Stop Learning Shortcuts by Heart

Watching someone use an IDE to its full potential can be inspiring. I have witnessed competitions (in this case a VIM user and an Emacs user) where they had to finish specific tasks, and their efficiency is amazing. At some point knowledge of the scripting capabilities make the big difference, but way before then, shortcuts are what makes some users faster than others.

Yet, I recommend not to learn shortcuts by heart. There are some basic ones (like navigation) that everyone needs and should know, but for everything else just use the cheat sheet that is right in front of you: the underlined characters in menus.

Opening the menu can be done by pressing ALT+<x> where x is the underlined character in the menu’s title. From there we can continue by pressing the next underlined character (which might open another submenu).

For example, if I wanted to open the developer tools of Chrome, I would just press: ALT-F + L + D. Admittedly, the first character of Chrome’s menu is not visible (at least not on Linux) but all the remaining ones are.
Similarly, I can use ALT-R + R to rename a variable in IntelliJ, or save a file with ALT-F + S (pretty much everywhere). Saving a file under a different name would be ALT-F + A (also pretty ubiquitous).

Using the ALT shortcuts has some fundamental advantages over using normal shortcuts:

  • The shortcut is visible. I don’t need to remember it (although my fingers eventually will).
  • Similar actions start with similar prefixes. Want to do something with files?, start with ALT-F. Want to refactor in IntelliJ?, start with ALT-R.
  • No limitations on the number of shortcuts.
  • Often easier to reach. There is never the need to press three keys at the same time (like CTRL-SHIFT-).
  • Gives a VIM-like feeling to editing.
  • Frees up shortcuts for more important action.

Unfortunately, not all environments are set up to work nicely with ALT shortcuts. In recent Windows versions the characters aren’t underlined anymore by default. There are, however, many tutorials on the web that show how to enable them again.

Similarly, not all IDEs are tested and designed with these workflow in mind. IntelliJ, for example, has a bad interaction with the search-box (https://youtrack.jetbrains.com/issue/IDEA-147519).

Despite these small drawbacks, using these shortcuts is definitely worth it, and I recommend you give it a try.