Five keyboard shortcuts you should set up now

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Computers excel at repetitive tasks. So why are you opening the same menus and submenus, looking for the same commands again and again?

OS X lets you assign keyboard shortcuts to menu commands so you can trigger them more quickly. You can tailor application shortcuts to your work habits, but an especially productive way to use this capability is to set up shortcuts that work everywhere.

Setting up a system-wide keyboard shortcut is a cinch: in System Preferences, go to the Keyboard Shortcuts tab of Keyboard preferences. Click Application Shortcuts on the left and then click the Add (+) button beneath the list. In the sheet that slides out, select All Applications from menu and type the name of the menu command in the Menu Title field; enter the shortcut you want to use for it and click Add.

A few tips: Type the command exactly as it appears. Capitalization counts. If there’s an ellipsis (…) after the command, press Option-semicolon to insert it. Typing three periods won’t work. You don’t have to remember your shortcuts—they’ll appear in the menus the same way standard shortcuts do. If you change an existing shortcut, your new one shows in the menu. If you delete it, the original one reappears in the menu.

Custom keyboard shortcuts
Create a global keyboard shortcut in Keyboard Preferences by clicking the Add button (circled) and choosing All Applications from the pop-up menu.

1. Put print options at your fingertips

Assign keyboard shortcuts to the printing options you use the most, even when they’re buried in the Print dialog box. For instance, if you often save documents and Webpages as PDFs, set up a shortcut that triggers Save as PDF... (copy and paste the command from here to make sure you get it right). Now you can you can activate that feature with a keyboard shortcut (say, Command-Option-P), after opening the Print dialog box with the shortcut Command-P. Keyboard shortcuts don’t work for buttons, but the PDF button is actually a menu. For more details on creating shortcuts for PDF options, see Leopard keyboard tricks. I use a shortcut to switch from the Print dialog box’s default Copies & Pages screen to its Layout options. Then I use another one to change the number of pages per sheet to 2. Assign shortcuts to whichever menus you use the most in the dialog box—switching printers can be especially convenient.

Access print options
With global shortcuts, you can navigate a print dialog box quickly from the keyboard.

2. Zoom windows

When you want to toggle between a window’s default (usually as-large-as-possible) size and the size and position you’ve specified manually, you don’t have to click the window’s green Zoom button. Most applications have a Window menu with a Zoom or Zoom Window command, but no keyboard shortcut. Assign the same shortcut to both those commands for full coverage. I find that Control-Shift-Z is the combo least likely to conflict with assigned Zoom- or Undo-related commands in the applications that I use.

3. Un-minimize app windows

Several Apple applications have either a single window or a single main window (such as iPhoto, Font Book, iTunes, iCal, Address Book, and Mail). If you minimize the window before you leave the program, when you come back there’s no window showing. You can remember application-specific keyboard commands to recover the window or select it from the Windows menu. Or, make a single shortcut that un-minimizes the main window in any of these apps. This setup requires some work because the command in each program’s Window menu is different. In the Keyboard Shortcuts pane, select the application’s name (instead of All Applications) from the Application menu. Type the window’s name (in Mail, it’s “Message Viewer,” in iTunes it’s “iTunes,” in iCal it’s “iCal,” and so on) in the Menu Title field, and set the same key combo for each one. (I use Control-W.)

4. Open and switch applications

You don’t need a third-party utility like LaunchBar or QuicKeys to launch or switch to an application via the keyboard. Since shortcuts work on submenus, you can assign a keyboard shortcut to a program in the Apple menu’s oft-overlooked Recent Items submenu. The shortcut works only if the application is listed in the menu, so go to the System Preferences General Preference pane and up the Number Of Recent Items to at least 20 so the app won’t get knocked out of the menu as you work in other programs. (While other shortcuts are practically instantaneous, the change to the Recent Items list can take up to 20 or 30 seconds, so be patient.)

Bonus tip Because the shortcut name must match the menu item exactly, you’ll run into a problem if you change your Finder Preferences setting for Show All Filename Extensions (in the Advanced pane). If your shortcut is defined for “Mail” and it’s later listed as “,” the shortcut won’t work. The solution is to create two shortcuts, one for Mail and one for, and give them both the same keyboard trigger.

5. Access recent folders

Recent folders
Set a shortcut for a folder name and it appears in the Finder’s Recent Folders list as well as in some Open and Save dialog boxes.
If you return to certain folders repeatedly in the Finder, the Go menu’s Recent Folders submenu can be a big help. Assigning a Finder shortcut to an often-used folder that appears here is convenient, but hardly global. However, assign a shortcut to a folder's name under All Applications instead of the Finder. That way, you can jump to the folder in Open and Save dialog boxes when the folder is listed in the menu (as part of the current folder path or under Recent Places). Because the Recent Folders list is so short (you can’t up the number in General preferences), this works only for folders you access frequently—but those are the ones that need shortcuts. And, your mileage may vary because some apps are persnickety about supporting this feature.

If you want more…

To find candidates for global shortcuts, check the Apple menu and its submenus. Assign shortcuts to System Preferences, or to the App Store. Another great candidate for global keyboard shortcuts is the Services submenu, since so many services are shared across applications.

Sharon Zardetto is a longtime Mac author and, yes, the screenshot shows her 1995 LaserWriter 12/640, still going strong.

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