure 1 - Internet Explorer

Figure 2 - Firefox

A keyboard shortcut listed next to a menu action item is the keyboard shortcut associated with the action. That means that if you ever forget what the keyboard shortcut for Select All is, you can just click the Edit menu to find that it's Ctrl+A.

Another way to find keyboard shortcuts is by looking for underlined letters in menus. In Figure 2, above, you can see that the Edit menu has its E underlined. This means you can press Alt+E to access that menu. After you've accessed that menu, you can press A to access the Select All command. Note that you don't need to press Alt again when choosing a menu item.

That is, you can access the Select All command either by pressing Ctrl+A or Alt+E, A. While it's clear that Ctrl+A is shorter in this case, sometimes menu commands don't have quick keyboard shortcuts, and you need to default to navigating the menus using Alt.

Hint For Using Keyboard Shortcuts

In the Introduction to Keyboard Productivity article, we defined a keyboard shortcut as a set of keys pressed at the same time. If you've ever tried doing something at exactly the same time, you know that it can be very difficult (especially when you're talking about a sensitive computer).

Here's a little secret: you don't need to press them at the same time! Instead, press and hold the modifier key first (for however long you want), and then hit the action key afterwards. For example, to execute the Ctrl+S keyboard shortcut, you can simply press and hold the Ctrl key and then hit the S key and release both.

Learning Keyboard Shortcuts

There are a lot of keyboard shortcuts out there. For a simple application like Notepad, there may only be 5 to 10, but if you start looking at a Microsoft Office application, you're looking at hundreds.

So how can you memorize all of those? First: not all of them are useful enough to commit to memory (how often do you really convert text to a table in Microsoft Word?).

Second: start slow. See what your 3 most common tasks are in a program and figure out what the keyboard shortcuts for those actions are and memorize them. After a while, it will come extremely naturally. The next article shows you some of the most common keyboard shortcuts across different programs. Start with some of those.

Note: Windows Only

Remember: throughout these articles, we assume that you're using some version of Windows. If you are using another operating system, these general principles still apply, but the keys you use may be different.