Using keyboard shortcuts for Windows Explorer

In support of International Keyboard Shortcut day, I want to increase everyone’s productivity in using Windows Explorer.

Now I must add that one of the best productivity steps you can make is not to use Windows Explorer! I use Total Commander for most of my file management duties, and there are several (hundred) good reasons why I do. But having said that, if you work on Windows, you cannot really escape Windows Explorer completely, as it is the native file management tool, so most programs, when opening or saving files, simply make use of Windows Explorer for that file management portion. So even if you are working in Word or Excel or a multitude of other programs, when you open or save a file, you are actually using Windows Explorer for that action. And, I have found that some these basic principles described below, with a little creativity, can also be used when doing file management on a Mac (although I am not showing that in this post).

Thus, learning to use Windows Explorer effectively will prove to be a big boost to your productivity (just think how many times you browse to open or save a file each day, and the gains will be readily apparent).

To distinguish between these contexts I will speak, below, of working in Windows Explorer or of working in File Management (some of the shortcuts only work in one of those contexts, or work differently between the two).

I will also not cover “standard” keyboard techniques, like using Tab to move between parts of the window, pressing Enter as the default action, selecting items (files/folders, in this instance) using Ctrl or Shift in combination with the mouse, etc.

One last note. These are specifically for Windows Explorer, meaning they will work for Windows 7, most of them will work for Vista, and a smaller subset will also work for Windows XP. Having said that, apart from the ribbon addition with its own set of navigation tools, most of these functions will also work with File Explorer (i.e., Windows 8 or Windows 10), although I might miss something new from those over here.

Just to help with the explanations below, Figure 1 shows my names for the various parts of the interface, so that you know what I am referring to.

Figure 1    Windows Explorer Interface

Getting there

Charity begins at home, they say. So keyboard shortcuts should start with actually accessing the tools. For many programs (including all the Office programs), these keyboard shortcuts will get you started:

Listing 1    Shortcuts for Opening or Accessing Windows Explorer

F12
File Save As dialog (from most applications)

Ctrl + O
File Open dialog (from most applications)

ÿ + E
Open Windows Explorer application

The basics

Like most Microsoft programs (I hate working in programs where the developers have not included a good stable of keyboard shortcuts), the Windows Explorer interface comes with a good set of keyboard shortcuts, only they are perhaps less easy to discover than the more traditional interfaces.

Interface

Listing 2    Shortcuts for Working with the Windows Explorer Interface

Alt + D or F4
Select Folder Address box (Alt + D selects the entry in the box, F4 selects the box and shows a history of previous entries)

Ctrl + F or F3 or Ctrl + E
Select Search box

F5
Refresh the current window

F6 or Tab
Moves among panes in Windows Explorer (Adding Shift reverses the direction)

Alt + P
Toggle the preview pane (one of my favourite “hidden” shortcuts)

Ctrl + Scroll
Switch between views (e.g., List, Details, Small/Medium/Large/Extra Large icons). (I wish there were a keyboard only version of this, so if you know of one, enlighten me. I find the scroll functionality on this particular tool a bit fiddly).

Esc
Cancel in Windows File Management

Ctrl + N
Opens a new window in Windows Explorer

Ctrl + W
Closes the current window in Windows Explorer

F11
Toggle full screen view—can also be done using standard Windows 7 navigation tools, ÿ+Up Arrow for full screen (maximize), or ÿ+Down Arrow for normal size (restore)

Management

Listing 3    Shortcuts for File and Folder Management

Ctrl + Shift + N
Create new folder

F2
Rename

Del
Delete selected files or folders (to recycle bin)

Shift + Del
Delete selected files or folders (semi) permanently

Alt + Enter
Open Properties dialog for selected item

Ctrl + Click
Selects multiple individual items

Ctrl + Click and drag with mouse
Copy the item (Windows appends ” – copy” to the file or folder name)

Ctrl + Shift + Click and drag with mouse
Create a shortcut (*.lnk) for the selected item (Windows appends ” – shortcut” to the file or folder name)

Navigation

Listing 4    Shortcuts for Windows Explorer Navigation

Alt + Right Arrow
Follow breadcrumbs forward

Alt + Left Arrow
Follow breadcrumbs backward

Alt + Up Arrow
Moves up one folder level in Windows Explorer

Backspace
Displays the previous folder in Windows Explorer (i.e., same as Alt + Up Arrow).
Moves up one folder level in Windows File Management

A short explanation of the breadcrumbs is in order. As you navigate through your various folders, Windows Explorer maintains a list of all the locations you visited. These locations are not always in linear succession (i.e., in a succession of child- or parent folders). For example, if you are in a certain sub-sub-sub-sub-folder of an external drive, and you click on one of the shortcuts in the Favorites section of the Windows Explorer folder pane (don’t forget these, they represent one place where the mouse can save you a lot of time, although they can be accessed in about the same amount of time with the keyboard shortcuts already shown). This move will have taken you to a different folder on a different drive. You can click on the Back button (rather press Alt + Left Arrow) to go back to that sub-sub-sub-sub-folder of your external drive). And having done that, you can click Forward (rather press Alt + Right Arrow) to go back once more to Documents. Pressing F4 (not Alt + D will show you the complete list of your previous locations, and you can move up and down that list with the Up Arrow and Down Arrow arrows, and press Enter to select the location of your choice.

Folder pane

These shortcuts work only in the folder pane on the left of the file browser window:

Listing 5    Windows Explorer Folder Pane Shortcuts

Right Arrow
Expands the subfolders of the currently selected folder or goes to the first child if already expanded

Numeric Keypad +
Expands the subfolders of the currently selected folder

Numeric Keypad *
Expands everything under the currently selected folder (don’t do this on C:\)!

Left Arrow
Collapses the subfolders of the currently selected folder or goes to the parent if already collapsed

Numeric Keypad –
Collapses the subfolders of the currently selected folder

Ctrl + Shift + E
Expands the Navigation pane to the folder in which the selected item is found.

More advanced bits

Remember that if you have clicked in the file list of Windows Explorer, you can easily jump to certain files by typing the first letters of a name (you have to type reasonably quickly). So, for example, in Figure 1 I can get to the WordPress folder (and bypass the Word folder) by typing “wordp.” Also, if I wanted to move through the various folders starting with a “c,” I could just press “c” repeatedly with a short break in between.

Figure 2    Selecting an item by typing its name

Then, of course, one of my personal favourites, is typing the destination I want to get it, instead of browsing by a series of mouse clicks. This relies on using the file syntax that derives pretty much all the way from MS-DOS. The first thing you need to know is that you can specify lower-level folders by typing their names. You specify (see below) higher level folders with “..\” and the root with only “\” (all sans the quotes, obviously). You can introduce a succession of lower-level folders by typing the folder names, separated by “\” (again sans quotes).

Listing 6    Text Entries Used for Specifying Higher-Level Folders

..\
Move one folder up (can be combined x number of times for x number of levels).

\
In Windows Explorer, takes you to the root of the main drive.
In Windows File Management, takes you to the root of the current drive.

aaa\bbb\ccc
Specifies folder ccc which is a subfolder of bbb, which is itself a subfolder of aaa, which is itself a subfolder of the current folder.

The best way to demonstrate the power of this technique is with a short video. I am saving a page from the Daily Dose of Excel blog by printing it as a pdf from Chrome. This is relevant for a tool that I am developing, and so I want to keep this, and look at it when I work on this tool. I obviously have to indicate where the pdf must be saved. I last saved a pdf in another folder two levels down in the Documents folder, so I first have to move two levels up (which I do by typing “..\..\”), and then down to “Computer Training\Excel\Tips – Excel\Macros\.” This is a lot of scrolling and clicking with the mouse. However, note that as I type the address into the file name box, Windows Explorer gives me all folder and files that match what I have typed. I then use this to select the folders I want in a fraction of the time it would take to do with the mouse (on an unrepresentative sample of one trial, 13s with the keyboard vs 20s with the mouse, for a 35% increase in efficiency!). Also note that by typing the folder names, I “lose” the file name, but Windows Explorer “remembers” it, so that when I eventually reach the folder I am aiming for, the name is given back (I can, of course, then type a different name if I want).


Video 1    Using typing to select a folder or file

One last tip. Sometimes, I have to “load” a file to a certain program. As one example: When I using the Spreadsheet Compare tool to compare two workbooks. I already have Windows Explorer open at the location where the file is (actually, I can do this trick much quicker in Total Commander, but this blog post is about Windows Explorer). In my program (e.g., Spreadsheet Compare) I have to click on the browse button and this opens the Windows Explorer file browser at a predefined location—e.g., a default location like “Documents” or the last used location, neither of which is what I want. But I can copy the address of the location for my file (in Total Commander I can copy the file name with its location, which means I often do not even have to click on Browse). I do this either by clicking in the Windows Explorer Folder Address box and copying the full location there (see Figure 3), or I can, of course, eschew the mouse and do it all with Alt + D, Ctrl + C, Esc (and I’m done before you even had a chance to see what I’m doing!). [As a side note, F4 doesn’t work as well as Alt + D for this one.] Now I can paste the location into the Spreadsheet Compare file browser (of course, I jumped there from Windows Explorer with Alt + Tab), press Enter, and jump straight to the location where the file is. Better yet, I can type “\” and start typing the file name, and Windows Explorer will give me the names that match—even quicker!

Figure 3    Selecting a folder address from the Address box

One last trick. You can also apply filters in the file name box. So, for example, in Figure 4 I want to see only the Excel files, not all the other files, so I type *.xlsx and press Enter. This will filter the display and show me only Excel (and only xlsx Excel) files.

Figure 4    Applying a filter in the file name box

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A cool browser keyboard shortcut

I am working on a big keyboard shortcut post for 4 November—International Keyboard Shortcut Day in 2015 ;-)—but in the mean time, I made a little discovery today that I felt I should share.

Some time ago, I wrote about learning keyboard shortcuts. And although I often fail, I do still try to practice what I preach (in fact, I have used three already in the first two paragraphs of this post—two for adding the hyperlinks and one for the italics).

In that previous post, I wrote that one way we often discover keyboard shortcuts is by accident—for example, when we press something on the keyboard we did not intend to. You may argue that that makes keyboard shortcuts dangerous—we intend pressing one thing, but press something else, and then we have something bad happen. I counter by pointing out that I am hard pressed to think of a keyboard shortcut for which the handy undo (Ctrl+Z) does not apply. Furthermore, and more to the point, the mouse is also dangerous, if not even more dangerous. I cannot think when I have caused “catastrophic” (i.e., unrecoverable, or at least hard-to-recover) damage with the keyboard, but I can think of several instances with the mouse. How many times have you dragged a file or an e-mail, and dropped it (accidentally, of course) into the wrong folder, and spent ages trying to find your now missing item? Enough said.

Today, I discovered another shortcut like that—I wanted to close a tab in Chrome, and instead of pressing Ctrl+F4, I pressed Ctrl+4 (just a little South of where I wanted to be…). Now when I have multiple browser tabs open (which is all of the time!), I navigate between tabs with the old faithful Ctrl+Tab (or Ctrl+Shift+Tab to reverse direction). However, through this fortuitous mistake, I discovered that when I have multiple tabs open, I can easily jump to a tab by pressing Ctrl+x, where x is the tab’s position number (from left to right). Yes, this will probably not work when you have a gazillion tabs open, but if you have a handful open that will allow you to count at a glance, this will halve the tab navigation time.I also tend to have some standard tabs open in standard positions (GMail, my website dashboard, etc.), so this will help me jump to those tabs very quickly from now on.

A little further testing has shown that the way this shortcut works is that Ctrl+1 through Ctrl+8 take you through the first 8 tabs, while Ctrl+9 handily takes you to the very last tab.

My next step was to immediately test it in other browsers, and I am happy to report that, like numerous other browser shortcuts (e.g., Ctrl+T to open a new tab, Alt+D to select the address bar), it works in Internet Explorer (I’ll test it in Edge later) and Firefox as well. So there you have it: One new shortcut in three new contexts.

So this is one small incremental improvement in productivity (made more so by the multiple browsers in which it works), but the important thing to remember with using keyboard shortcuts is that it all adds up—the gain from using one shortcut one time is minimal, but the gain from using many shortcuts multiple times is huge!

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Learning Keyboard Shortcuts

This week (Week 26 of 2014, for the Excel aficionados), we have had a very interesting discussion on the Word-PC e-mail list about keyboard shortcuts. This led to me sending a mail to the list about how to teach oneself keyboard shortcuts (or, more precisely, the system I use to teach myself—and I am still continuously learning—keyboard shortcuts). Since I realise that it might prove useful to others, I have modified that mail slightly for this blog post. If you find what I write below useful, this topic is discussed in greater detail in my book on Word, together with many others topics that you might benefit from.

First up, how not to learn keyboard shortcuts: Don’t search for a list and try to commit it to memory. This fails, because firstly we are overloading our brains with too much information in too short a space of time (any student can verify this three weeks after an exam). Secondly, we are dealing with the list as an abstract thing, and not relating it to our use.

My own experience has been that a very simple discipline (which I will get to shortly) has worked very well for learning keyboard shortcuts.

Before that, though, it is useful to examine how we discover keyboard shortcuts. Yes, lists are useful for that—every time I see an article on keyboard shortcuts, I make certain that I read it (I just picked up a new Excel keyboard shortcut this week in that manner). Second, we all (or at least those who type as inaccurately as I do) have had the experience of pressing something on the keyboard, and seeing something go haywire (e.g. we wanted Shift+R for an uppercase R, but hit Ctrl+R and right-aligned our paragraph). Normally we just undo (Ctrl+Z), but I normally take some time out, try to see if I can figure out what I just hit (I will sometimes undo and try to recreate the keyboard shortcut with what I thought I was typing). I will also evaluate whether this keyboard shortcut is useful for me—if not (e.g., the keyboard shortcuts in Word for Danish characters are some that, no offense to the Danes, I hope I never have to use), then I just forget about it and carry on with my life. If it does appear to be useful, then I will set about learning it. Also, it pays to be observant. It amazes me that people look at menus, and never see (i.e., observe) the keyboard shortcuts listed in those menus (of course, since Office 2007, the Office keyboard shortcuts are displayed in better-hidden tooltips—yet another way Microsoft seems intent on de-cluttering by dumbing down).

One other note before I get to the learning bit. Some keyboard shortcuts are system-wide—meaning they will either work on the OS level, or will work for almost all programs known to man (if you will excuse the exaggeration). Examples are Ctrl+C for Copy, Ctrl+P for Print, Ctrl+S for Save, etc.). Some are, for want of a better term, platform-wide (e.g., Ctrl+H for Replace in all of the Microsoft Office programs, while Ctrl+R does the same in many other programs). And some are program-specific (e.g., Ctrl+Alt+M for a comment in Word, which is Shift+F2 in Excel). If I am working in a new program, I will (after having duly saved my work), freely experiment in that program with keyboard shortcuts that I believe would work there (i.e., those keyboard shortcuts that are in the first two categories I mentioned). I’ve never had a computer meltdown as a result of this (yet!), and it gives me, so to speak, more bang for my buck for the effort of learning keyboard shortcuts.

So, how do we learn keyboard shortcuts?

Still not there yet…. Some keyboard shortcuts are mnemonic (Ctrl+B for Bold, Ctrl+I for italics, Ctrl+C for Copy—and, on that point, notice the position of the X,C,V keys on a qwerty keyboard, and remember Cut, Copy, Paste—and, in Word, Ctrl+L for Left alignment, Ctrl+R for Right alignment, and Ctrl+J for Justified alignment, etc.). Unfortunately, not all keyboard shortcuts can be mnemonic (e.g., Ctrl+C is already taken, so Centre alignment in Word becomes Ctrl+E). Obviously, mnemonic keyboard shortcuts are going to be easier to remember, but we need to go further.

So, how do we learn keyboard shortcuts?

Firstly, one or two at a time. This overcomes the first mistake I noted at the start. Sometimes I will do a handful at a time (e.g., when I discovered various commonly used number formats in Excel with Ctrl+Shift+1 (Ctrl+!), Ctrl+Shift+2 (Ctrl+@), Ctrl+Shift+3 (Ctrl+#), Ctrl+Shift+4 (Ctrl+$), Ctrl+Shift+5 (Ctrl+%), Ctrl+Shift+6 (Ctrl+^)—although I never use the last one in my line of work). But when I do teach myself a whole bunch of keyboard shortcuts, there will be some relation between them, as in the list I just showed here.

Secondly, we want to relate it to usage (thus overcoming the second mistake mentioned above). Allow me to explain, because here I am finally coming to that little discipline that I hinted at. For example, this week I learned that Ctrl+6 hides all objects in an Excel worksheet. If I didn’t get that from a list (I did, in this instance: http://www.databison.com/so-how-many-of-these-excel-shortcuts-do-you-know-punk) then I will make a note of it. Now I don’t work with objects in most of my sheets, so it may be two or three weeks before I get an opportunity to use that one. By then, I will have forgotten it. So three weeks from now, most people think to themselves:
“What was that keyboard shortcut for hiding objects again? Arrghh. Can’t remember it. Ah well, that just proves that this keyboard shortcut stuff is a load of junk. I’ll take my mouse, click Home | Find and Select | Selection Pane, and then click on Hide All.”

What I do, in contrast, is use this little discipline: I stop, go back to my list or note, look the keyboard shortcut up, and then use it. This process of using it activates a second memory channel (muscle engrams—go look it up), over and above the cognitive memory process. We all use this, we just don’t think about it. For example, I’m standing in front of the ATM to draw cash, and it’s one of those days where, for the life of me, I can’t remember my PIN number. So what do I do? Hopefully, not pull out the little slip of paper—that everyone can see!—where I scribbled it down. I know people who have had their accounts emptied in this way! No, I make as if I’m going to type the PIN, and suddenly it comes back to me. I am using my muscle engrams (the same things tennis or cricket or any other sport players use to perform those shots so masterfully) to bring back the memory of what my PIN is. In other words, the part of my brain that moves my hand to type my PIN also remembers that action—it is a second memory channel. So when I use that with keyboard shortcuts, I am actually memorising the keyboard shortcut in two different ways (cognitively and “physically”). In fact, even now, I sometimes struggle to recall what a certain keyboard shortcut is, but if I get behind the keyboard and make as if I’m going to do it, I can figure it out again.

Now sure, that process of stopping, looking up the keyboard shortcut, and using it, does take longer than just doing it with the mouse. But it is a short term loss for a long term gain. Once that keyboard shortcut is mastered, I will save a few seconds every time I use it, regaining and overtaking what I have lost in looking it up once or twice.

And one last thing. I know keyboard shortcuts are not for everyone. I must also confess that I am not musophbic (go look it up, although I am twisting the word beyond its original intention), and the mouse has its place—some things really cannot be done without the mouse (some programs, for example, are really not keyboard shortcut friendly) and some things (not many, but they are there) can be done faster with the mouse than the keyboard. Some things, of course, can only be done with the keyboard and mouse in conjunction (macros aside): Did you know that you can select one sentence in Word by holding the Ctrl key while clicking anywhere in that sentence? (This does sometimes trip over abbreviations, though.)

But keyboard shortcuts definitely do help you work faster, and keyboard shortcuts can help out in the most unlikely situations—those that you have never thought of (have you ever tried working with the touchpad of your laptop while seated in a plane going through some turbulence?). So much so that, in addition to keyboard shortcuts, I have memorised quite a few ribbon manipulations on the keyboard (for one example, Alt | JL | F | C to AutoFit a table in Word—I defy you to do it quicker with the mouse than I do with the keyboard. Sure, I could create a keyboard shortcut for that and do it seven split seconds faster, but typing that string is so quick, I hardly see the need.

The question then becomes twofold: So how many keyboard shortcuts do you know, punk? And, more importantly, how many keyboard shortcuts will you know a year from now?

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