Return of the Keyboard Shortcut

Wednesday Apr 23rd 2008 by Mike Elgan
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Two Web sites boost your personal productivity by helping you enter computer commands more quickly.

Twenty-five years ago, everyone who used a PC mastered a long list of keyboard shortcuts. But as the Mac, and later Windows 3.x and other GUI-based operating systems proliferated, only “power users” still clung to the use of keyboard shortcuts in situations where a point and a click of the mouse would do.

The reason “power users” liked keystrokes is that they were – and are – faster than pointing and clicking with a mouse. Speed is the upside. The requirement to learn the keystrokes is the downside.

The conventional wisdom is that icons are pretty and shiny and that keyboard shortcuts are ugly and scary. But for applications or Web sites used every day, keyboard shortcuts are far more appealing in actual practice. The reason is that keyboard shortcuts become habits that you can do without even thinking. Muscle memory takes over, and they become second nature. But icons always require mental processing and time-consuming, spastic lurching from mouse to keyboard and back. This is a nugget of geek wisdom lost to the sands of time.

Fast forward to 2008 and the era of online productivity applications, which are on balance even more icon-happy and less keystroke-friendly than the world of Windows, Mac and Linux desktop applications.

I have, however, been gravitating lately to two sites that I use all day, every day, which are by far the most powerful and fastest sites I’ve found. One is an online to-do list called Todoist, and the other is a search site called Quick.as.

Besides being super fast to use and ultra minimalist in design, these two sites have something else in common: their power comes from the use of keyboard shortcuts.

Note that many sites we all use every day can take advantage of keyboard shortcuts. The blog Mashable.com, for example, published a long list of keyboard shortcuts for popular sites from Google to Yahoo to Wikipedia Blogger.

But Todoist and Quick.as use keyboard shortcuts not as a peripheral option, but as the core usage model and the key to their power. Let’s take a closer look.

Todoist

Todoist is a to-do list maker. For basic use, press the letter “A” to add a to-do item. After typing in the item, pressing “Enter” adds it. Even the most novice user and keystroke-averse can easily see the power of this keystroke when adding three or four items in a row.

You can use Todoist using just the “A” key and “Enter” key if you want to. But you won’t want to. Pressing “Shift+A” adds an item to the top, rather than the bottom of your list. “Ctrl+” left or right arrow keys indents, up or down arrow keys saves the current item and lets you edit the item above or below it.

You use keystrokes for text formatting, sorting by priority, date, etc., and other basic functions. Even more powerful are keyboard shortcuts for dates, which are abbreviations for words. For example, “tod” means “today” and “tom” means “tomorrow.” So, the full process for adding a to-do item to call Fred tomorrow is: “A Call Fred tom .” Entering in a number commands Todoist to add that day of the month, so typing “26” in the Date field will magically turn into “April 26, 2008.” There are many more powerful date-related keyboard shortcuts.

I’m just scratching the surface here with Todoist’s keyboard shortcuts and other features. The bottom line is that Todoist is a super-simple to-do list application that is powerful precisely because of its keyboard shortcut centricity.

Quick.as

Quick.as is one of those single-search-box sites that let you launch searches to a very large number of search engines and sites – 246 according to my count (compare this with the 36 searches available via the popular Sputtr site).

The difference is that Quick.as uses keyboard shortcuts. So to search for “Trojan War” in Google, you search “g trojan war” and hit enter. To run the same search in the Wikipedia, you type “w trojan war.” And so on.

The beauty of Quick.as is that once you type in a letter, a quick drop-down shows you all the options that begin with that letter. For example, when you type “w” in the search engine, the drop-down menu offers Wikipedia, Windows Live Search, White Pages, Time & Date, Weather, WebMD, Weight Convert, What is my IP Address and Whois. (The reason “Time & Date” is in the “W” category is that the keystroke is “wt” as in “what time?”) You can finish typing the keystroke, or just click on the option. Your choice.

Better still, Quick.as is customizable. You can add your own sites and associate them with your own keyboard shortcuts if you like.

Todoist and Quick.as are by far the most time-efficient tools I’ve ever found online, and they’re efficient in part because of their intelligent use of keyboard shortcuts.

Give them a try, and please tell me how they work out for you. And shoot me a note with any other keyboard shortcut-enhanced productivity sites you use: mike.elgan@elgan.com

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