The top row of your Mac’s keyboard is underused and it’s time to fix that.
macOS hasn’t assigned any actions to the function keys by themselves. That is except for F11 (which shows the desktop) and F12 (which shows the Dashboard). Keys F1 to F10 lie unused unless needed in tandem with a modifier key like Option or Command. That’s an untapped resource right there!
You can trigger quite a few useful actions on your Mac in a shot if you map them to function keys. Today we’ll show you how to do that. We’ll also list some common actions that you can speed up with these single-key shortcuts.
How to Assign a Function Key to a Preset Action
Assigning a function key to a particular action is like creating any other keyboard shortcut on your Mac. You first visit System Preferences > Keyboard > Shortcuts. Next, you click on the existing keyboard shortcut for an action and press a function key of your choice to assign it as the new shortcut for that action. If there’s no shortcut in place, click on the “none” placeholder text beside the action to assign one.
Keep in mind that a shortcut is active only when you have selected the checkbox for the corresponding action.
You might run into a problem if the key or key combination you have chosen is already assigned to another action. In this case, you can either assign a different key combination for the other action or disable its shortcut by deselecting the checkbox next to it. You won’t have trouble finding which action corresponds to the shortcut you have inadvertently tried to reassign — both actions involved appear highlighted.
Remember, by default, function keys activate the special functions printed on them: brightness, volume, Mission Control, and so on. To use them for the single-key shortcuts we’re suggesting, you’ll need to tell macOS to use the F1, F2, etc. keys as standard function keys. To do so, visit System Preferences > Keyboard > Keyboard and select the checkbox for Use F1, F2, etc. keys as standard function keys.
Without the above tweak, you’ll have to use the modifier key Fn along with the function keys to trigger the shortcuts.
Note: The actions listed under System Preferences > Keyboard > Shortcuts > Services don’t seem to be compatible with function key shortcuts unless the shortcuts also include one or more modifier keys. If you want to use a function key by itself, you’ll have to create custom shortcuts for these services. The next section tells you how to do that.
How to Assign a Function Key to a Custom Action
You won’t find every potential action from every app on your Mac listed under System Preferences > Keyboard > Shortcuts. That doesn’t mean you can’t create shortcuts for those actions. You need the approach we’ll outline below.
Let’s say you want to pin tabs in Safari with a function key (we’ll use F6). To program this shortcut, first head to System Preferences > Keyboard >Shortcuts > App Shortcuts.
Next, click on the plus “+” icon beneath the right-hand panel. In the dialog box that appears, select Safari from the Application: drop-down menu.
In the Menu Title: drop-down menu, type in the Safari menu command for pinning a tab, exactly as it appears in the menu. Here, that would be Pin Tab, as you can see in the screenshot below. Don’t worry about the name of the menu under which the command lives. It’s irrelevant here.
Now, with the cursor in the Keyboard Shortcut: field, press the function key you would like to use to trigger pinning for the active tab in Safari. In our example, that would be F6. Hit the Add button to finish setting up the shortcut. Now you can pin tabs in Safari by hitting the F6 key. You’ll still have to unpin tabs using the right-click menu, unless you create a shortcut for that too.
For certain function pairs like Pin Tab / Unpin Tab and Enter Full Screen / Exit Full Screen, macOS allows you to assign a common shortcut.
What You Can Do Faster With Function Key Shortcuts
Now it’s time to look at which common functions you can perform faster on your Mac with the press of a function key.
Of course, you can’t assign function keys to all the actions we list below — there are only 12 of those special keys after all. Go with actions that will have the most impact on your workflow. Also, feel free to look beyond our list of actions to come up with any others that you consider favorites.
Grab a Screenshot
You can take a picture of your current screen or a selected portion of it using the default shortcuts (Shift + Command + 3, Shift + Command + 4). But that’s like making your fingers perform painful callisthenics on the keyboard. End the struggle by replacing the shortcuts with a couple of function keys instead.
Shortcut Location: System Preferences > Keyboard > Shortcuts > Screen Shots
totally capable of memorizing a complex piece of music. Totally incapable of remembering the shortcut to take a screenshot on a mac.
— Derek Tywoniuk (@derderdebonair) December 7, 2015
Open Notification Center
You can open the Notification Center with a click of its menubar icon or a left swipe of the trackpad from the right edge of the screen. If you need to do it often though, using a function key would be more convenient. How about using F12, the key that Mac has assigned to the Dashboard? That is, if Notification Center widgets have made Dashboard irrelevant for you.
Shortcut Location: System Preferences > Keyboard > Shortcuts > Show Notification Center
Open Menubar Apps
Third-party apps often allow you to access their menubar utilities via global hotkeys. Program such menubar-based apps to pop up at the press of specific function keys. Once you do, you can get rid of their dock icon (if possible) without losing quick access to the corresponding apps. Here are some types of apps that could benefit from this approach:
- Note-taking app
- Timer app
- Clipboard manager
- Email app
- Calendar app
- Password manager
Enter and Exit Do Not Disturb Mode
A single ping signalling a notification is enough to jar you out of “the zone” when you’re working. Be sure to activate the Do Not Disturb (DND) mode whenever you sit down to work. The fastest way to do it is with a function key shortcut!
Shortcut Location: System Preferences > Keyboard > Shortcuts > Mission Control > Turn Do Not Disturb On/Off
You’ll find the Empty Trash command in the Finder menu when you have Finder active. Its default shortcut Command + Shift + Delete is pretty memorable, but if you want to replace it with a function key, create a custom shortcut for it.
Show the Help Menu
If you’re a first-time MacBook user, keep the Help menu handy with a function key shortcut, at least until you have figured out the basics of using macOS.
Shortcut Location: System Preferences > Keyboard > Shortcuts > App Shortcuts > All Applications > Show Help Menu
Start and Stop Text-to-Speech Conversion
Your Mac will read selected text aloud to you (in certain programs) if you click on Edit > Speech > Start Speaking. This action doesn’t come with a shortcut by default. If you need the text-to-speech conversion function often, set a couple of shortcuts to trigger and end it.
Switch Views in Finder
macOS already has shortcuts for the four Finder views: Icons (Command + 1), List (Command + 2), Columns (Command + 3), and Cover Flow (Command + 4). If you always use one or two of these views and have a hard time remembering their shortcuts, create new ones that you’re more likely to remember.
If Safari is your primary browser, you’d benefit much if you create custom shortcuts and assign function keys to:
- Clean up your browser history without losing logins and other website data.
Menu command: Clear History and Keep Website Data (Found in the Safari and History menus, but invisible until you hold down the Option key)
- Toggle Reader View
Menu command: Show Reader / Hide Reader
- Save the active webpage to your Reading List
Menu command: Add to Reading List
- Pin and unpin tabs
Menu command: Pin Tab / Unpin Tab
No matter which browser you use, setting up shortcuts for its most-used menu items is sure to save you plenty of time and effort.
Shortcuts for Windows-to-Mac Switchers
If you have just moved from Windows to Mac, it helps to bring over some of your most used shortcuts from Windows to avoid disrupting your workflow. You might want to learn the macOS “rules” sooner or later though.
So which function key shortcuts could do with a reappearance on macOS? Here are our top suggestions:
- F1 — To show the Help menu.
- F2 — To rename files and folders.
- F5 — To reload webpages.
- F6 — To move the cursor to the address bar in a browser.
- F10 — To move focus to the menu bar
(Shortcut location: System Preferences > Keyboard > Shortcuts > Keyboard > Move focus to the menu bar).
- F11 — To enter and exit the full screen mode.
Keeping shortcuts consistent across operating systems also helps when you have to switch between them on a regular basis, though there’s some merit to learning each platform’s intricacies if you can.
Going from laptop to Mac, Mac to laptop, pressing enter to rename files on the PC & F2 on the Mac lol brain is melting, ahh laptops booted.
— Shane Hogan (@MusicalMoleDev) September 17, 2014
Wake Up Those Function Keys
Mapping a few keys to common desktop functions might seem like a trivial tweak, but it can drastically reduce the friction in your workflow, and for that it’s priceless.
So which keyboard mapping has saved you untold effort on your MacBook? Tell us about it!