How to optimise Windows using shortcuts and automation

Everyone's had an unhappy afternoon bonding with their technology as they do the same thing over and over because that's how technology is sometimes: libraries have to be organised, space has to be made, data has to be entered and archives have to be searched. Even our favourite programs are frustrating at times.

Software's come a long way towards making everything a little bit more user friendly: searches are faster and more powerful than before due to indexing and more effective meta-tagging. They allow you to search not just titles, authors and dates, but also content in the case of some common file types.

Still, there are times when you need to control things manually and there's nothing to it but to perform the same set of tasks over and over again. That's when you'll want to know how to optimise Windows using shortcuts and automation.

With your favourite programs, you've likely already memorised a few shortcuts. There are some that everyone's familiar with: the Windows key to bring up the start menu, ctrl+V for pasting and alt+F4 to shut down many programs. Mastering shortcuts in not just one program, but at the operating system level as well allows you to avoid using the mouse at all- or in conjunction with a multi-button mouse, save time by binding functions to the extra buttons. This article is going to highlight some functionality and shortcuts for Excel and Word in Windows and provide links to alternate programs, as well as going over commands and functionality common to many programs and Windows itself.

Summary

The Basics

Windows

Word

Excel

Automation

The Basics

The notation key+key means that the first keys should be held down and then the last key should be pressed. Typically, the first keys are “modifier” keys- meaning that using it modifies the behaviour of the keys following it. Modifer keys are usually keys like alt, shift or control (ctrl). They can be used by themselves in some contexts, but not as often as they're used as modifiers.

Windows

Most operating systems hide a few extra commands in the menus behind a shortcut key. In Windows Explorer, shift+right clicking reveals some options, but most of those options are for administrator level commands- not useful for the majority of users.

Microsoft hosts a page with an overview of its shortcuts for its various operating systems and programs and here is the list of shortcuts for the OS itself.

Navigation

Without binding specifically for opening particular folders, files or programs, the fastest way to access them is sometimes searching.

  • Search: Windows key+F
  • Run: Windows key+R

If you're searching this way, you might want to set up some tags or other metadata on your files. In Windows, you can search them by searching with parameters like “tags: tag name”. Another way of organising things is using libraries, so that it shows up on the side bar of explorer for easy access. Also, be sure to turn on indexing for your libraries.

Whether the computer's in the midst of crashing or the mouse broke and you need to get some work done, it's sometimes necessary to navigate without using the mouse. You probably already know about using the arrow keys to change a selection and using enter to interact with selected items, but there are some more ways to interact. Many of these only work at the OS level and in particular programs.

  • Right clicking: shift+F10
  • Selecting the menu bar in a program or window: alt or F10
  • Switching between windows: alt+tab (Adding shift as an additional modifier reverses the direction)
  • Switch between windows and pinned items (Windows 7, 8): alt+windows key+ a number
  • Minimise Window: alt+ space bar then alt+n
  • Close Window: ctrl+w
  • Explorer/ Finder: Windows logo+E

One of the harder aspects of navigating without a mouse is dialog boxes. Those are the pop-up Windows in programs, like the save window that pops up when you close a document before saving. The same commands also apply to things like the ribbon in many Microsoft programs.

  • Swapping between options in the dialogue box: tab
  • Toggle checkbox or select option: Space bar
  • Click Button: Space bar or enter
  • Cancel: Escape

If navigating like that is proving too hard, some options and menus allow you to use either alt+the first letter of the button. For instance, to select save, alt+S will save. If the first letter doesn't work, the appropriate letter will usually be underlined or otherwise marked.

Windows doesn't have a single key combination for restarting (in the latest versions), but from the desktop (brought up by the Windows key+D) using alt+F4 will bring up the restart dialog box. The Windows key+L will bring up the lock screen.

In recent versions of Windows, using ctrl+alt+delete brings up a splash window with a few different options: task manager, lock screen, sign out, change password, change user. The menu can be navigated with the arrow keys and enter.

Window Management


There are a number of ways to manage windows and monitors. Windows offers snapping positioning and cascading, as well as shortcuts to control the setup for multiple monitors.

  • Change monitor setup: Windows key+p
  • Show desktop: Windows key+D
  • Snap Windows: Windows key+ arrow keys
  • Zoom in: Windows key+ plus key
  • Zoom out: Windows key + minus key
  • Switch to Program: Alt+windows key+ # corresponding to position on task bar

Rebinding Keys

Of course, some of the default keybindings feel like playing twister with your fingers and there aren't bindings for everything you could possibly want. There's some customisation available and there are a variety of 3rd party programs available to solve that lack of functionality. These links aren't shortcuts, but tutorials on how to set them up. It's useful to note that you probably have more buttons than you expect on your mouse to use with these.

Desktop Customisation

One last thing that merits mention to help you get the most out of your desktop: customisation. There are widgets and gadgets, some provided by their Microsoft and some provided by third parties. There are also programs which allow more customisable widgets, like Rainmeter for Windows. These tend to be more flashy than functional, but there are useful ones out there.

There are the various views of Explorer. Then there are ways to help organise the buttons in your UI or remove some of the worse features of newer versions of Windows or just ways to personalise it.

The Ribbon

The ribbon present in much of Microsoft's office suite no longer requires XML knowledge to customise. The ribbon follows much of the navigation rules from Windows above.

  • Close or open the ribbon: ctrl+F1
  • Pressing alt shows the commands for each item in the ribbon.
  • Move to another ribbon tab: F10 then left or right

Program Basics

  • Save: ctrl+S
  • Save as: F12
  • Open: ctrl+O
  • Undo: ctrl+Z
  • Redo: ctrl+Y
  • Copy: ctrl+C
  • Cut: ctrl+X
  • Paste: ctrl+V
  • New document: ctrl+N
  • Close document: ctrl+W

Navigation in Microsoft Programs

There are a few things different about navigation in programs compared to Windows Explorer. Mostly, it deals with the inset panes, like the ribbon or find text pane. Instead of using tab or alt to shift focus, there are other keys, shown below.

  • Shift focus through panes: F6
  • Shift focus from menu to panes: ctrl+tab
  • Cycle through pane options: tab
  • Open the Navigation Task pane: ctrl+F
  • Repeat Find: alt+ctrl+Y

Word Processing: Word

There are many word processors in Windows, including Apache's OpenOffice Writer, WordPerfect and Google Docs, but Word comes as part of its suite of office programs and many of its features are available in other programs, so in the interest of avoiding redundancy, I'm going to list the shortcuts for Word here- finding the feature in another program may involve looking for it in the documentation or searching for it online.

There's a lot to learn about Word, but there are a few common office activities I can point out, like mail merges for high volumes of documents. Something else that can help speed the writing process along is word replacement. There's a few different functions, including Find and Replace, Autocorrect and Autotext. Then of course, there's handy tricks like inserting tick symbols.

Formatting

This is only a sampling of the formatting shortcuts available.

  • Apply styles: ctrl+shift+S
  • Open Styles pane: alt+ctrl+shift+S
  • Italics: ctrl+I
  • Underline: ctrl+U
  • Underline words only: ctrl+shift+W
  • Bold: ctrl+B
  • Copy formatting: ctrl+shift+C
  • Paste only formatting: ctrl+shift+V
  • Increase size: ctrl+]

Views

Some shortcuts for ways of viewing the text.

  • Print: alt+ctrl+P
  • Outline: alt+ctrl+O
  • Draft: alt+ctrl+N
  • Split document window: alt+ctrl+S
  • Remove document window split: alt+ctrl+S

Spreadsheets: Excel

Short of working with a program that supports more robust scripting like Matlab or learning a programming language and using a compiler, spreadsheets are one of the most powerful ways of dealing with large volumes of data, particularly in their robust, visual format, making them an office staple. There are a few competing products: Apache's Open Office, Google Sheets and Excel (among many others). Here are a few shortcuts and tricks for Excel. Experts of the program will probably decry this list's brevity, but that's because so many people spend so much of their workday using it.

Navigation

The arrow keys in excel allow you to move between cells- provided the program's focus isn't in the cell's content. That's “cell editing mode”. If you're in it, there are some better keys to navigate with:

  • Move right a cell: tab
  • Move left a cell: shift+tab
  • Move up a cell: return+shift
  • Move down a cell: return
  • Control+Page buttons: Switch between worksheet tabs
  • Control+arrows: Move to end of data or final cell
  • Switch between worksheet tabs: ctrl+Page up/ Page Down
  • “Go to” menu: F5
  • Zoom: ctrl+ mouse wheel

Many shortcuts have different behaviour when scroll lock is on. Some keyboards may not have scroll lock to toggle it on or off, so there's a virtual keyboard to use.

While Scroll lock is on:

  • Moves to cell in lower-right of window: End
  • Moves to cell in upper-left of window: Home

Macros and formula editing

There's lots of other functionality that's available in Excel, much of it available in other programs from Microsoft's office suite (like copy-pasting only formatting), but what makes spreadsheet programs stand out are their ability to handle simple scripting and create repeatable sequences of actions, known as macros.

Excel's formulas don't boast as much potential as a proper programming language, nor is its library particularly in depth, limiting its functionality, but it isn't intended to be a solution for everything; this is a program for your computational and bookkeeping needs. In Excel, they're known as functions and formulas. They're the heart of Excel: they perform the calculations between cells, allowing users to handle large batches of data with ease. Microsoft hosts some courses on the subject. There's also a list of functions, but that tends to be less useful by itself. I'd suggest starting with this help page if you're just getting started.

The basic premise of a macro is that you 'record' a series of clicks or data entry, then play it back to repeat the action multiple times on the spreadsheet. It does this by using visual basic in the background, but like many automation programs, it attempts to automatically create the code behind it with a more simple user interface. That is to say, you tell it to start recording, perform the actions, tell it to stop and it should produce the code to perform those actions again by inference. Occasionally, the program may draw the wrong conclusion about what you were attempting to do and end up with something not terribly useful. That's where it may be useful to know how to use Visual Basic. There's a general video walkthrough here. It has a general overview of creating macros, editing them, saving and using them.

Automation

Often, you might find yourself performing a repetitive task in not just a single program, but at the desktop level or across multiple programs. The Windows OS doesn't have a program built in for that purpose. There are ways to perform some batch operations- technically, dragging a folder with multiple containing items or selecting multiple before dragging them to a different location could qualify- but there's no expedient way to do some tasks. There are a variety of programs out there for creating OS level macros without learning a full programming language, however.

Programs like AutoHotkey perform much the same way as Excel, allowing you to “record” mouse movements and clicks and automatically creating a script from that recording. This may not be useful often, but it's simple enough that it may be worth the time to set up in the few instances where it may be useful- or when you have to do something mindless on a nearly daily basis, saving a couple minutes a day saves a lot of time over the course of months.