Control Save Dialog Boxes without Your Mouse

A lot of what we talk about on this site is methods of streamlining the trivia of your interaction with your computer. At the Empowered User, we care a lot about eliminating superfluous intervening steps and moving your hand off your keyboard to the mouse or trackpad is definitely that.

Dozens of times per day, you move your physical hand to manipulate your Mac’s cursor in order to click buttons like “Save”, “Don’t Save”, and “Cancel”. Today’s post is about eliminating the need to do that completely.

What’s a Dialog?

A dialog, aka dialog box, is a user interface element that appears on your screen and asks for some kind of input. This could be entering text, selecting from a dropdown menu, or simply hitting “Save” or “Cancel”.

A dialog is a type of window that’s designed to elicit a response from the user.

— Apple, Human Interface Guidelines

When you save a new document in Excel, the windows that pulls down and lets you enter a file name, select a location and save the doc is a dialog

Expanded save sheet dialog

When you try to quit an app before saving your work, the window that pops up is a dialog

Discard check dialog

When you empty your trash, you are asked to confirm the action with a dialog.

Empty trash confirm dialog

And so now you know that the thing you use twenty times a day has a name, and that name is dialog.

‘Cancel’, ‘Save’ and More Without Your Mouse!

Saving, cancelling, and various other buttons and elements that come to you as dialogs can be done using just the keyboard!

Let’s assume you’re being a boss empowered user and decide to close a spreadsheet with the ⌘+W shortcut. You haven’t saved a change so you get the “Do you want to save…” dialog.

Save Don't Save Cancel Dialog

Instead of moving your hand off the keyboard to confirm you could just send your right pinky over to the Return key, or your left to the escape key (which is mapped to your Caps Lock!) to cancel the window closing and check on your changes.</

What happens when you get a dialog with more than two buttons? You get these all the time when trying close an unsaved MS Office doc. You can hit Return to save or Esc to Cancel, but what about “Don’t Save”? You’ve got to move your mouse over to the button and click it like a caveman!

saving a spreadsheet dialog

You can do better than that, you’re an empowered user. There’s no need to move your hand to the mouse or to the trackpad just for a dialog. There are two ways to save yourself the trauma.

Universal Shortcut: Command+D

I literally just found this out 5 minutes before writing this paragraph. When a save dialog is active, you can actually hit ⌘+S to “Save” or ⌘+D to “Don’t Save”.

shortcuts for save and don't save

This works fine and if you do it, you’re ahead of the curve, but we can do better. This works in the particular case of “Don’t Save” but you should always build your capacity in a way that sets you up to deal with unforeseen situations down the road. You don’t know what kind of whacky dialogs you’ll meet in the wild.

whacky dialog

Enable Full Keyboard Control

Just as you can move around elements on a web form using Tab and Shift+Tab and interact with said elements using Space, your keyboard is perfectly capable of manipulating dialogs.

Hop on over to System Preferences > Keyboard and go to the “Shortcuts” tab. At the bottom click the radio button next to “All Controls”.

enable all controls in shortcuts preferences

System Preferences > Keyboard > Shortcuts

With this option enabled, you’ll start to see something different in your dialogs.

Focus Halo

Let’s call it the “Focus Halo”

The blue halo around the “Don’t Save” button indicates that the “focus” is on “Don’t Save”. As with web forms, you can interact with the focused element using Space. So hitting the space bar will activate don’t save.

What’s more, you can even use the Tab key to move focus forward through the elements or Shift+Tab to move back.

That’s not so useful for dialogs with two or three buttons, but what about something like this?

Four buttons on dialog

Tab to move focus forward. Shift+Tab to move focus back.

This dialog comes up when you have multiple unsaved docs and try to quit. If you don’t want to save them all but would rather go through each doc and decide, then you can do that.


With every notch you cut on your self sufficiency belt, your gains compound. That is, you didn’t just learned to control dialogs with your keyboard, you also learned to understand the elements that make up your computer interface. You learned that you can control one thing with your keyboard, so you can probably control more things. You’ll feel more comfortable trying and eventually you’ll discover some new power that you didn’t have to read here.

For the next week, challenge yourself to up your keyboard game. Whenever you see a dialog, stay your hand and keep it on the home row. In no time, you’ll be flying through dialogs and staying focused on what you want to be doing.

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