Master your Mac by creating custom keyboard shortcuts

When Apple's default shortcuts don't work for you, create your own.
A woman lounging on a couch with a silver Macbook on her lap, possibly considering how she can create shortcuts for macOS.
You don't need a trackpad when you have shortcuts. Mimi Thian / Unsplash

Perhaps you too have frowned whenever you think about those seemingly wasted seconds spent moving your hands from your keys to your mouse and back again, over and over and over. Time is money. That’s why learning—and creating—the right keyboard shortcuts can be such an advantage, as they allow you to whizz around your system faster and more comfortably.

All operating systems have presets you can work with, but if macOS doesn’t have the shortcuts you need, you can easily create your own. These custom key presses can help you get stuff done much more quickly, whether you’re launching apps and menus, manipulating files, or performing repetitive tasks such as closing programs at the end of the day.

This is exciting, but before you dive in and start creating shortcuts for macOS, we’d recommend familiarizing yourself with the hotkeys already available. It’ll save you from duplicating existing combos.

Create macOS shortcuts using Apple’s built-in settings

The good news is that one way to create custom macOS shortcuts is built right into the operating system. The bad news is that it doesn’t give you a great deal of flexibility, and you might also need to use a third-party program, depending on what you want to do. To get started, open up System Settings from the Apple menu, then choose Keyboard and Keyboard Shortcuts. A new dialog box will appear with a list of shortcut types on the left.

Click any of the options in the sidebar (like Mission Control or App Shortcuts), and you’ll see a list of the shortcuts already enabled. The combinations under each category cover a host of actions—from taking a screenshot to opening the Launchpad interface. Many of them can be enabled and disabled using the check boxes to their left.

To assign a new shortcut to an action that doesn’t already have one, double-click none and hit the new keys. To edit an existing shortcut, double-click the existing key combo, then type the new keys.

[Related: 38 advanced Mac keyboard shortcuts]

If you try to assign a keyboard shortcut that’s already in use, macOS will warn you with a message on the screen. You’ll still be able to carry on, though, as when you type in a shortcut, the system will launch all the actions linked to it. This, however, may result in your computer slowing down or even crashing, depending on which programs or actions the shortcuts trigger, so it’s better to keep combinations unique.

To create new shortcuts for your macOS apps, click App Shortcuts, then the plus icon. You’ll get to pick the app and then the menu item inside the app that you want to access. If the action you want isn’t listed on a menu, you can’t create a shortcut to it. Not with this tool, anyway.

Get some help from another program

The Alfred tool for creating custom shortcuts on macOS.
Alfred is great for finding files in your computer, but you can also use it to create shortcuts beyond macOS’ built-in capabilities. David Nield for Popular Science

If the macOS keyboard shortcut creation tool doesn’t cover everything you need, there are plenty of third-party programs that will be able to help you out.

One of our favorites is Alfred, which will be familiar to macOS power users. It acts as a supercharged system search tool and launcher that also supports customized keyboard shortcuts. You can use it to set key combos for a host of actions including opening apps and files and searching the web.

To customize your shortcuts, open Alfred from the menu bar and pick Preferences. There, you’ll see the General tab, where you can set the main hotkey to enable Alfred, and the Features tab, where you can set shortcuts for particular actions related to files and apps. For more complex keyboard shortcuts (including those controlling media and the clipboard), you can upgrade to a Powerpack version for £34 (about $43).

Another alternative is Keyboard Maestro. It’s $36, but it’s a very comprehensive tool and you can try it for free. The program can create more sophisticated shortcuts than Alfred, with the option to tie several actions together, and support for everything—from entering text to controlling system settings.

To create a shortcut for macOS with Keyboard Maestro, click the plus button at the bottom of the interface. You’ll need to assign the keyboard shortcut first, and then you can tell the program what you want it to do. The program is slightly more complicated than Alfred in terms of building actions, so if you don’t find it as intuitive, you can get more information on how the app works by clicking on Tutorial from the Help menu.

Create keyboard shortcuts inside your Mac apps

The shortcuts menu inside Adobe Photoshop.
Shortcuts in Photoshop can be useful for accessing tools buried deep inside the main menu. David Nield for Popular Science

We’ve got no idea which programs you have on your Mac, but chances are that at least some support customized keyboard shortcuts. If they do, you’ll need to manage your key combos inside each app rather than across macOS as a whole.

Microsoft Word for macOS is one program that allows you to create custom keyboard shortcuts. To find the feature inside Word, you’ll need to choose Tools, then Customize Keyboard. You’ll see a new dialog box with all the commands and menu options you can assign shortcuts to—select one and press your chosen shortcut to link them. Make sure to use unique combinations, as any new ones you create will override the old ones. Don’t worry, though—you’ll be warned if your chosen shortcut is already in use.

[Related: 4 tips and hidden settings that will speed up macOS]

Finally, use the drop-down menu at the bottom of the dialog box to choose whether the shortcuts apply to all Word documents (the Normal.dotm template) or just the current one (Document1 or whatever the currently open file is called).

If you have Adobe Photoshop on your Mac, you can set up customized shortcuts to get to your favorite tools more quickly. Just press Option+Shift+Cmd+K, or select Keyboard Shortcuts inside the Edit menu to start assigning.

Your selected shortcuts can launch menu items, interface panels (like Layers or History), and specific tools—select an entry from the list, click Add Shortcut, and press your chosen combination of keys. As in Word, if your chosen shortcut is already in use, Photoshop will warn you. If you continue, the new action will overwrite the old one.

This story has been updated. It was originally published in 2020.