Microsoft Windows only. No install required.
AutoHotkey is a free (and safe; donations accepted) software program that allows you to make your computing life faster and more efficient. It can be a lifesaver at work, making lots of little annoyances go away, and improving your efficiency a few seconds at a time.
The Basic List
You can use AutoHotkey to:
- launch programs at a single keypress
- expand text
- automate repetitive tasks
That’s just the basic list. If you want to get fancier you can set it with conditional logic to:
- Take certain actions, depending on which window you’re in, or if a program is already running (and start it if it isn’t).
- Send e-mails without opening your e-mail client.
- At a single keypress, bring your music player forward so you can change the playlist or song quickly, then hide it until you need it again, out of the way of your work.
If you find this article interesting, check out my ebook (costs less than a coffee!) Practical AutoHotkey: How to get faster at work with text expansion and automation, which covers all this in detail.
How does this help me?
Text expansion is your computer expanding abbreviations. For instance when I type ‘ahk’ on my computer it automatically expands it to ‘AutoHotkey’. You can define whatever abbreviation you want to expand into whatever text you want.
Text expansion sounds super simple, and it is, but it’s also super useful. I liken AutoHotkey in general and text expansion in specific as the tool you never knew you needed, *but now you can’t live without.* Once I implemented it on my computer at work, I started seeing opportunities to use text expansion all over the place. Not everywhere, but in a surprising number of applications.
I use AutoHotkey’s text expansion capabilities for a lot of random things:
- company boilerplate
- names that are longer than a few characters, usually with last name, too (typically for my internal notes on project statuses; there are two “Shannons” in my office, it’s easier to just have AutoHotkey drop the full name in there, instead of relying on first initial of last name)
- phone numbers
- names I always misspell
- words I always misspell (AutoHotkey, the software project, maintains a list of common misspellings)
- things I type a lot (“ahk” to “AutoHotkey”, “aec” for “Acme Example Company, Inc.”)
- expand punctuation (em dashes, anyone?)
- common ways I sign off e-mails (“plet” to “Please let me know if you have any questions or concerns.”)
If this all sounds useful, but you’re intimated by the idea of editing a simple text file to define these these yourself—and don’t mind paying money—check out PhraseExpander which, while marketed at doctors and other professionals, can be used by anyone. One caveat, unlike AutoHotkey, PhraseExpander needs administrator access to install—in other words, you can’t sneak it through the system if you don’t have administrator access on your computer at your place of employment.
Of course, thanks to PhraseExpander’s requirement to be installed on a computer, I learned the joys of AutoHotkey—learn them once, and suddenly you have this Swiss Army Knife at your disposal.
(I do not have an affiliate relationship with PhraseExpander; I examined the alternatives and, as of January 2016, it’s the best option on the market, although there are cheaper ones available.)
Starting programs sounds pretty simple, but it can be very helpful. If you keep opening-and-closing several different programs throughout your day (a task system, your e-mail, web browser, specialized software for your job, and so forth).AutoHotkey can help by launching that program for you (and/or switching to it, if it’s already open) with a single key press. Note that last bit—switching to the program if it’s already open somewhere.
I use this every day by having a keyboard shortcut for some of programs I use a couple of times a day, but I don’t need to keep open.
No matter what I’m doing on my computer I can press:
- Windows key-G to Google something in my web browser.
- F2 to switch to or launch Remember The Milk, my task system of choice.
- I don’t use this shortcut that much, because it’s usually open in front of me. However, if I press Shift-F2 it will open a new Remember The Milk window, which is very useful when I’m in the middle of something and I need to consult something else in my task system.
- F3 to switch to or open Outlook, my employer’s e-mail program of choice.
- This is useful because now no longer have to look to see if my e-mail program is open, I just press F3 and Outlook always appears—regardless of it it’s already running.
- Shift-F3 to close Outlook, specifically.
- Alt-F3 to write a new e-mail in Outlook, without opening the main window, so I won’t break my train of thought by seeing any new e-mails.
- F4 to show/hide Spotify, my music player of choice.
- F6 to open or switch to the control panel for our company’s website, so I can edit the website.
- I used to have to look up this URL everytime and that—coupled with how slow the system is to load—used to be a major excuse for me to procrastinate working on the website. Now I just press the key and it automatically opens.
- F8 to pull up the chat window with my wife, if it exists. This is very useful to dash off a quick chat, and—press F8 again—switch back to whatever I was doing.
- F9 to pull up the current subway arrival times to see when I need to leave work and catch the train.
Please note that you can use AutoHotkey with any key you so choose—I’m fond of the function keys, so I started there, but I have a bunch of other keys setup too. (With luck, I’ll soon have one to launch Chrome and edit my blog posts!)
Automate repetitive tasks
This is for more advanced users, but you can script AutoHotkey to launch programs, click on certain parts of the screen (where buttons in a software program will be), type in some text, and then close the program. I don’t have any good examples of this, but I imagine certain people use software day-in-and-day-out that requires them to perform the same sequence of actions over and over again – AutoHotkey can be a lifesaver here. In that case, AutoHotkey can make you more productive (maybe giving you enough time to loaf off at work, without any loss of productivity?), and help save you from repetitive stress injury.
Last, but not least, AutoHotkey can remap keys on your keyboard to do other things. While this idea is scary and unintelligible to many, I use it on a daily basis—remapping my Caps Lock key to be an extra Control key.
(I also have AutoHotkey setup to allow me to use the ‘Menu’ key on my particular keyboard as Caps Lock, for the really rare instances that I REALLY REALLY NEED TO USE CAPSLOCK. But they’re rare. Hardly ever see those.)
AutoHotkey to the rescue
If you found this article useful, check out my ebook Practical AutoHotkey: How to get faster at work with text expansion and automation on Amazon. The examples and a brief AutoHotkey reference section are available on this website for free.