Effectively use keyboard shortcuts on the Mac

Effectively use keyboard shortcuts on the Mac

Using keyboard shortcuts gives a huge boost in productivity on the Mac. The problem is that there are so many of them that it is impossible to learn them all. Also, the available shortcuts differ per application. In this post, I will discuss how to learn the shortcuts that are important to you and how to best add a shortcut to a menu item that has no shortcut yet.

Keys often used in keyboard shortcuts

Keyboard shortcuts rely on modifier keys. The most important modifier keys are command ⌘, shift ⇧, option ⌥, control ⌃, space ␣, and return ↵. You find a complete list of modifier keys here.

Using Keyboard shortcuts

The problem with keyboard shortcuts is memorization. Dan Rodney keeps a long list of keyboard shortcuts on his website. Great, but while this list is extensive, it is only a small subset of available keyboard shortcuts, and furthermore, this is the list important for Dan, not you and me.

To learn the important shortcuts, look to the right of the menu items you use most often, and then, instead of clicking on the menu item, use the shortcut.


This is the best way to commit the important shortcuts to memory. But there is another memory aid.

Learning shortcuts with Cheatsheet

De CheatSheet app from Mediaatelier is the fastest way to learn shortcuts. To get it, follow the following steps.

  • Go to the Mediaatelier website
  • Click the big download button and click save.
  • Unzip the file and in Finder, drag the resulting CheatSheet.app file to the Applications folder.
  • Run the Application you get the familiar warning.


  • Click on Open
  • You will get a pop-up mentioning that the CheatSheet app needs access to keystrokes.
  • Click on Open System Preferences


Click on the lock icon to unlock System Preferences.


Enable CheatSheet you will get a pop-up.


  • In the pop-up, click on Quit and Reopen
  • On the left bar, select Accessibility
  • Enable Cheatsheet.app
  • Lock System preferences again
  • Start Cheatsheet again

Using CheatSheet is easy. While using an application that you want to know a shortcut, keep the ⌘ key pressed. A popup appears after a few seconds showing all shortcuts relevant to this application. This information is in table format after every shortcut you find the command. This command is a link. Click on it, and the command is executed.

Again don't try to memorize all of the available shortcuts. There are just too many of them, instead, be aware of those menu items you use most often and learn those shortcuts.

Creating custom shortcuts

Great you know the essential shortcuts, but what if the menu item you use a lot doesn't have a shortcut? It is possible to add a custom shortcut. The standard way to add a custom shortcut (not recommended) is

  • Open  > System Preferences > Keyboard
  • Click on the shortcuts tab
  • Click on App Shortcuts in the left panel
  • Click on the + icon
  • Type the menu item in the Menu title box
  • Type the Keyboard shortcut in the appropriate box
  • Click add Lots of steps to add a custom shortcut. Also, it is easy to make a typo, and then it doesn't work. The good news is that there is an app that improves this process.

The easiest way to define custom shortcuts is to use the free CustomShortcut app made by Houdah. You don't have to use the CustomShortcuts app to add a shortcut. You could use System preferences. To install CustomShortcuts, Go to the website, click on the Free Download button and click save. Unzip the downloaded file. In Finder, drag the CustomShortcuts.app file to Applications.

The first time you start CustomShortcuts, you get a welcome screen.


As usual, for this kind of utility app, you need to grant access for the app to work. Click on the top Grant Permission button.

You see instructions. Follow the instructions by unlocking System Preferences and drag the icon as directed. You get a pop-up informing you that the changes will not take effect until the CustomShortcuts app is restarted. Click later.

On the welcome screen, click the lower Grant Permissions button. Again drag the icon as instructed. Close the welcome screen. Quit CustomShortcuts and start the app again. The changes in permissions are now in effect.

Look at the File menu of TextEdit. You see that there is no shortcut to Export to PDF. We are going to change that.


Click on the CustomShortcuts window to ensure it has the focus, and select TextEdit in the left panel.


Click the plus button in the bottom left corner of the right panel. In the Menu Item Title box, type File -> Export as PDF... In the record screenshot box, type ⌘ ⌥ e.


Now go to TextEdit and type ⌘ ⌥ e. You see the export to pdf pop up. Click cancel.


You can also admire the new shortcut in the File Menu of TextEdit.


I hope that you found this introduction to keyboard shortcuts interesting and that it will help you use them more often.