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Use Your Mac Better

Entry 1982, on 2019-05-29 at 13:09:31 (Rating 1, Computers)

I'm an IT support person and part-time programmer, hardware installer, and server manager. So I see a wide range of issues that users have to contend with, and I see a lot of people who really aren't using their computers (or phones or tablets) very efficiently. And that is unfortunate, because I primarily support Apple products, and Apple do put more emphasis than most on usability.

Sometimes I am working on a user's computer and they just seem to be completely amazed at how quickly and easily I can get things done. It's almost as if the computer has read my mind and just done what I wanted through some sort of subliminal connection. I don't want to come across as being too self-congratulatory here, because I should fully expect that I will be good at using computers since I spend so much of my time in front of one, and I aren't as good as other people in other areas, but there is no doubt that I am pretty freakin' amazing using a Mac!

So I wouldn't expect a person who has other factors in their lives which are more important than computers to achieve the same competence as a person who uses one "all the time", but I can offer a few tips on how to get better and to at least get a bit closer to the skill level of an expert. And it's not actually that hard. There are just a few basic tips that could make people much better, and they only have to start using them one at a time so that they become automatic fairly quickly.

So, without further preamble, here is my list...

First, you should stop using the mouse when you are doing word processing (or text editing, or working with spreadsheets, or most other tasks primarily involving text and numbers). You should use the keyboard instead, because when typing, constantly switching from the keyboard to the mouse is both time consuming, and interrupts the basic modality of the interaction with the computer.

So if I am typing a sentence, like this one, and accidentally type a word incorrectly (my spelling is good, but my typing isn't so great when I try to type quickly) I don't use the mouse to go back and correct it. In fact, I typed the word "isn't" above with a semicolon instead of a quote (or apostrophe) so I needed to go back and correct it. But I only noticed the error when I got tot he word "great".

So here's how I fixed that: I pressed option back-arrow three times (held down the option key and pressed back-arrow 3 times, then released the option key), pressed delete, typed the quote, and pressed option forward-arrow three times, and continued typing. That sounds complicated, but try it, and after a bit of practice it is super fast and super easy. The option back-arrow is a common Mac shortcut to go back one word (the back-arrow key by itself goes back one character, of course, but that is too slow).

After practicing this for a while the correction can be made so quickly that to many people it looks like the change has happened without any interaction by the user at all!

The option modifier works with the up and down arrow keys too, where it moves the cursor up and down by one paragraph at a time. So that's a quick way to get up and down the page without having to use the mouse. And most people can see quickly how many paragraphs to move without even thinking, so when you know you need to move (say) 3 paragraphs up just press option up-arrow 3 times quickly and the cursor will "magically" appear in the right place!

The command modifier is also useful for this sort of navigation. Press command left-arrow to move to the left margin, and command right-arrow to move to the right margin. Or use command up-arrow to move to the top of the document. Note that Microsoft Word gets this wrong and moves to the next paragraph instead, but you can use command function left-arrow instead (why, Microsoft?).

Unfortunately, non standard programs do make these tips slightly less useful, but if you are forced to use Microsoft products (I don't) you can still adapt fairly easily.

Finally, in the modifier plus arrow-key series there is the shift key. This modifies what you are doing by highlighting what you are moving over. Hold down shift and press back-arrow and you highlight the last character typed. Hold down shift and option, and press back-arrow and you highlight the last word typed. So if I typed a few words and wanted to change them I can really easily. For example, in that sentence I originally typed "some characters" instead of "a few words" so I pressed option shift back-arrow twice and just typed "a few words" instead. After using the arrow key combinations the words I wanted to delete were highlighted and just typing then replaced them.

This is also useful to style text after typing it. For example, if I wanted to type a sentence like "I can bold words" and have the word "bold" in bold I would do this: type "I can bold " (note the space after the word), press option back-arrow, press shift option forward-arrow, press command-B, press forward-arrow, continue typing. Again, it sounds hard but is automatic after a while, I sometimes don't even look at the screen because I just know it will work.

Here's why it works: option back-arrow goes back to the beginning of the previous word ("bold"), shift option forward-arrow highlights the word, command-B bold it, and forward-arrow unhighlights the word skips over so I can continue typing. And remember that space? That was a sort of "barrier" to stop the bold "leaking" into the next word. Try it without the space and see what happens.

Of course, in this example, if I had remembered to bold the word as I was typing it I would have just typed "I can " command-B "bold" command-B " words". The first command-B turns on bolding and the second turns it off again.

The awesome thing is that the arrow key modifier combinations are easy when you think of them the right way. The option modifier moves by a unit (word or paragraph) instead of a single character. The command modifier moves a bigger unit (paragraph, page, or whole document depending on the app) The shift modifier just highlights instead of simply moving. That's all you need to know, because the rest is just using combinations of these. Of course, I hope you already know a few basic keyboard shortcuts like command-B for commands like bolding!

So enough about text editing, how about some ideas for managing working in different apps more efficiently? Well, the one simple thing which surprisingly few people use, is command-tab. If you hold down the command key (just keep it down for this whole explanation), then press tab, you will see a list of icons for apps appear on the screen (the "app switcher") with the next one highlighted. Continue to hold down the command key and each time you press tab the next icon will be highlighted. If you go too far you can keep pressing tab until the selected icon loops around to the start again, or press back-tick (`) instead of tab to go back one. Release command to bring the selected app to the front.

You can also quit and hide apps this way. When you reach an app (while still holding down command), press H to hide it or Q to quit it. To quit the next three apps, hold down command, press tab Q Q Q `, then release command. Note the final back-tick which brings you back to the app you started with. Also note that you must be already running 4 apps for this to work, and that one app (the Finder) cannot be quit!

There is one clever design feature of this system which you can use too. That is that as you use apps they get moved to the left of the app icon list. So you always know that the app you are currently using will be on the left, and the app you used just before that is next to it. So to switch to the app you just used before moving to the current one, just press command-tab (hold down command, press tab, release command immediately). The next app will come to the front without you even seeing the app switcher icons.

Finally, here's a hint for keeping your screen decluttered while working with many apps. Sometimes you might like to only have the windows for the current app you are working in shown. For example, if you are word processing you might not want to have any distractions from a browser window showing an animated ad or something similar. Other times you might have finished using an app for a while and want to have its windows hidden while you work somewhere else. For example, you might have finished with a game for a while and want to do some work!

One way to solve this is to work in full screen mode, but that is often not helpful when you do want more than one app visible. So I suggest learning a couple of keyboard shortcuts instead. First, use command-H to hide the window or windows belonging to the current program. So if you are finished with that game, but might want to continue later, just press command-H. That will hide the app without saving, deleting, or closing any windows. Second use command-option-H to hide all the windows *except* the current one. So if you are in a word processor and want all other distractions hidden, press command-option-H to hide every other app.

You can re-display any hidden app by just clicking on its icon in the dock, but you will use the command-tab trick I talked about above instead, of course!

Now, let's put it all together. Imagine you have found a useful page in Safari (or other web browser) and want to insert that link at the bottom of a word processing document, and you are have just switched back from Safari and are currently editing the word processor document. Try this: command-tab command-L command-C command-H command-down-arrow command-V. I'll leave it as a project for you to figure out why that worked - or didn't if you got any of the steps a bit wrong!

So there are a few basic tricks for using your Mac more efficiently. Just try one at a time, and when that one becomes second nature, move into the next one. Soon you'll be just as good as me. Well, maybe not that good!

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Comment 1 (5055) by Jim on 2019-08-01 at 19:58:54:

Thanks for the tips. Not sure if I can use them all, but I might use some. Can we have more?

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Comment 2 (5057) by OJB on 2019-08-01 at 22:26:57:

Well, it's great to know that my efforts are appreciated. Thanks for the positive feedback!

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