New Year, New Terminal: Alias Your Directories the Windows Way

Introduction #

I admit it. I'm a sucker for creating little shortcuts and scripts to speed up work in my terminal. There's just something oddly thrilling about typing a few characters and kicking off several commands. I recently read Chiamaka Ikeanyi's Avoiding Shell Hell: Aliases to the Rescue, and I was inspired to share some alias tricks I use on a daily basis.

My team at work manages six projects. Each project has its own repository. Additionally, we have repositories for developer tools made by the team. Combine that with any other directories we use on a daily basis, and cd quickly becomes our most frequent command.

My favorite terminal trick, for both my home and work computers, is creating short, memorable aliases to cd to my most frequent directories. If I want to write a new post, I just type blog and I'm in my Gatsby codebase. If I need to tweak the response from a mock server, I type mock, and I can start poking around my Express.js code. I rarely have to worry about long, complex relative paths. The terminal feels snappier, more intuitive, and—best of all—more fun.

Creating Aliases with Doskey #

You'll want to pick a frequently used directory and a memorable command you'll use to hop to that directory. In my case, I want to run the blog command to go to C:\Ben\blog.

In Windows, you can use the doskey command to create aliases to use in Command Prompt. Open up Command Prompt and run the following:

C:\> doskey blog=cd C:\Ben\blog
C:\> blog

It works like a charm! However, if you close and reopen Command Prompt, you'll run into a bit of a problem:

C:\> blog
'blog' is not recognized as an internal or external command,
operable program or batch file.

doskey aliases don't persist between sessions. Instead, we have to put them in a persistent batch file.

Persisting Doskey Aliases #

Whereas Unix has .bashrc that runs with every new terminal session, Windows has no such files. We'll need to create our own.

Create a .bat file. You can call it whatever—aliases.bat, scripts.bat, doskey.bat…—so long as it works for you. I'll call mine aliases.bat and place it in the home directory.

Inside this batch file, I'll put:

@echo off
doskey blog=cd C:\Ben\blog\

(That @echo off is to make sure the terminal doesn't vomit out the whole aliases.bat file whenever you start a new session.)

The next step is making sure Command Prompt knows to run your batch file whenever you start a new terminal session. To do this, we need to make a change to the Windows Registry—your Windows machine's operating system-level configurations. We'll add a configuration that specifies that whenever Command Prompt starts a new session, it should automatically run aliases.bat.

  1. Open the Registry Editor. Open up the Start menu, and search for regedit. Click the Registry Editor result.

  2. Navigate to the Command Processor settings. This can be found at HKEY_CURRENT_USERSoftwareMicrosoftCommand Processor.

  3. Add an AutoRun value. Right-click inside Command Processor and choose NewString Value. Give the new property the name AutoRun. Make the value the absolute path to your batch file of aliases.

Open a new session of Command Prompt, and try out your new aliases!

C:\> blog

You're good to go!

Adding Persistent Doskey Aliases on the Fly #

I like having an alias for just about any directory or workspace I might come back to. Manually modifying aliases.bat and restarting my terminal every time I create a directory would interrupt my flow, however. Instead, I have a batch script that automatically creates a persistent doskey alias to the current working directory whenever I use the ad command.

  1. Create a folder to store your scripts in. I called my folder C:\Ben\Batch, but you can call it Scripts or Commands or any other meaningful name.

  2. Add your scripts folder to your PATH. If you haven't done this before, check out Ryan Hoffman's quick guide. When you run an unfamiliar command, the terminal checks all directories listed in the PATH to see whether any of them have a script or executable file with the same name. For instance, if you run ad, the terminal checks all directories in the PATH for an executable file called ad.

  3. Create an ad.bat inside your scripts folder. By calling this file ad.bat, you ensure that the file is executed whenever you run the command ad. If you'd prefer to use a different command, you can choose a different name. Paste the following into your new batch file:

@echo off

REM Verify exactly one argument was passed
if "%~1"=="" goto usage
if not "%~2"=="" goto usage

REM Verify alias doesn't already exist
for /f "tokens=*" %%a in ('doskey /macros:all ^| findstr %1=') do set foundAlias=%%a
if not "%foundAlias%"=="" goto alias_exists

goto add_alias

echo USAGE: ad ^<alias^>
exit /b 1

echo Alias already exists!
exit /b 1

echo.doskey %1=cd %cd% >>"C:\Ben\aliases.bat"
call "C:\Ben\aliases.bat"
echo Alias was added successfully!
exit /b 0
  1. Replace the paths in lines 23 and 24 with the absolute path to your aliases.bat.

  2. Make sure your aliases.bat file ends in a trailing newline. You'll only need to do this once, unless you manually add stuff to your aliases.bat later, but this tripped me up for an embarassingly long time.

  3. Open a new session of Command Prompt and alias a directory.

C:\> cd Ben\Advent_Of_Code_2019
C:\Ben\Advent_Of_Code_2019> ad advent
Alias was added successfully!
C:\Ben\Advent_Of_Code_2019> cd ../..
C:\> advent

I'm still very new to batch scripting, so if you find a problem with this script or a way to improve it, please reach out!

Conclusion #

Tweaking my terminal makes programming a more delightful experience for me, and it can for you, too. By aliasing cd commands to your most frequently used directories, you cut down on having to juggle potentially long absolute or relative paths. Using the terminal becomes faster, more intuitive, and personal. What's not to love?