Go Beyond Keyboard Shortcuts by Using Contextual Menus On Your Mac

Ads by Google

Most beginner Mac users launch applications, open files, documents and windows, and other tasks by either going to the menu bar of an application or using assigned keyboard shortcuts. But advanced Mac users know about the power of contextual menus when getting things done in OS X.

Contextual menus include a custom set of assigned shortcuts and actions that pop up when you right-click or control-click an application, file, or selected text. These menus are useful for when you don’t want to drag your mouse to the menu bar or toolbar to perform an action, or when you can’t remember the keyboard shortcut for a particular item.

Today I will show you the common places to find contextual menus on any Mac, and how to use BetterTouchTool to create contextual menus and how to access them using your Mac’s Trackpad or MagicMouse.

How Contextual Menus Work

If you right-click (or control-click) directly on your desktop, a contextual menu will pop up with the options for creating a new folder, or sorting files on your desktop.

Contextual menu

If you right-click on a file on your desktop or in a Finder window, you will get options duplicating the file, sharing it to email or Twitter, moving it to the trash, adding a tag (a new Mavericks feature), and much more.

Ads by Google

Contextual menu 4

Notice also if enabled, there’s a Services list of shortcuts (see above screenshot). If Services doesn’t appear, open System Preferences on your Dock and visit Keyboard > Shortcuts > Services. Also enable All controls under where it says “Full Keyboard Access.”

Services options

You can go through the list and enable the shortcuts that you want to appear in Services. The items that appear in the Services will depend on the application and/or file you’re right-clicking on. For example, if you select and right-click on some selected text in a webpage, you will get by default the option to copy the text, search that text on Google, or have the text spoken to you.

If you have Evernote installed on your Mac, the Services menu might also include an action for copying that text to Evernote. Likewise, if you have TextExpander installed, you can right-click on a word or phrase and select to create a New Snippet With Selection. Again, what appears in Services depends on what you have enabled in System Preferences and the Service menu items that application developers have created for their application.

You can also create custom Services options using Automator, a topic I’ve tackled before.

Contextual Menus Using BetterTouchTool

One of my most-used Mac applications is BetterTouchTool, which allows users to perform all kinds of actions using finger gestures on their Mac Trackpad or MagicMouse. I’ve created hundreds of shortcuts in BTT for all of my most used applications.

BTT is still a free application that is well worth the time to learn how to use. See this article for how to get started with BTT, and this article for more advanced tips and features.

Now if you find that you like the power of Contextual menus, there’s a way to create a similar function using BTT. For example, when I’m writing articles in MarsEdit, I can do a Four Finger Tap in the application and bring up a list of BTT actions I created, that are based on MarsEdit menu bar items and macros I’ve created in Keyboard Maestro.

BetterTouchTool services

These actions enable me to create a new post, open a post in Preview, add a link to selected text, and export the blog post to WordPress. Granted, MarsEdit also includes default contextual menu items (see below) that appear when you select and right-click on text, but using the BTT method instead I can create shortcuts that I use most often.

MarsEdit menu

How To Create BTT Menus

To get two or more items to pop up using BTT is pretty simple. All you have to do is assign the same finger gesture to each action that you want to show up as a sort of contextual menu. This works best when you have assigned gestures to selected applications instead of the global menu.


The name you give for each action under Notes will appear in your pop-up menu. You can also, of course, assign whatever finger gesture you like. I use the Four Finger Tap for all my contextual menu actions so that I don’t have to remember a different finger gesture for different applications. Also note that BTT actions can consist of several sub-actions, which I explain in this article.

Your BTT menu items can be based on almost any keyboard shortcut or series of shortcuts that you perform in an application. You don’t have to remember assigned keyboard shortcuts to execute those actions. You can simply tap and execute actions whenever you need them.

No Coding Required

The power of using applications like BetterTouchTool and contextual menus is that you don’t have to create special AppleScript scripts or monkey around with command line hacks. You simply need to take a little time to learn how to set up actions that you normally perform on your Mac.

I hope you find this tutorial helpful. If you have any questions about the Contextual menus feature or how to use BetterTouchTool, just ask in the comments section below.

Join live MakeUseOf Groups on Grouvi App Join live Groups on Grouvi
Mac OSX Tips & Issues
Mac OSX Tips & Issues
252 Members
Mac Troubleshooting
Mac Troubleshooting
107 Members
Apple Hardware Discussion
Apple Hardware Discussion
87 Members
Affiliate Disclamer

This article may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.
New comment

Please login to avoid entering captcha

Log In