Drew Coffin

Keep the Saw Running: The Case for Keyboard Shortcuts

Growing up, I remember my dad’s frequent admonition, “Always be looking for faster and more efficient ways to do things.” Beyond his desire to get his kids to work faster, he was trying to pass along some wisdom that he learned from his days as a young lumberjack in upstate New York. To make any money in the logging industry, or so he told me, you need to constantly look for ways to group actions, make repeatable movements, and always “keep the saw running.”

While my daily work involves less hacking away at trees and more hacking away at a keyboard, my dad’s lumberjack wisdom has still served me well. For digital work, his advice primarily manifests in the form of keyboard shortcuts, or “hotkeys.” Before diving into the 50+ hotkeys I use on a daily basis, I want to make a quick case for why you should take the time to memorize these and other hotkeys to improve your digital work life.


Muscle Memory and Counting Seconds

Every action you perform with the mouse is new and unique. Your cursor always starts from a new place on your screen and your mouse is always situated differently on your desk. More importantly, orienting and moving your hand to your mouse or trackpad and then moving your cursor to the button you’re looking for takes a lot longer than a simple keystroke. By relying on your muscle memory to deliver actions as keystrokes, you can turn seconds into milliseconds, which begins to add up.


Flow State

In psychology, “flow” or “flow state” describes the feeling of “being in the zone.” It’s that space where you’re so in tune with the task at hand that the hours slip by unnoticed, you skip dinner without realizing it, and the tiny distractions that might normally derail your productive state aren’t even blips on your cognitive radar.

It’s not that hotkeys help me enter a flow state (that usually requires excessive caffeine and Tycho on repeat), but using hotkeys help me stay in a flow state by minimizing the amount of interruptions that I encounter (unique mouse movements that slightly increase my cognitive load). With hotkeys, I can visualize a process as a series of quick, repeatable steps without interruption. To put it in my dad’s terms, hotkeys let me “keep the saw running.”


Rule of Thumb

There are hotkeys for practically every function that you could use on a computer. Here’s my personal rule of thumb: If you find yourself repeating the same action with the mouse more than five times in any given project, learn the hotkey. 


Essential Hotkeys

Here is a compilation of many of the hotkeys that I use on a daily basis. I’ve provided key combinations for both Mac and Windows machines (I’m constantly switching between the two, which can be a real stretch on the ol’ muscle memory).


Working with Text

I’m usually using Google Docs or Gmail when I’m formatting text, but most of these hotkeys are universal. If one of these shortcuts doesn’t work in the application you’re using, you can look up the program-specific hotkey to perform the same function.


Basics

You may already be familiar with these hotkeys, but let’s get them out of the way, just in case.

Select All
Mac: ⌘ CMD+A
Windows: CTRL+A

Cut
Mac: ⌘ CMD+X
Windows: CTRL+X

Copy
Mac: ⌘ CMD+C
Windows: CTRL+C

Paste
Mac: ⌘ CMD+V
Windows: CTRL+V

Undo
Mac: ⌘ CMD+Z
Windows: CTRL+Z

Redo
Mac: ⌘ CMD+Y
Windows: CTRL+Y

Hotkeys basics in action. Animations: Drew Coffin/Drawn

Text Formatting


Toggle Bold Text
Mac: ⌘ CMD+B
Windows:CTRL+B

Toggle Italic Text
Mac: ⌘ CMD+I
Windows: CTRL+I

Toggle Underline Text
Mac: ⌘ CMD+U
Windows: CTRL+U

Insert Link
Mac: ⌘ CMD+K
Windows: CTRL+K

Advanced Text Formatting


Format as Heading
Mac: ⌘ CMD+⌥ OPTION+(1-6)
Windows: CTRL+ALT+(1-6)

Format as Paragraph Text
Mac: ⌘ CMD+⌥ OPTION+0
Windows: CTRL+ALT+0

Numbered List
Mac: ⌘ CMD+SHIFT+7
Windows: CTRL+SHIFT+7

Bulleted List
Mac: ⌘ CMD+SHIFT+8
Windows: CTRL+SHIFT+8

Align Left
Mac: ⌘ CMD+SHIFT+L
Windows: CTRL+SHIFT+L

Align Center
Mac: ⌘ CMD+SHIFT+E
Windows: CTRL+SHIFT+E

Align Right
Mac: ⌘ CMD+SHIFT+R
Windows: CTRL+SHIFT+R

Line Break
Mac: SHIFT+ENTER
Windows: SHIFT+ENTER

Page Break
Mac: ⌘ CMD+ENTER
Windows: CTRL+ENTER

Basic text formatting. 👍

Text formatting for the pros...

Paste Without Formatting

Have you ever copied text with lots of fancy formatting into Notes or Notepad to strip out all formatting and then copied and pasted the raw text into your text editor? Let’s cut out that middle step.

Paste Without Formatting
Mac: ⌘ CMD+SHIFT+V
Windows: CTRL+SHIFT+V

Say farewell to that old middle man, TextEdit!

Navigating and Deleting Text

This is probably my favorite set of hotkey combinations. Why delete one letter at a time when you can delete the whole word with one key combination?

Delete Word
Mac: ⌥ OPTION+DELETE
Windows: CTRL+BACKSPACE

Delete Line
Mac: ⌘ CMD+DELETE
Windows: N/A

Move Cursor One Word
Mac: ⌥ OPTION+/
Windows: CTRL+/

Highlight One Word at a Time
Mac: ⌥ OPTION+SHIFT+/
Windows: CTRL+SHIFT+/

Highlight One Character at a Time
Mac: SHIFT+/
Windows: SHIFT+/

Why delete one letter at a time when you can delete whole lines at a time?

Selecting Text + The Mouse

Clicking and dragging isn’t the only way to select text with the mouse. While not technically a hotkey, you can use multiple mouse clicks to select different amounts of text. Double-click on a word to select the whole word and triple-click on a word to select its containing paragraph.


Navigating Web Browsers

Whether you’re using Chrome, Firefox, Safari, or Edge, use these shortcuts to better navigate the browser.

Jump to Address Bar
Mac: ⌘ CMD+L
Windows: CTRL+L

Jump to Search Bar (Firefox)
Mac: ⌘ CMD+K
Windows: CTRL+K

Open Private Browsing Window (Edge/Firefox)
Mac: ⌘ CMD+SHIFT+P
Windows: CTRL+SHIFT+P

Open Private Browsing Window (Chrome/Safari)
Mac: ⌘ CMD+SHIFT+N
Windows: CTRL+SHIFT+N

Refresh Page
Mac: ⌘ CMD+R
Windows: F5

Hard Refresh Page (Clear Cache)
Mac: ⌘ CMD+SHIFT+R
Windows: CTRL+F5

Hard Refresh Page (Safari)
Mac: ⌘ CMD+⌥ OPTION+R
Windows: N/A

Zoom
Mac: ⌘ CMD+(+/-)
Windows: CTRL+(+/-)

Reset Zoom
Mac: ⌘ CMD+0
Windows: CTRL+0

Browser nav has never been easier.

Tabs

If you’re one of those people that has so many tabs open at once you can only see the icon, these hotkeys are for you.

Open New Tab
Mac: ⌘ CMD+T
Windows: CTRL+T

Close Tab
Mac: ⌘ CMD+W
Windows: CTRL+W or CTRL+F4

Reopen Closed Tab
Mac: ⌘ CMD+SHIFT+T
Windows: CTRL+SHIFT+T

Show Next Tab
Mac: ⌘ CMD+TAB
Windows: CTRL+TAB

Show Previous Tab
Mac: ⌘ CMD+SHIFT+TAB
Windows: CTRL+SHIFT+TAB

Show Specific Tab (1-8)
Mac: ⌘ CMD+(1-8)
Windows: CTRL+(1-8)

Show Last Tab
Mac: ⌘ CMD+9
Windows: CTRL+9


Tabs + The Mouse

You can use the ⌘ CMD (Mac) or CTRL (Windows) modifier key to open links in a new tab. You can even open your previous page in a new tab by holding ⌘ CMD/CTRL and clicking the back button. If you want to open a link in a new window, hold the SHIFT key while clicking a link.

If you’re using a mouse with a physical scroll wheel, you can use the scroll wheel button to click on a link to open it in a new tab. You can also close an open tab by clicking on it with the scroll wheel.

Other Software / Navigating the Desktop

Both Mac and Windows have their own set of hotkeys as well as a number of hotkeys used by default in different desktop applications.


Operating System Hotkeys

Next Active Application
Mac: ⌘ CMD+TAB
Windows: ALT+TAB

Previous Active Application
Mac: ⌘ CMD+SHIFT+TAB
Windows: ALT+SHIFT+TAB

Next Active Application Window
Mac: ⌘ CMD+~
Windows: N/A

Note: Windows treats all application windows as equal and uses ALT+TAB to toggle between them, regardless of application. Mac groups windows by application and uses ⌘ CMD+TAB to toggle between applications and ⌘ CMD+~ to toggle between windows of the same application.

Close Active Window
Mac: ⌘ CMD+W
Windows: CTRL+F4 or CTRL+W

Close Application (All Application Windows)
Mac: ⌘ CMD+Q
Windows: N/A

Create New Folder
Mac: ⌘ CMD+SHIFT+N
Windows: CTRL+N

Rename Selected Folder
Mac: Enter
Windows: F2

Search for File or Application
Mac: ⌘ CMD+SPACEBAR
Windows: ⊞ WIN

Software Hotkeys

Open File
Mac: ⌘ CMD+O
Windows: CTRL+O

New File
Mac: ⌘ CMD+N
Windows: CTRL+N

Save File
Mac: ⌘ CMD+S
Windows: CTRL+S

Save File As
Mac: ⌘ CMD+SHIFT+S
Windows: CTRL+SHIFT+S

Print
Mac: ⌘ CMD+P
Windows: CTRL+P

If you spend a significant amount of time sitting at a computer, hotkeys are an invaluable way to increase your productivity. The hotkeys I’ve listed here primarily cover text editing, web browsing, and navigating the operating system, but if you’re frequently using specialized software for design, programming, communication, or anything else, take the time to learn the hotkeys for the functions you use most often.