(under Windows, anyway)

I use a computer almost every day, usually for hours at a time. The nature of my work means that I must often work as quickly as possible. I've been using a keyboard since before I knew how to read, so I'm a good typist. But the mouse is a comparatively new introduction into my life, and it's always slowed me down more than it has helped me. Perhaps this is because I'm left-handed. Perhaps it's because I'm resistant to change (nah). Perhaps it's because the mouse doesn't work well with the gigantic desktop and high resolution that I use. Or perhaps it's because the mouse is a clumsy tool which creates as many problems as it solves. Is it me, or is it the mouse? Most likely it's a little from column A, a little from column B. Regardless, I've spent a fair amount of time and energy figuring out ways to avoid using it.

This purpose of this writeup is to explain a little of what I've learned. Even if you don't feel the way I do about the mouse, you can probably make use of these tricks during those annoying situations when your mouse stops working.

THEORY

  1. Chording is faster than clicking.

    One of the major weaknesses of the mouse is not well suited for rapid movement between different tasks. It's elegant for point-and-click, but sadly almost all meaningful use of a computer cannot be reduced to point-and-click in any efficient form.

    Since you can use a keyboard without much movement of your arms, you can shift between different tasks more quickly than you are able to do when you use a mouse. Most mouse tasks can be replaced by hotkeys or other chorded combinations of keys.

    In this context, chording means combining regular keys such as Tab and C with modifier keys such as Shift or Alt. I also use the term to refer to actions like holding down the shift key while you use the arrow keys to move across text.

  2. Avoid using the mouse to switch context.

    The worst of all worlds in the uneasy truce between a mouse and a keyboard is when you are entering text into several fields and using a mouse to switch between them. It's near-impossible to enter data quickly when your right hand spends too much time out of contact with your input devices.

    This is why use of the tab key is your friend, in all its variations. It's the standard method of switching between fields on a form (just tab to move forward, shift-tab to move backward); it can be used to change between windows (alt-tab and shift-alt-tab). It can even move your cursor into selection fields (such as the 'Ok' button in a dialog box, or one of the section tabs in a multi-tabbed dialog).

    Almost every context switch available in Windows can be accomplished with the keyboard. Since context switches are your biggest reason for using a mouse, learning to do them with a keyboard can really improve your efficiency.

  3. Practice makes perfect.

    Avoiding use of the mouse is awkward at first, because you haven't memorized the various rhythms and keystroke combinations which are replacing your mouse movement. Trust in your methods, and eventually the awkwardness will pass.

TECHNOLOGY

  1. Score yourself a virtual desktop.

    One of the major reasons to use a mouse is to change context. Changing context almost always means changing windows. A virtual desktop is a better way to manage your windows. Using a virtual desktop to prevent overlap between windows makes your context switches fewer, and more graceful. The best virtual desktops (I use Vern) allow you to move between desktops with your keyboard.

  2. Use accessibility options to turn your numeric keypad into a mouse.

    Sometimes you'll run into obnoxious programs which force you to use the mouse to accomplish certain tasks. Although I generally advise avoiding software like this at all costs, modern versions of the Windows operating system offer an accessibility option called MouseKeys which lets you use your numeric keypad to like a rudimentary mouse, and can be toggled on and off with the Num Lock key. I don't use this unless I'm in situations where a mouse is extremely inconvenient, but it's good to know about nonetheless.

  3. assign your own hotkeys where possible.

    One of the best trends in software today is an increasing level of customization available to the end-user. In the OS itself, as well as in software, we are given opportunities to assign our own hotkeys. As you develop your own style, this becomes an invaluable feature. There are a lot of ways to do it, from custom software to registry hacks to basic configuration in software you already have. Take the time to research these ways, and try to assign new hotkeys to any frequent tasks for which you find yourself resorting to the use of your mouse.

EDUCATION

  1. Learn your hotkeys.

    Most hotkeys involve the use of Control or Alt and a letter on the keyboard. Windows convention is that an underlined letter on a menu option indicates that an Alt-Letter hotkey can be used to select that menu option. (In newer versions of Windows, you may need to hold down the Alt key to reveal these underlines. The old behavior can be restored from the Display section of the Control Panel.) Once you've used a hotkey to open a pull-down menu, you can use the arrow keys to navigate it and Enter to select, or you can use the underlined letters to quick-select an item. A commonly-used example of this is Alt-F, C, to open the File menu and Close the active document.

    The Windows OS itself includes some useful hotkeys. Windows-R will raise the 'Run' dialog, and is a good way to access commands, files and directories without using the mouse and the explorer to get to them. Windows-E will raise the explorer; Windows-D will display the desktop, Windows-M will minimize all visible windows. There are others which vary by OS. Check your help files.

    Another convention is that the hotkey for a task is listed next to the name of the task in pull-down menus. Beyond this, the help files included with most software will have a section that lists hotkeys for the most common tasks. Many hotkeys are even undocumented; discover these through accident, experimentation, and discussion with other users.

    Memorizing hotkeys for common tasks and learning how to identify new hotkeys is a huge help in avoiding use of the mouse. Make a special point of memorizing common hotkeys like Control-C for copy, Control-X for cut, and Control-V for paste. If context switching and pull-down menus are the leading causes of mouse use, cut and paste is a close runner-up for many users.

  2. Learn to highlight and manipulate text and objects with the keyboard.

    In most situations where you can move the cursor with your arrow keys, you can chord the arrow keys to change the action. I'll discuss text selection first, and then object/icon selection.

    In text selection:

    arrow
    moves the cursor in the specified direction.
    control-arrow
    moves the cursor to the beginning of the next word
    shift-arrow
    highlights text as the cursor moves over it
    control-shift-arrow
    highlights text a word at a time
    home
    moves the cursor to the start of the line
    end
    moves the cursor to the end of the line
    shift-home
    highlights to the start of the line
    shift-end
    highlights to the end of the line
    control-home
    moves the cursor to the beginning of the text
    control-end
    moves the cursor to the end of the text
    control-shift-home
    highlights to the beginning of the text
    control-shift-end
    highlights to the end of the text

    In object selection:

    arrow/home/end
    moves the cursor and the selection follows
    control-arrow/home/end
    moves the cursor without changing the selection
    spacebar
    selects the current target without releasing previous selections; the same as a single-click
    shift-arrow/home/end
    moves the cursor, selects the new target without releasing previous selections
    enter
    perform the default action on the selection; the same as a double-click
    alphanumeric keys
    jump to objects which begin with that key

  3. Learn to launch programs and manipulate files with the keyboard.

    Launching programs is another common task to be completed with the mouse. You can almost always launch a program more quickly with your keyboard than with your mouse, if you know how to find the program. You can get into the Start Menu with Control-Escape or by pressing your Windows key. You can move through the start menu with the arrow keys, or you can use letters of the alphabet to jump to similarly-titled icons (in fact, most of the object-selection techniques I detail above work in the Start Menu). You can fake a right-click on an icon with the nameless key to the right of your right windows key (it's sometimes called the application key, but I don't think that's an official name for it).

  4. Learn to manipulate windows with the keyboard.

  5. Manipulation (scrolling, resizing, moving, and closing) of windows is the final task which is commonly thought of as mouse-only. Scrolling with the keyboard is easy in most windows; use page-up and page-down or your arrow keys. If that doesn't work, try hitting tab until your focus moves into the object which contains the scrollbar.

    You can accomplish most of the other manipulation tasks by using the Alt-Spacebar hotkey to open up the window manipulation pull-down menu which lives in the upper left-hand corner of most windows.

    To resize a window:
    Use Alt-Spacebar, S. Then use the arrow keys to resize the window.
    To move a window:
    Use Alt-Spacebar, M. Then use the arrow keys to move the window.
    To minimize a window:
    Use Alt-Spacebar, N.
    To maximize a window:
    Use Alt-Spacebar, X.
    To restore a window:
    Use Alt-Spacebar, R.
    To close a window:
    You can use Alt-Spacebar, C, but you should try Alt-F4 instead.

    In Vern, minimizing a window in one virtual desktop and then using alt-tab to switch back to it in another virtual desktop is a good way to use the keyboard to move the window into another desktop.


pi reminds me that Control-A is the hotkey for "select all", and points out that Control-Tab and Control-Shift-Tab sometimes move you back and forth between different tabs in a window.
LX tells me that "The 'nameless key' is usually called 'the context menu key'."
OldMiner points out that Shift-F10 does the same thing as the context menu key. He also pointed out a change to Windows XP that hides the underlining of hotkey letters.

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