How To Become a Mac Keyboard Maestro

One of the key factors to becoming more productive while working with your Mac is to master keyboard shortcuts. Mac OS X includes a set of standard keyboard shortcuts that allow you to switch applications, close windows, quit programs, open new documents or browser windows/tabs and copy and paste between files.

Many Mac programs ship with application specific keyboard shortcuts as well, all in the name of streamlining your workflow and allowing your hands to remain on the keyboard. You can shave precious seconds off mundane, repetitive tasks, allowing you to focus more of your time and energy on the task at hand – rather than locating that rogue window, buried beneath 10 other applications.

Keyboard Maestro is an application that takes the idea of keyboard shortcuts and injects it with steroids. The result of which is a super-charged automation program, allowing you to execute several different actions with a single command. Read on to find out more, and see an example of just how powerful this app can be!

So What Can Keyboard Maestro Do?

Insert Text

Do you have different signatures for different email applications or email recipients? Are there certain phrases you constantly use? Enter the desired text within Keyboard Maestro and map it to a specific action (keystroke, application launch) and you’ll never have to re-type the same phrase again.

Quickly insert a signature

Quickly insert a signature

Re-map Keys

One of the nice things about Mac applications is their uniformity. Most applications have a certain aesthetic appeal that feels at home within your Mac OS X desktop – not just looks alone – certain keyboard shortcuts have become universal across the board. Most applications – not all.

Every once in a while, you come across an application that sticks out like a sore thumb and the keyboard shortcuts you’ve come accustomed to preform completely alien actions (the old Quicken for Mac, for example). Take back your shortcuts and re-map them with Keyboard Maestro. Command-A now selects all, just like you’re used to.

Automatically Launch Documents

I often use a TextEdit document to take notes while I read through my mail, jotting down important information that I can process later. With Keyboard Maestro, I can set a particular text file such as “MailNotes.txt” or “ToDos.txt” to automatically open whenever is launched.

Let’s say I have an on-going list of actionable items in a text document, and whenever I start my day, I begin by emailing my team and catching them up on the day’s to-dos.

With Keyboard Maestro, I can set the launch of to automatically simultaneously load my to-do list and open a new “Compose Mail” window, with the “To” and “Subject” fields automatically filled. If I want to get really crazy, I can copy the contents of the text document to the body of the email. I can even map the launch of to a Function key.

Create extensive automated actions, spanning multiple applications.

Create extensive automated actions, spanning multiple applications.

Add Missing Functionality to an Application

A few months ago, I signed up the music streaming service Since then, iTunes has been collecting dust and I haven’t had much use for the media playback keys on my MacBook’s keyboard. Rdio provides an extremely simple Adobe AIR application and as such, lacks global keyboard shortcuts.

Enter Keyboard Maestro. Using Keyboard Maestro, I’ve been able to create a global hotkey that selects the Rdio application, pauses the music and then immediately switches back to the application I was using. Pressing the hotkey again resumes playback.

How To Create a Macro

Choose Your Triggers

To do this, you press the “+” icon within the “Macros” column to create a new macro. A new macro editor opens. Be sure to name the macro memorably (it can easily get lost within the built-in list).

The first thing to do is select the trigger action. This can be a key press, a certain time, the launch of a specific application, logging in to or waking your Mac, if a status menu item is selected – and the list goes on.

Press the green plus icon to add your trigger – you can add multiple triggers for all manner of different taks.

Configure Your Actions

The next step is to set the desired actions. After setting the trigger, click the green plus icon labeled “New Action.” The new actions window will slide up in the left-hand sidebar. There are a large number of available actions, grouped into categories.

You can select iTunes or QuickTime controls, open a file, insert text, switch to an application, quit all applications, hide all applications, access Google, play a MIDI note, execute an AppleScript – and, again, the list goes on.

No matter your desired action, you can probably find a way to make it happen. You can also add multiple sequential actions. Double-click the desired action in the “New Actions” menu to add it to your macro.

New Actions menu

New Actions menu

I added the action, “Activate a Specific Application” – it defaults to Finder and includes the currently open applications in a drop-down menu for easy selection. I chose the “Rdio Desktop” application.

Once the window is activated (in focus), I want to pause the player. This is accomplished by default by pressing the Space bar. Within the “Interface Control” category is the “Type a Keystroke” action. Double-click it to add it to the macro and select the key, you can select a handful of keys from a drop-down list or simply press the desired key. I press the Space bar.

There is a “Try” button along the bottom of the macro editor that allows you to test the macro at any point. A test of my current actions brings “Rdio Desktop” to the forefront and pauses (or plays) the music. This is the desired result, but it also leaves the application at the forefront, forcing me to find and select the previous window I was working in. This is not ideal.

Enter one more action; within “Process Control” – the same category that allowed me to select a specific application – I add “Switch to Last Application.” Now, while I’m working in Pages, Chrome or Tweetie for Mac, I can press “F8” to quickly pause the music and continue working in selected application.

This is an extremely simple example of what Keyboard Maestro is capable of. By creating this simple macro, I’ve eliminated the need to locate the “Rdio Desktop” window, use the mouse to click the “Pause/Play” button and then switch back to the program I was using. It is now completely streamlined, and adds very little friction to my workflow.

My created macro to control Rdio Desktop from the keyboard.

My created macro to control Rdio Desktop from the keyboard.

Infinity and Beyond

At the risk of sounding cliché, the limits of Keyboard Maestro are simply limited by your imagination. With the inclusion of AppleScript support, the actionable steps are nearly limitless. Once you’ve set up a few automations, you’ll wonder how you ever got anything done prior.

There’s a reason John Gruber of Daring Fireball refers to the application as one of the “…apps Batman would keep in his utility belt if his utility belt were a metaphor-stretched Macintosh.”

Keyboard Maestro is created by Stairways Software and is available for a free trial, after which it will cost you a very reasonable $36 USD.


Keyboard Maestro is an application that takes the idea of keyboard shortcuts and injects it with steroids. The result of which is a super-charged automation program, allowing you to execute several different actions with a single command.