Alt+Spacebar, N: Minimize an application

If you click on the icon in the upper left of an application (at the beginning of the title bar), a little menu opens, which is called the System menu:

[Image: Application system menu]

The keyboard method of opening this menu is Alt+Spacebar. Then you can press N to Minimize the application, or X to Maximize, or any of the other underlined letters.

So, to minimize any application: Press Alt+Spacebar then N.

Dialog box navigation via keyboard

When a Windows application asks you a question, such as how many pages to print, it does so via a dialog box, which is a window that pops up and has an OK button and a Cancel button and one or more fields.

You can use the keyboard to handle dialog boxes and not bother with the mouse for 99% of dialog box tasks.

  • The Esc key is always the same as clicking on Cancel — it gets rid of the dialog box without taking any action.
  • The Enter key is the same as clicking on the default button. The default button has a thicker border around it than any other button. Usually the default button is the OK button, so pressing Enter is usually the same thing as clicking Ok.
  • Use the Tab key to move from field to field. (Or press Shift+Tab to move back a field.)
  • Press Alt plus the underlined letter from the field name to jump to a particular field.
  • Pressing Spacebar while on a highlighted field that’s a checkbox will check or uncheck that field.
  • If the dialog box has more than one tab (with different questions on each tab), usually pressing Ctrl+Tab will change tabs.

Ctrl+N: New Document

For most applications that support working with more than one document at once, Ctrl+N starts a new document, without having to answer questions about what kind of new document you want. Try it in Microsoft Word, Excel, etc.

Be careful when using Microsoft Outlook, because Ctrl+N has a different meaning depending on what section of Outlook you’re in. For example, in Calendar mode, Ctrl+N creates a new appointment, while in Mail mode, Ctrl+N creates a new e-mail message.

Create your own custom shortcut for any application on your Start menu

Let’s suppose you really like the Calculator program. Instead of having to select it from the Start menu or click on some little icon each time you run it, wouldn’t it be useful to be able to use a keystroke and have it pop up automatically? And suppose you have a few other programs you want to be able to launch quickly, without having to open the Start menu. Today’s tip is for you.

You can create your own custom shortcut keystroke for any application on your Start menu. (You can also extend this tip to apply to Web pages, documents, and much more, but we’ll save that more advanced part for a different day.)

Before you start creating shortcuts, make sure you write them down and keep them saved. It’s also a good idea to make an overall plan for what specific keystroke you plan to use for each of your favorite programs, so you don’t try assigning the same keystroke to more than one program.

For our example, we’ll assign a shortcut for the Calculator. Follow these steps:

  1. Open the Start menu (with the Windows key or Ctrl-Esc).
  2. Using the arrow keys, find the Calculator program (in your Accessories menu) and select it (but don’t launch it). One way to get there is to hit P to open the Programs menu, then use the up and down arrow keys until the Accessories menu is open, then use the right arrow key to open the Accessories menu, then use the up and down arrow keys until the Calculator program is highlighted.
  3. Open the shortcut menu by either right-clicking on the Calculator menu item, or by pressing Shift+F10 when it’s selected. A shortcut menu appears, as shown here.
    [Image: Screenshot of Calculator Start menu options menu]
  4. Choose the Properties menu item (just press r, since it’s the underlined letter). The Properites dialog box appears.
  5. You’re interested in the “Shortcut key” menu. Press Alt+K to move down to that field, or hit Tab until it’s highlighted.
  6. Now press your shortcut key. I recommend Ctrl+Alt+C. You’re limited to only keystrokes that start with Ctrl+Shift, Alt+Shift, Ctrl+Alt, or Ctrl+Shift+Alt. Ctrl+Alt is easy to type, and “C” for calculator should be easy to remember. Hit the keystroke you want, verify it shows up in that field, then press Enter. The dialog box closes.
  7. Try pressing Ctrl+Alt+C (or whatever you selected) and verify that — like magic! — the Calculator appears.

There’s more we could do here, but give this a try.

Windows key+D: Show Desktop

We covered the Windows key previously. If you hold that key down and then press the “d” key, you’ll see the desktop. Press Windows+D again and your application windows will reappear.

Note: Some people like the Windows+M shortcut, which minimizes all applications. Windows+D and Windows+M are very similar, but I prefer Windows+D because it’s a toggle and because not every application can be minimized. So Windows+D is just a little bit more generally useful.

Opening Menus with the Alt key, using menus with the keyboard

Quick, press the Alt key by itself. Chances are you now see the “File” menu become selected. Now you can use the left and right arrow keys to move from menu to menu, and the up and down arrow keys to open a menu and select different menu items.

Once you’ve mastered that, here’s the next step: You can press Alt plus an underlined letter in the name of the menu to open the menu. For example, the File menu has the letter F underlined, so pressing Alt+F opens the File menu.

Menus do vary from program to program, but almost every application has the File, Edit, and Help menus. Here are some of the most common menus and the key that usually opens that menu:

  • Alt+F: Open the File menu
  • Alt+E: Open the Edit menu
  • Alt+V: Open the View menu (if there is one)
  • Alt+I: Open the Insert menu (if there is one)
  • Alt+O: Open the Format menu (if there is one) — F is already used for File, so the next letter, o, is used.
  • Alt+T: Open the Tools menu (if there is one)
  • Alt+W: Open the Windows menu (if there is one)
  • Alt+H: Open the Help menu

For other menus, just look at which letter is underlined. For example, in Excel, Alt+D opens its Data menu:

[Image: List of menus from Microsoft Excel showing underlined letters that can be used as shortcuts with the Alt key to open the menu]

Once a menu is opened, you can choose menu commands by pressing the underlined letter of the command you want (just the letter by itself, no Alt key).

For example, in Microsoft Word, once the File menu is opened, you can press the c key to “Close” the current document, or the a key to use the “Save As” command:

[Image: Microsoft Word with an open File menu, showing shortcut keys to select several menu commands]

Tip: If a menu item has a “…” after it, then a dialog box will open. If not, then the menu command will be carried out immediately, usually with feedback only if something goes wrong.

Copy and Paste without a mouse, putting it all together

Last week we learned how to navigate using the keyboard. At the beginning of this week, we learned about the Shift key, combined with the navigation keys, to select text. We learned how to use Alt+Tab to switch back and forth between applications. And we covered Ctrl+C to copy, Ctrl+X to cut, and Ctrl+V to paste.

So, let’s put all of that together. Suppose you want to copy some text from a Notepad document into an e-mail. Here’s what to do:

  1. Hold down the Alt key, and press Tab until Notepad is selected, then let go of the Alt key.
  2. Use the arrow keys or other navigation keys to move to the beginning or end of the text you want to select.
  3. Use Shift key and navigation keys to move to the other side of the text; notice how it highlights as you go as long as you’re holding down the Shift key.
  4. Once the text is highlighted, press Ctrl+C. Nothing to seems to happen, but behind the scenes, the text you selected has now been copied to the clipboard.
  5. Now press Alt the key again and hold it down while you hit the Tab key until the e-mail is selected.
  6. Move your cursor using the arrow keys to the point where you want the text to appear.
  7. Press Ctrl+V. The text appears.

You’ve just copied and pasted text between two different applications without using the mouse. Congratulations!

Ctrl+V: Paste

We previously mentioned Cut (Ctrl+X) and Copy (Ctrl+C), commands which take selected text and move or copy the selected text into the clipboard.

Once you’ve put something on the clipboard, you can paste it at the cursor location with Ctrl+V. You can press this multiple times, and each time a new copy is inserted. (If you have selected text when you paste, then the selected text is replaced with whatever is being pasted.)

(You can also use Shift+Delete to cut and Shift+Insert to paste in most applications, but be careful since Shift+Delete has a different behavior when working with files that we’ll discuss later.)

Alt+Tab: Switch Applications

Press Alt+Tab. If you have more than one window open, pressing Alt+Tab switches to the most recent window you used. Pressing it again swtiches back. Try it a few times.

Now, try holding down the Alt key and don’t let go. Then press Tab (but don’t let go of the Alt key). A special window will appear.

[Image: Switching applications example from Windows XP]

While holding down the Alt key, keep pressing Tab. You’ll cycle through a list of open windows and applications. As soon as you have selected the application you want to use, let go of the Alt key, and you’ll immediately switch to that application.

(If, while holding down the Alt key, you press Shift+Tab, you’ll cycle backwards through the list.)

Note: There’s another keyboard shortcut for switching applications, Alt+Esc, which switches through Windows in the order you opened them, but it’s not nearly so useful, so forget about that one and use Alt+Tab instead.

Shift plus any navigation key: Select text

Last week, we went through some navigation keyboard shortcuts. (You can review them by looking at all the posts in the navigation category, or you can take a look at the navigation reference page, which collects the navigation shortcuts presented so far in a single list.)

Now that you’re spending more time using the keyboard to navigate, it’s time to combine those navigation keys with the Shift key to begin selecting text.

(Selecting text is when you highlight it — allowing you to then perform a variety of tasks, such as erasing the selected text, applying a command such as making the selected text bold, or cut or copy it into the clipboard for later pasting.)

Here’s an example. Position your cursor in the middle of a line of text in an editing program (such as Microsoft Word or Notepad), then hit Shift+End. All of the text from the cursor to the end of the line becomes selected. If you hit the Backspace key or Delete key, it’s deleted.

Some useful combinations to try:

  • Shift+Home: Select text from the cursor to the beginning of the line
  • Shift+End: Select text from the cursor to the end of the line
  • Shift+Ctrl+Home: Select text from the cursor to the beginning of the document
  • Shift+Ctrl+End: Select text from the cursor to the end of the document
  • Shift+Ctrl+Left Arrow: Select text from the cursor to the beginning of the current word (and keep hitting the Left Arrow key without letting go of the Shift and Ctlr keys to keep selecting multiple words)
  • Shift+Ctrl+Right Arrow: Select text from the cursor to the beginning of the next word

Also, practice Shift plus any of the arrow keys. Suppose, for example, you want to delete some text from the end of a document or e-mail. Press Ctrl+End to move to the end. Now press Shift+Up Arrow until you’ve highlighted all of the stuff at the end you want to get rid of. Then press a key such as the letter A, and it will replace all of the highlighted text with whatever key you typed.

F5 (or Ctrl+G): In Word and Excel, Go To a location

To round out our navigation week, let’s use an application-specific keyboard shortcut.

If you use Microsoft Word, try this (when editing a long document): Press F5, and the “Go To” dialog box appears. (It may look a bit different depending on which version of Microsoft Word you’re using.) Type in a page number, like 15, and press Enter. Your cursor should now be at the top of page 15. You can then press Esc to cancel the dialog box.

If you use Microsoft Excel, try pressing F5 and in the Go To dialog box, type in a cell (such as B500), then press Enter.

There are more advanced ways of using the Go To dialog box in both applications, but we’ll save that for a future day

If you prefer, you can use Ctrl+G instead of F5.

Shift+F10 or Menu Key: Opens Shortcut Menu (same as right-clicking)

We’ll break up navigation tips with a more general purpose tip: How to use the keyboard to open a shortcut menu (also known as context menu) — the menu you get when you right-click somewhere.

The most general way to do this is press Shift+F10. (Remember, F10 is a function key, probably across the top of your keyboard.) Try it! Point your mouse somewhere and right-click. (You can press the Esc key to close the menu.) Then try pressing Shift+F10. (And again, Esc to close it.)

The other choice is to use a dedicated key. Chances are your keyboard has a “menu key,” which usually looks like this: [Image of shortcut menu key, taken from]

On most keyboards that have this key, it’s down by the Spacebar, to the right (near the Alt and Ctrl keys). On some keyboards, such as Dell laptops, it’s at the top center, near the power key.

If you have that key and it’s in a convenient location, spend today trying to practice using it to open shortcut menus for Windows and most applications you use. If you don’t have that key, practice Shift+F10 instead.

Ctrl+Left Arrow and Ctrl+Right Arrow: Move by word

This week’s set of tips will be focused on navigation shortcuts — keyboard methods of navigating around in a document. These work for most applications, but are especially useful when you’re using Microsoft Word, Microsoft PowerPoint, Notepad, WordPad, or other word processing and editing programs.

Today’s tip is to use the Ctrl key plus either the Left Arrow key or the Right Arrow key. Each time you press this keystroke, you’ll move to the beginning of the previous or next word. Try each several times to get the hang of it.

Ctrl+S: Save

Most applications let you press Ctrl+S to save the current document.

If you have previously saved the document (or had opened an existing document), then Ctrl+S uses the same filename as before. No news is good news — if you don’t get an error message, you can assume your save worked fine.

If you haven’t saved the document yet, you will be prompted for a filename automatically. Type in the filename and press Enter.

Ctrl+S is the equivalent to clicking on the File menu and then clicking on the Save command. Note that most programs will show you the Ctrl+S shortcut next to that Save menu command (see image below). Use those visual cues!

[Image: Notepad application with File menu open, showing the Save command with the listed keyboard shortcut of Ctrl+S]

Ctrl+Esc, U, Enter: Shutdown Windows (XP and earlier)

This is a keyboard sequence, so let’s understand it in order:

  • Ctrl+Esc opens the Start menu. (Instead, you could use the Windows key.)
  • Pressing the u key selects whichever menu item has an underlined u. In this case, we want to select the “Shut Down…” command. The “u” in “Shut Down…” is underlined, which means you can press the u key key to select it. (Note that if your menu has other options that begin with a U, such as “User Preferences,” then you’ll have to hit u more than once and then hit Enter when Shut Down is selected.)
  • A dialog box labeled “Shut Down Windows” or “Turn off computer” appears. Windows remembers the last option you selected when shutting down. If “Shut down” is the highlighted option, you can press Enter to select it. If the wrong option is selected, you can change the selected option with the arrow keys before you press Enter.

“Windows” key: Open the Start menu

Welcome to the Windows Keyboard Shortcut of the Day blog! (You can read more about this blog if you like.)

We’ll start things off with the “Windows” key. Most computer keyboards built since 1995 have this key, usually down between the Alt and Ctrl keys, to the left of the Spacebar. On most keyboards, it looks like this:

Public domain image of the white four-segment Windows key icon shown on a black key.  From SXC via Wikipedia; artist or photographer unknown; creation date unknown.

Pressing this key (by itself) opens the Start menu. Pressing it again switches off the Start menu.

Once the Start menu is open, you can use the arrow keys to select a menu item. Pressing the Enter key launches the selected menu item.

What if you don’t have a Windows key on your keyboard? Just press Ctrl+Esc instead.

Windows keystrokes and keyboard tricks and tips that you can use to save time