How many keyboard shortcuts do you know? How many do you use? How much more efficient and productive could you be if you learned and used them more?
I’m a huge proponent of using keyboard shortcuts to increase productivity. Check out some of my favorite keyboard shortcuts for Windows and Mac, and some essential shortcuts for browsers in the video below.
I’m also a proponent of making sure assumptions are accurate, like the assumption that keyboard shortcuts make us more productive.
Some decent research shows that keyboard shortcuts do in fact make computer users more productive. For example, Lane (2005) found that keyboard shortcuts in Microsoft Word shave more than half a second, and in a few cases three times that much, off common tasks, compared to using the toolbar icons or menu dropdown options.
Half a second to 1.5 seconds may not seem like a big deal, unless you perform that same repetitive task hundreds or thousands of times in a single week. Over a few months or a year, those seconds add up.
More importantly, when you use keyboard shortcuts in combination with touch-typing, you can often keep your eyes on the screen and your attention focused on what you’re doing better than if you have to dart your eyes up to a menu to find a command from a drop-down list or among a few dozen icons.
Assumption confirmed: Keyboard shortcuts increase productivity.
So it breaks my heart to also learn that even experienced computer users by and large don’t know or don’t use keyboard shortcuts (Bhavani 1997, Lane 2005). The amount of experience a person has with computers in general or even a specific program has no correlation whatsoever with whether they know the most efficient way to use them.
No one seems to know why people don’t learn keyboard shortcuts or other tricks to make using their programs more efficient. I think it has something to do with motivation and the “use it or lose it” principle.
Use It or Lose It
People tend to learn only as much as they need to get by for their specific job or function that they need to perform. The operations we use most often are obviously the ones that will stick. If we learn an operation that we don’t use, we forget it pretty quickly. Use it or lose it.
I initially learned keyboard shortcuts for a complicated editorial layout program by literally writing down on paper a list of the operations I performed the most. Next to each one, I wrote the keyboard shortcut. I’m fairly certain there’s a For Dummies book with a very similar list, only mine was tailored specifically to the functions I used. The first few weeks were painful, frustrating, and extremely slow. But after about a month, I knew at least a dozen commands by muscle memory. I got faster and more proficient, which meant I had time to take on special projects, like writing and editing more (which was how I really wanted to spend my time at work).
Computers, no doubt, improve personal productivity more than if we had no computers at all. The speed and convenience of email beats that of picking up a phone and hoping that the person you’re calling will just happen to be nearby when the other phone rings. Drafting a blueprint in AutoCAD is faster, cleaner, and easier to edit than putting pencil and protractor to paper. But learning AutoCAD inside and out is really difficult and time consuming. Plus, if you don’t practice what you’ve learned, you’ll forget it.
If I had to guess why people don’t learn keyboard shortcuts, it’s because they take time and effort to learn, and it’s hard to know which ones you’ll use and retain. It’s hard to know before you learn them which ones are worth learning. So why bother? Where is the motivation?
It would be neat to develop a program that monitored all keyboarding and mousing behavior to keep count of how many times a user performs a certain operation. Then, the user would have concrete evidence as to which keyboard shortcuts would be worth learning.
Bhavnani, S. K., & John, B. E. (1997). From sufficient to efficient usage: An analysis of strategic knowledge. Retrieved November 17, 2015, from http://www.acm.org/sigs/sigchi/chi97/proceedings/paper/skb.htm
Lane, D. M., Napier, H. A., Peres, S. C., & Sándor, A. (2005). Hidden costs of graphical user interfaces: Failure to make the transition from menus and icon toolbars to keyboard shortcuts. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 18(2), 133-144.
Photo by Leslee Lazar, CC.