The Esc key has long been the “get me outta here” panacea for many things: canceling a dialog box, getting rid of a button-less splash screen, closing a menu that you clicked open. (Esc is, after all, short for "escape.") But those are only the obvious things. Here’s a handful of less-than-obvious but just-as-handy solutions the Esc key provides.
1. Take a shortcut back to your original application
You press Command-Tab to switch to another application, pressing Tab several times (or just holding it down) because you’re moving to a program that’s far away on the Application Switcher’s bar. You get halfway across the line of program icons and realize—whoops!—you forgot to copy the material that you wanted to bring with you. Use the awkward Command-Shift-Tab to move backwards? Use the more convenient Command-tilde (~), still pressing the key repeatedly? No! While the Command key is still down, press Esc to return to the program you were working in before the premature press of Command-Tab.
2. Erase and get out of the Spotlight menu
If you want to erase what you’ve typed in the Spotlight menu's search field, you don’t have to tediously delete it a character at a time: press Esc to instantly wipe the field clean so you can start again. The Spotlight menu often stores what you last typed in it unless you erase it so that you can make a second choice from the results list. If your search was fruitless—or mistaken—it’s a good idea to erase the contents of the field before you close the menu so you can start fresh on a new search. Press Esc twice: once to erase the field, and a second time to close it.
3. Hide your browser cursor
For a relatively tiny thing, the mouse cursor can be an annoying distraction when it happens to be in the wrong spot on your screen while you’re viewing a Web page. It’s like a fly landing on your TV screen. Whether you’re in Apple’s Safari or Mozilla Firefox, press Esc and the cursor disappears instantly, cooperatively reappearing as soon as you move the mouse.
4. Reverse your “make this tab a window” drag
I’m a tab junkie in Safari: a window just looks wrong without a half-dozen tabs (each containing a separate Web page) arrayed across its top. But when dragging a tab off the bar to create a separate window (and a new tab colony), it’s easy grab the wrong one and take it off the tab bar before you realize the mistake. You don’t have to drag a nascent window back into the bar: press Esc before you let it go, and it snaps back into its original tab position. This trick works in Firefox, too, as well as in other programs that provide tear-off tabbed windows, such as Adobe’s Photoshop and InDesign.
5. Switch to InDesign’s selection tool from within a text box
This is one of my favorite Esc key tricks because it triggers a feature I wanted desperately and didn’t realize for a long time was already available. In InDesign, a press of a single key selects a tool: V for the selection arrow, T for the text tool, and so on. This one-key access is great—except when you forget you’re in a text box and hit V or T or some other tool shortcut and you type the letter instead of get the tool. I just want to switch to the selection tool with a single key, without having to deselect the text first (and not just temporarily, as with the Command key). As it turns out, I can: Esc deactivates the text box you’re in and activates the Selection tool.
This works in Photoshop, too, although a little differently: a press of Esc deselects the text box, but leaves the Text tool selected; you must press a letter to select a different tool.
Sharon Zardetto has been writing Mac books and articles since the twentieth century.
[Editor’s note: This story was updated in 11/2011 for Lion compatibility.]