Windows shortcuts can boost your efficiency

Scott dunn By Scott Dunn

Constantly moving your hands between the keyboard and mouse is not the most efficient way to interact with our computers, but most of us doggedly stick to it.

But if you take a little time to learn (or relearn) a few basic keyboard and mouse shortcuts, you can blaze through your windows faster and more easily — and possibly put less stress on your overworked hands as well.

Launch your favorite applications faster

There are several ways to launch apps quickly, using either mouse or keyboard.

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  • Direct method: You can assign keystrokes to launch any shortcut. Right-click the shortcut and choose Properties. On the Shortcut tab, click in the Shortcut key box and then press the keys you want to use to launch the shortcut. Click OK.
A word of warning: Be careful not to reassign other useful keyboard shortcuts you may have already assigned. Also, you can assign keyboard shortcuts only to icon shortcuts — not the actual icon of a document or application.

  • Search method: In Vista and Win 7, press the Windows key to open the Start menu. Then type a few letters until the search tool finds the program you want to launch; press Enter. The catch — if you have several programs starting with the same characters, you end up taking more time typing than if you simply mouse-clicked the application’s icon.

  • Menu method: For me, the “classic” Start menu provides a better solution. If you organize shortcuts into a hierarchy of menus, each starting with a unique character, you can navigate the menus quickly and launch most programs with only 3 or 4 keystrokes.
For example, to launch Photoshop (which is on my Start menu’s Images menu), I press the keyboard Windows key and then type I, P (see Figure 1). For Microsoft Excel, I type Win, N, X (Start, Numbers, eXcel). Before long, you’ll know your shortcuts by heart.

Shortcuts-fig 1
Figure 1. Use the first letter of each menu or menu item to launch shortcuts.

To get the classic Start menu in XP or Vista, right-click the Start button and choose Properties. On the Start Menu tab, select Classic Start menu and click OK.

This option is not contained in Windows 7, but you can get the Start menu by using the Classic Shell freeware program discussed in my Feb. 11 article.

Bonus tip. To avoid having menu items start with the same letter, either rename them or place an ampersand in front of any letter in the name. The character following the ampersand will then act as the shortcut for that item.

  • Mouse methods: For fast launching using the mouse, put the shortcuts you use most often into the Quick Launch toolbar (or another custom toolbar) on the taskbar. Right-click the taskbar to open its properties; add the Quick Launch toolbar if yours is missing. (Personally, I prefer not to pin shortcuts to the taskbar because it quickly fills with open-program icons.)

    If you have Windows 7, you can also “pin” shortcuts to the taskbar. Right-click a running program on the taskbar and choose Pin this program to the task bar to make a launch button stay there.

  • Open another window (Win 7): To quickly launch another instance of a running program, Shift-click its taskbar button. Not all applications support multiple instances.
Faster ways to close open windows

Pressing the Alt+F4 keys is a fast way to close any foreground window in all current versions of Windows. Or, right-click on the taskbar button for any open window, and select Close window from the context menu.

Windows 7 offers new ways to select and close specific windows. If you have multiple instances of a program open, however the mouse pointer over that program’s taskbar icon until the jump list appears. Move the pointer to the window or instance you wish to close and then middle-click the item.

If your mouse lacks a middle button (or scroll wheel that can act as a button), point to the item on the jump list that you wish to close, and then left-click the X that appears to the right of the selected item.

Manage multiple windows and apps more quickly

Dealing with multiple open windows and applications is easier if you know a few tricks.

Minimize all but one window: (Windows 7) To minimize all but the current window, move your mouse pointer to the window’s title bar and then left-click and hold, as if you were going to drag or move the window to a new location. But instead of dragging it, just give it a back-and-forth shake; all other windows will minimize. Shake it again, and the other windows will be restored to their previous size and positions.

To do the same thing with the keyboard in Win7, press Windows+Home (hold down the Windows key and press Home).

(All versions of Windows) To minimize all but the current window, open a standard dialog box (such as Open or Save As). Then use Windows+M to minimize the rest. For example, since most applications use Ctrl+O to display the open dialog, you could press Ctrl+O, Windows+M to minimize all but the current window. Then press Esc to close the dialog box.

Instant maximizing: To maximize a window in all versions of Windows, double-click its title bar. In Win7, you also can simply drag the window to the top of your screen.

Other Win7 management tricks: (Windows 7) Using the Windows key with the arrow keys lets you instantly move the active window to various set positions and sizes. For example, Windows+Left Arrow or Windows+Right Arrow moves and resizes the window to occupy exactly half the screen to the left or right side (depending on which arrow you pressed). This fast half-screen size is handy when you want to tile two windows side by side.

Windows+Down Arrow minimizes the current window. Windows+Up Arrow maximizes it.

Better task switching: In Windows XP, Vista, and Win7, you can switch among open windows by pressing and holding the Alt key and then pressing Tab repeatedly to cycle through all available windows.

Win7 improves on this: First, press and hold Alt. Then each time you press Tab, only the active window is displayed; all others temporarily disappear into the background. (You may have to pause for a few seconds between pressing the Alt and Tab keys to see this effect.) It makes for a much-less-cluttered and easier-to-read display.

Win7 and Vista (when running the Aero interface) also add another task-switching enhancement. If you press Win+Tab, you’ll see an enlarged and animated 3D view of all open windows; you can cycle through them by pressing Tab repeatedly.

If these tips aren’t enough, there are plenty more. Just open Windows Help and search for keyboard shortcuts.

Have more info on this subject? Post your tip in the WS Columns forum.

Scott Dunn is a contributing editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He has more than 20 years of experience as a technical writer and editor and has won multiple business-press awards.
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