Keyboard shortcuts are your not-so-secret weapon in the quest to maximise your productivity and blitz through applications and webpages at top speed. With keyboard shortcuts you can instantly drop your favourite GIF into any chat or email, or search Wikipedia without first opening a browser. You can launch apps or instantly perform a traceroute on a website. Don’t just settle for the standard list of shortcuts you get with Windows or macOS—create your own too. Here’s how to do it.
Custom shortcuts in Windows
Windows 10 is perfectly happy for you to make your own custom keyboard shortcuts, but only up to a point—as in, to launch specific shortcuts. First, create a shortcut to an application, either by dragging anything from the Start menu the desktop, or by right-clicking on an executable and choosing Create shortcut.
When the shortcut is created, right-click on it and choose Properties. Click in the Shortcut key box, enter your chosen keystroke combination, and click OK to confirm. Note that your custom combination has to start with Ctrl+Alt, after which you can add a letter, number, or function key.
That’s very welcome of course, but it doesn’t really let you go to town on your own custom shortcuts. To do that, you need the help of a third-party program.
WinHotKey is an older freeware program but still works in Windows 10. Once installed, it runs from the notification area (system tray): Right-click its icon, click Configure, then choose New Hotkey from the dialog box that appears to create your shortcut.
As the Windows OS has bagged most of the Win+whatever shortcuts for itself, you’ll probably need to add in a Ctrl or a Shift to make yours unique. You can launch applications, open files, open folders, or perform a number of actions on the current window (like minimising it).
Also worth a look and also free is AutoHotkey. This is a slightly more complex tool built around scripts—you need to create these scripts as small text files which can then be assigned shortcut keys of your choice.
The benefit of this extra complexity is you can do just about anything with the program and its shortcut keys, from launching applications to inputting a line of text into whatever word processor you’re currently using. Miss the keyboard shortcuts for emojis in Slack? You can hand program them with a hot key application. For more detailed instructions for creating scripts, and some example ones you can modify, see the online documentation.
Finally, you can create your own custom keyboard shortcuts in a few applications, including Microsoft Word. Open Options from the main program menu, then choose Customize Ribbon and click Customize... next to the Keyboard shortcuts heading. You can do the same trick in Photoshop too, via Edit and Keyboard Shortcuts—just select a tool or menu option to assign a shortcut to it.
Custom shortcuts in macOS
Over in Apple country, you’ve got a native option for attaching keyboard shortcuts to menus and actions. Open the Apple menu, pick System Preferences, then Keyboard. Open the Shortcuts tab and you’re in.
You can disable or enable any shortcut using the tick boxes to the left, or set a different keystroke combination by clicking on the shortcut you want to change and then hitting the replacement combination on your keyboard.
To set up a new shortcut for an app menu item, click App Shortcuts then the plus button. You need to type out the exact menu label you want the shortcut to apply to (like “Delete” for example) and specify whether the shortcut should work in every app or one desktop program in particular. Of course you’ll also have to enter the keyboard combination itself. Once you’ve clicked Add you’re up and running with your new macOS keyboard shortcut.
Under the Services heading you can find options like capturing the screen and setting the desktop wallpaper, and all these options can have their own shortcuts too. If you want to add a new service to this list—importing tracks into iTunes maybe, or creating new calendars, or many other actions—you can do this through the Automator utility (find it through Spotlight) and then assign a keyboard shortcut afterwards.
That’s fine as far as it goes, but you can do much more with the help of a third-party program, like Alfred: using customisable “hotkeys” you can launch an application, take more control over Alfred itself, or launch a specific script or AppleScript to carry out an action. The option to create hotkeys needs the Powerpack purchase, which is £19.
From the Alfred Preferences pane, click Workflow then click the plus icon in the bottom left—if you choose the Templates option you can see how hotkeys can be assigned to files, apps, web searches, system commands and more besides. You just choose your hotkey, your action, and your parameters, if necessary. Once you’re more confident, you can create these workflows from scratch (see here for extra instructions).
Then there’s Keyboard Maestro ($36/£27)—it lets you assign a keyboard shortcut to just about anything, whether it’s a macro to download text and images from the web or a command to send a particular line through iMessage.
First you create a Macro—a series of commands—then you assign it a “Hot Key” (with a space this time). Open up the Help menu and click Tutorial for a more thorough guide to the process, but if you want to get up and running as quickly as possible, click the plus button down at the bottom of the interface to create a new macro. You have to set a hot key as the macro trigger, and you can then assign your action accordingly.