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Learn Your Keyboard Shortcuts

A black Mac keyboardIf you’ve been reading ProfHacker for a while, you probably know that one of our primary goals is to talk about those things in academia that people simply don’t talk about. If you’re here–so the logic goes–you must already understand <insert topic of choice here, like which are the prestigious journals in your field>, and so we won’t bother to teach you these things. But these things are important; it turns out that knowing the hidden information of the university is a really powerful way to make yourself more effective in your career.

It also turns out that in some ways academia is very much like the keyboard you’re probably sitting in front of right now. Sure, it’s got those familiar 36 alphanumeric keys. But like academia, the keyboard has hidden information that will make you more effective in your career: keyboard shortcuts.

Keyboard shortcuts can be a great way to get things done faster. The problem is that most keyboard shortcuts are hidden and only people who already know they exist can actually use them. So how do we go about making this hidden knowledge visible?

A first approach to learning a keyboard shortcut could simply involve a Google search. And while that will probably work, it requires you to choose to go and do that search. And honestly, it’d just be faster to grab the mouse and click what you want, right? Right.

So your second option would be to have a ready reference that will tell you all the different keyboard combinations available for a certain program. It just so happens that there’s an app for that: Cheatsheet for Macs and Ultimate Windows 8 Shortcuts (UW8S) for PCs. Once I have Cheatsheet installed and running, all I have to do is hold down the Command Key for 3 seconds, and a new window pops up with all of the different shortcut commands for the application I’m running at the moment. (Click on the image for a larger version.)

A screencapture of CheatSheet

Not only do you get to see the different keyboard combinations, but you can even print them out. The best thing about CheatSheet and UW8S (which I haven’t tested as our campus computers aren’t running 8 yet)? They’re both free!

There are a few things that I don’t like about CheatSheet, however. First, finding the exact amount of time that I want the delay set before the shortcuts appear has been hard to sort out. It turns out that I tend to hold the Command key down longer than I expect to and I get pop-ups happening far more often than I would like. And the number of options that CheatSheet displays at once often makes it hard to find the command I’m actually looking for. While those might be small complaints for free software, the two combined are enough that I often turn CheatSheet off. And to get back to question of efficiency, both CheatSheet and UW8S require you to choose to look a shortcut up. It’s faster than Google, but not all that different.

The best option for learning your keyboard shortcuts would be automatic. It would teach you shortcuts as you work. And it wouldn’t pepper you with every possible shortcut that works in a given application. Amazingly, there are tools for Macs and Windows users that do exactly this: Eve and KeyRocket, respectively. Once I’ve got Eve running in the background, any time that I do something with my mouse that I could do with shortcut keys–say, creating a new folder on my desktop–I get a helpful pop-up telling me what keys I could have used instead.

Pop-up dialog from Eve

Eve works across a large number of my applications, and I’ve already learned a new shortcut or two. It also comes with a shortcut browser that will also let you enable or disable particular shortcuts on individual apps. Unfortunately, Eve doesn’t seem to work with every application I run and sometimes it refuses to work with one that it has played nice with before. Still, it’s a great deal for free software, and I like it well enough that I bought a $2.50 license (totally optional, as it only disabled a nag-box) to continue to support its development. That being said, users can map application shortcus on their own and submit them for the developer to include. I haven’t had a chance to play with this option, but I will be using it soon.

I can’t really give you a proper review of KeyRocket, but it’s worth noting that while it is free, accessing all of its features requires a $29 annual fee. Moreover it supports a much smaller suite of software–primarily Windows and Office. But the interface seems equally good and has the added bonus of only trying to teach you the actions that you do regularly. KeyRocket learns what you do and helps just where you need it.

Even with a tool like Eve or KeyRocket, learning keyboard shortcuts can take some time, but at the end of the day, it’ll be worth it. And if you find that you don’t like some of the default shortcuts, don’t forget that you can create custom shortcuts for ANYTHING!

How do you go about learning keyboard shortcuts? Let us know in the comments!

Lead image: Keyboard / Hades2k / http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

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