Simple Mac Shortcuts

Recently at work we upgraded most of my coworkers to Macs. This is great for me because I love the platform, but not everyone is as familiar as I am with OS X.

I spent a few brief moments trying to explain the paradigms of the Mac, but alas, there was actual work to be done. I hope this post can serve as a guide for anyone new to the Mac that wants to work just a little bit faster.

Intuitive Shortcuts That Are Meant to Be Used

Unlike some other platforms, Mac keyboard shortcuts follow a simple pattern. The basic rule of the thumb is that the Command key does most everything. It commands your computer1. Your most used shortcuts are going to be based around the Command key, so get used to pressing it often!

The King: Command-Tab

A typical computer user is in many applications simultaneously. Most people change focus between their apps by clicking into them. Don’t do that.

The biggest time-saving shortcut that I can teach you is Command-Tab. This shortcut lets you change applications very quickly. Instead of hunting and pecking, trying to find that one app that you need, you’ll be able to get more done sooner.

This shortcut works in two ways. The first is fast switching. By pressing Command-Tab and releasing it quickly, you’ll be instantly in your last used app.

The other way Command-Tab works is by showing you a list of open applications so you can choose from what’s open. Cycle through your apps by keeping Command held down and pressing Tab. Passed up the app you need? Don’t worry, just keep Command held down and tap `. This will let you cycle back through your apps in the other direction.

You can even use your mouse in the Application Switcher if you’re more comfortable with that. I highly recommend getting used to the keyboard, however.

The King’s Cousin: Command-`

If you have multiple windows open in the same application, there’s an easy way to cycle through them, Command-`. This shortcut is the companion to application switching and comes in handy almost as regularly.

Get Some Closure: Command-Q

Closing applications isn’t something most people deal with on their iOS devices2. However, on a Mac, it is imperative for keeping your computer fast.

When you’re done with an application, close it using Command-Q. It’s a simple shortcut that saves you from hunting through the menu bar for “Quit Application”.

This shortcut does have severe ramifications if hit accidentally in certain applications. The major case for this web browsers. If you’re not careful, you can accidentally close ALL OF YOUR TABS. I’ve done that a few times and it isn’t fun at all.

Thankfully, Chrome has added a setting that forces you to hold Command-Q to quit it, instead of just a tap. Turn this feature on by going to the menu bar, clicking “Chrome” and then selecting “Warn Before Quitting (⌘Q)”. It will save you at least once, I promise.

Getting Closure Part II: Command-W

If you’re done with a particular window or document, you can quickly close it with Command-W. This works just the same as Command-Q so watch yourself with this one as well.

See What You’re Doing: Spacebar

Ever need to get a quick look at a file that you’ve selected to make sure it’s the right one? OS X has your back. Hit the Spacebar on any file that you’ve got selected on your Desktop or in Finder. You should see a preview take up most of your screen of that file. No need to open a program just to check if it’s the thing you’re looking for.

Mac Desktop with Quicklook enabled

Mac Desktop with Quicklook enabled

Use and abuse QuickLook. Most common files will give you a preview just by hitting the Spacebar. You’ll love it, trust me.

Taking Screenshots

Screenshots are integral to the modern workplace. Personally, I take at least a couple shots every day.

The Whole Screen: Shift-Command-3

The simplest way to take a screenshot on a Mac is hitting Shift-Command-3. This will capture your whole screen and place an image on your desktop. If you have multiple screens set up, you will get two files, so make sure to double check that you’ve got the right file before sharing it by using QuickLook.

Part of the Screen: Shift-Command-4

A screenshot of taking a screenshot

A screenshot of taking a screenshot


Sometimes, you don’t need to share your entire screen with the world. That’s where Shift-Command-4 comes in. This shortcut gives you crosshairs to crop exactly what you want to share with people. I use this tool all of the time.

Selecting a single window for the screenshot

Selecting a single window for the screenshot

You can also hit the Spacebar once you’ve pressed Shift-Command-4 to select only one window at a time. This is perfect for when you want to capture only what’s happening in a particular app.

Find Things: Command-Space

Lastly, I leave you with Command-Space which triggers Spotlight. Never lose anything again by searching for it with Spotlight. Documents, applications, the weather and more is at the tips of your fingers just by pressing Command-Space. I won’t overwhelm you with the power of Spotlight, but just trust me, use it and you will fall in love.

Don’t Learn Everything at Once

I didn’t pick up all of these shortcuts in an afternoon, nor should you. The key to shortcuts is that they become engrained in your muscle memory. My advice, pick one shortcut a day. Become a master at that shortcut and soon you’ll be moving through your Mac as fast as possible.


  1. I couldn’t resist the pun 
  2. A common misconception for saving battery is closing all of your apps on your iPhone. Don’t do that. It actually makes your device run significantly worse. It’s basically shutting off your car every time you come to a stop. 
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