1. Computer Skills

Speeding Up Your Workflow With Custom Trackpad Gestures

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In previous tutorials, I've shown you how to speed up your workflow by remapping your underused Caps Lock key, using LaunchBar to launch applications with a keyboard shortcut and using TotalSpaces2 to switch quickly between applications. In this tutorial I will continue with that theme and show you how to use custom trackpad gestures to speed up your workflow.


Speeding Up Your Workflow With Custom Trackpad Gestures

Why Custom Gestures

As Josh says, in his tutorial on setting up custom keyboard shortcuts, most Mac users love to do things efficiently. Why would you take your hands off the keyboard, and reach for a trackpad, to do something when you could just do it with a quick keyboard shortcut?

But if your hand happens to already be on the trackpad, then you have to reach for the keyboard. Wouldn't it be great if you could have all the benefits of custom keyboard shortcuts without ever moving your hand from the trackpad? With custom gestures you can.

The reason many power users dislike using trackpads to do things is that the cursor is slow to move around screen. Custom trackpad gestures overcome this because the cursor position is, in most of them, unimportant; they can be just as quick as keyboard shortcuts. In the few gestures I will show you where the cursor position is important, the gesture is normally replacing a modifier key such as Command or Shift that you'd otherwise have to reach for.

Setting Up BetterTouchTool

In his tutorial, on setting up custom gestures, Jacob focuses on MagicPrefs. MagicPrefs is a great utility but it does not give you the depth of customisation that is necessary to really make use of custom trackpad gestures. I'll be focussing, instead, on the free utility BetterTouchTool.

BetterTouchTool allows you to assign predetermined actions and keyboard shortcuts to almost any gesture you can think to do on your trackpad. The action each gesture does can be assigned on an app by app basis so that swiping up with three fingers can do one thing in Safari and another in Adobe Photoshop.

To install BetterTouchTool:

  • Visit the BetterTouchTool download page and download the latest version.
  • Navigate to the Downloads folder and unarchive
  • Move the BetterTouchTool application to your Applications folder and open it.
  • BetterTouchTool uses Apple's accessibility APIs. To provide it with access to them, navigate to the Privacy tab in the Security & Privacy preference pane in System Preferences.
  • Select Accessibility from the sidebar and click on the padlock to enable you to edit your settings. You will be required to enter your password.
  • Make sure that the checkbox next to BetterTouchTool is checked and then click the padlock again to save your changes.
Providing BetterTouchTool with access to the Accessibility APIs.Providing BetterTouchTool with access to the Accessibility APIs.Providing BetterTouchTool with access to the Accessibility APIs.
Providing BetterTouchTool with access to the Accessibility APIs.

Importing My Gestures

For the purposes of this tutorial, I have provided my custom gestures for you to use. You can use these gestures as is, or as a starting point for your own. To import them into BetterTouchTool:

  • Download my BetterTouchTool gestures.
  • Open BetterTouchTool's Preferences and select Import in the left sidebar.
  • Navigate to where the file TutsPlusGestures has downloaded and select it.
  • Click Open to import it.
The BetterTouchTool interfaceThe BetterTouchTool interfaceThe BetterTouchTool interface
The BetterTouchTool interface

A Note on Scroll Direction

I moved to Mac soon after Lion came out so I use Natural Scrolling. My gestures are set up on the assumption that you are also using it. If you aren't and want to use my gestures, just swap the Trackpad Gestures of the two comparable actions e.g. next tab and previous tab.

Setting Up Your Own Gestures

To set up your own gestures:

  • Open BetterTouchTool's preference panel.
  • For this tutorial I am focussing on trackpad gestures. BetterTouchTool can be used to do far more but to follow along with this tutorial select Trackpads from the top menu.
  • Select the application you wish to assign a gesture to from the left sidebar. If the application is not already there, click on the +, navigate to that application and click Open. If you want the gesture to work in all applications select the Global option.
  • Click on Add New Gesture in the footer and select the the gesture you want to use from the Touchpad Gesture dropdown menu.
The Touchpad Gestures menuThe Touchpad Gestures menuThe Touchpad Gestures menu
The Touchpad Gestures menu
  • If you want to use a modifier key with a gesture you can select one, or more, by clicking the checkbox next to it.
  • Either enter a keyboard combination in the Custom Keyboard Combination dialogue box or select an action from the Predefined Actions dropdown menu.
The Predefined Actions menuThe Predefined Actions menuThe Predefined Actions menu
The Predefined Actions menu
To get BetterTouchTools to start when you log in, make sure Launch BetterTouchTool on startup is checked in the Basic Settings panel.

Custom Gestures for Web Browsing

Browsing the web is one of those activities where you are almost always using your trackpad or mouse. Unless you're tweeting, you're using a cursor when you're on the web. I'll show you how to set up custom gestures to open new tabs, close tabs, and move between tabs.

Unless you're tweeting, you're using a cursor when you're on the web.

Opening New Tabs

In the three major browsers available on Mac—Safari, Google Chrome and Firefox—the keyboard shortcut to open a new tab is Command-T. I suggest you map a three-finger-swipe up to opening a new tab.

Closing Tabs

To close a tab in the three major browsers, the keyboard shortcut is Command-W. If a three-finger-swipe up now opens a new tab, I suggest you map a three-finger-swipe down to closing a tab.

Moving Between Tabs

The keyboard shortcut to move between to the next or previous tab in the tab bar is the same in Google Chrome and Firefox, but different in Safari. In Google Chrome and Firefox Command Option and the Left or Right Arrow key moves between tabs whereas, in Safari, Control Tab moves to the next tab and Control-Shift-Tab moves to the previous tab.

If you use natural scrolling like me, I suggest you map a three-finger-swipe left to next tab and a three-finger-swipe right to previous tab. If you don't use natural scrolling, three-finger-swipe right for next and three-finger-swipe left for previous will make more sense.

Reopening Closed Tabs

Sometimes it can be useful to reopen a tab you've just closed. In Google Chrome and Firefox the keyboard shortcut to do that is Command-Shift-T while in Safari it's Command-Z. In Safari, unfortunately, you can only reopen a closed tab immediately, whereas in Google Chrome and Firefox you are able to continue to browse as normal and then reopen closed tabs at will.

I like to use the gesture three-finger-swipe up while holding down the modifier key Shift to reopen closed tabs. Although it uses a modifier key and so isn't strictly just a gesture, it is easy to remember and I don't use it so often that reaching for Shift with my left hand annoys me!

Opening Links in a New Tab

Normally if you are just using a trackpad, you have to right-click and select Open Link in New Tab to open a link in a new tab. However, in all three major browsers, the keyboard shortcut to do this is Command click. What I suggest you do is map a three-finger-tap to Command-click so that you can open links in new tabs with a simple tap.

Custom Gestures for Finder

Browsing files in Finder, like browsing the web, is another task where you are often just using your mouse or trackpad. The addition of tabs to Finder in OS X Mavericks has made it far easier to browse files without cluttering up your screen. The custom gestures I suggest will make it easier still!

Open Folder in New Tab

The keyboard shortcut to open a folder in a new tab is Command-double-click. I often do this when I'm moving files between folders. Rather than resort to awkward double clicks and modifier keys, I suggest you map Command-double-click to a three-finger-tap.

Open a New Tab

Finder has very similar keyboard shortcuts to Safari. To open a new tab you use the shortcut Command-T. I'd suggest keeping this similarity and using a three-finger-swipe up to open a new Finder tab.

Closing a Tab

Sticking with the Safari motif, Command-W closes a Finder tab so I would suggest mapping a three-finger-swipe down to closing a tab.

Moving Between Tabs

In Finder, as in Safari, Control-Tab moves to the next tab and Control-Shift-Tab moves to the previous tab. If you use natural scrolling like me, I recommend you use a three-finger-swipe left to move to the next tab and a three-finger-swipe right to move to the previous one. If you don't use natural scrolling, three-finger-swipe right for the next tab and three-finger-swipe left for the previous one will fit your workflow better.

Custom Gestures for Email

If you are keeping up with the popular trend of reaching Inbox Zero, having a few custom gestures to fly through your inbox isn't a bad idea. can swipe away emails you no longer need!

Replying to Email

In most mail clients such as and Sparrow, Command-R is the keyboard shortcut to reply to a message. Mapping a three-finger-swipe-up to replying to a message makes it easy to reply with a swipe of your hand.

Archiving or Deleting Email

Depending on your email service, you may have an archive in addition to a deleted emails folder. In either case, the most common shortcut for sending an email to the archive or trash is Command-Delete. I suggest you map this to a three-finger-swipe-down so you can swipe away emails you no longer need!

Custom Gestures for Your Most Used Apps

Depending on what you use your Mac for, you may spend a lot of time using professional programs with hundreds of keyboard shortcuts. As a photographer and designer, I use Photoshop and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom a lot, so I use my custom gestures on my trackpad to speed up common tasks. Rather than go into detail on the reasons and specifics of each gesture, I will simply explain what I use each one for so that you can see how you would be able to apply custom gestures to your own most used programs.


In Photoshop I use my trackpad to quickly access the tools I use most. I use a three-finger-swipe up to create a new layer, three-finger-swipe left to access the pen tool, a three-finger-swipe right to access the brush tool, a three-finger-swipe down to export an image, a three-finger-tap to access the healing brush tool and a four-finger-tap to access the crop tool.


In Lightroom, I mainly use my trackpad when I am reviewing the hundreds of photos I've captured in a day or two of shooting. I use three-finger-swipe left and three-finger-swipe right to move to the next and previous images respectively. A single three-finger-tap flags an image as a good one while a double three-finger-tap rejects an image as a bad one. A three-finger-swipe up moves to the library module's grid view and a three-finger-swipe down to the develop module. Finally, like in Photoshop, I use a four-finger-tap to access the crop tool.

Global Gestures

While a lot of the power in setting up custom gestures is that you can use them to control specific functions in your applications, you can also set up global gestures that will be used as a fallback if there are no app specific ones. You can also set up some system wide gestures, such as a gesture to lock your Mac.

Closing Windows

In many of the applications above, a three-finger-swipe-down has been used to close the tab or window. While it's not necessary, I suggest you also set up a global gesture that maps your Mac's close window shortcut, Command-W to a three-finger-swipe-down as well. This keeps things consistent across the operating system.

Locking Your Mac

Whether you work in an office where your co-workers are more likely to secretly read your emails or, in a bout of hilarity, post a juvenile Facebook status, locking your computer is always a good idea if you are leaving it unattended for any length of time.

A custom gesture makes it really easy to quickly lock your Mac as you run to get coffee. I suggest mapping a five-finger-swipe-down to Switch to Login/Lock Screen in BetterTouchTool's System Actions menu.

Controlling a Music Player

Another pair of global gestures you might consider trying are using a five-finger-swipe-left and a five-finger-swipe-right to control your music player. Simply map the gestures to the Next and Previous keyboard keys.


In this tutorial I've shown you how to set up custom gestures on your Mac, and also given you a few ideas for great custom gestures. Do you use custom trackpad gestures? Let me know your favourite ones in the comments!

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