Marketing Tools

The Power of ALT and TAB

When it comes to computer technology, I’m amazed how many people aren’t intimately familiar with two of the most important buttons on your keyboard. The awesome power of ALT and TAB comprise some of the most important productivity tips for anyone who uses a computer to promote or conduct their business. In other words: practically everyone now reading Martech!

The Alternate Zone

To really understand the ALT+TAB combination, we need to begin with a discussion of the ALT key. You probably know that “ALT” is short for “alternate.” That means that this tiny little button is intended to change the entire function of the current user interface. Computer wizards sometime call this “mode switching.” Pressing the “ALT” key tells the machine to behave entirely differently than it does currently.

This may seem overdramatic. After all, the SHIFT key seems to do the basically same at first glance. But SHIFT merely changes characters from upper to lower case. An “A” is basically the same as an “a.” In fact, old typewriters actually contained both copies of letters. The “ALT” key takes your machine into a new world.

Duplex Typewriter 1895

The Single ALT+TAB

It might seem like nothing happens when you hit ALT. Press and release the key a dozen times and neither a Windows or Mac machine will respond. But if you hold the ALT key down and then reach across and press the TAB key just once for just a second and release that TAB key, you’ll see a window appear. It will list all of the active applications, and you’ll find that the next one in the list has been highlighted. When you release ALT, you’ll instantly be switched to that program.

The power of ALT+TAB alone can create tremendous productivity improvements. You don’t need to take your hands off the keyboard and move to the mouse if you want to change between two open applications. Go and try it now. Spend a few minutes getting to know how ALT+TAB feels.

The Last Two

If you pay close attention to a single ALT+TAB, you’ll recognize that it actually switches between the current application and the last used application. That means that if you switch from say, your web browser to your word processor with ALT+TAB, you can switch back with another ALT+TAB. All of this switching back and forth might sound like a waste of time, but this is exactly what we all do when we are researching and writing. ALT+TAB is perfect for every day workflow.

Saving a few seconds moving your hand back and forth from the mouse probably doesn’t seem like much. Multiply that times hundreds of switches every hour. Consider that you momentarily lose your focus when you have to find the mouse with your peripheral vision and drag the cursor down to the bottom of the screen and back. Mastering the single ALT+TAB will dramatically change your productivity.

Advanced ALT+TAB

There’s far more than just the basics. If you hit ALT+TAB but hold down the ALT button, you’ll see all the icons of active applications. You can use repeated presses of the TAB key to circle back to programs you used a while ago. A combination of SHIFT+TAB goes the opposite direction.

If you’ve ever caught yourself copying data from one program to another with keystrokes, ALT+TAB can make your experience one of using only the keyboard. This can result in significant productivity improvements.

Take some time to learn ALT+TAB. You’ll be faster with the machine and able to get more work done. But more importantly, recognize that keys like ALT are really about changing the mode of the systems around us. ALT is like the difference between working at your desk and talking on the phone. It’s about switching to a different state.

Context-switching is the biggest cost in productivity. Every interruption presents the opportunity to forget what you were doing. Figure out what you do that requires you to change your focus, even if it’s from the keyboard to the mouse. You’ll find your workflow runs smoother and you’ll get more done.

Robby Slaughter

Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. His focus is helping organizations and individuals to become more efficient, more effective and more satisfied at work. Robby is a regular contributor in several regional magazines and has been interviewed by national publications such as the Wall Street Journal. His latest book is The Unbeatable Recipe for Networking Events.. Robby runs a business improvement consulting company.


  1. A co-worker once called me a ‘mouse cripple’ because I always utilized the graphical user interface to navigate. It took a few years before I figured out how efficient keyed shortcuts are. Interestingly enough, I believe that Mac users have always been ‘rewarded’ with custom keystrokes that did great things. Windows has caught up – but most of my friends on Macs are fantastic at knowing all the shortcuts… and their productivity shows it!

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