Launch Keys: Starting Applications with the Keyboard

If you want to improve your output on a computer, try keeping your hands on the keyboard as much as possible. Sure it only takes a second to move your hand over to the mouse or trackpad, but over the course of a workday, those seconds add up. Talk to any Linux evangelist out there and he or she will, before long, begin extolling the virtues of the command line. For tasks like programming and system administration, the command line can prove extremely powerful, and this habit often tends to bleed over into non-programming / admin activities. But you don’t need command line experience to reap the benefits of leaning more on the keyboard.


The Windows command line. The program in use here is a replacement for the standard Windows command interpreter known as cmder.



One of the biggest ways to use the keyboard more is by using program keyboard shortcuts. Although many of us use computers for several hours a day, we rely most heavily on a handful of applications. Word processors, spreadsheets, email clients, and web browsers are a few of the most heavily used programs. I haven’t done the math, but I’d guess that these account for 20 percent of installed software and 80 percent of used software. That means that by learning just a few keyboard shortcuts, we can speed things up. A few common shortcuts are Ctrl (or Command)-C (copy text), Ctrl-V (paste text), and Ctrl-Z (undo last change). Many of these commands are pretty standardized and will work in nearly every application. Both Microsoft and Apple have support web pages listing common keyboard shortcuts.

Ready for Launch

Another method for using the keyboard is to start applications by typing the program’s name in a search or run bar. This is more in the spirit of using the command line and is probably more useful in a stock installation of Windows than on a Mac. Under Windows I have to either navigate through the Start menu or minimize everything to get to my desktop shortcuts (or pin a bunch of things to my taskbar, but I digress), but on a Mac nearly everything you need is in the Dock. Still, Mac users can get to Spotlight (Command-Space) and type in program names there. This probably isn’t as big a speed advantage, but it at least gives you a way to fire up Excel if your mouse gives out.

In Windows, you can do this by using the Windows key – R shortcut, which will bring up a run menu, or Windows key – F, which brings up a search field. Personally, I’m more used to the run menu method, but your mileage may vary.

Windows run menu

Run menu under Windows 8 with the command to start Microsoft Word.

Here we see the run menu with the command winword already in the box. This is the name of the Microsoft Word application, so if I hit enter here, Word will start up. Compare typing Win-R / winword / enter, to navigating to Word in the start menu or working your way to the desktop and you can see the advantages. The big catch here, though, is knowing the name of the program you’re using. For some it’s simple: Mozilla Thunderbird is thunderbird and Google Chrome is chrome. For others, it’s a little more complicated: winword for Word or mspaint for Paint. One way to find out the application’s name is to right-click on the app’s shortcut and select “Open file location”. That will open a window where you can find the application’s name.

Worth It?

Whether these shortcuts are worth it is an individual decision. Using keyboard shortcuts in applications is a time saver for sure and I feel like I save a little bit of time and frustration by using the keyboard for my most frequently used applications. Like most things with computers, try it out and see how you feel. Maybe it can save you some time.