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ArcMap Tips and Tricks: The Golden Rules

By: GIS Geography · Last Updated: March 5, 2020

Tips for Saving Time in ArcGIS

We’ve picked up quite a few ArcMap tips and tricks over the years. We’ve whittled them down to only the best.

Despite the development in ArcGIS Pro, ArcMap is still evolving. Every release, Esri adds new features and improvements.

With every release, these tips and tricks stay true. They help improve efficiency and save time.

Let’s get started.

1 Save your MXD and edits often

ArcMap Tips and Tricks Save Your Work

The unexpected crash is disastrous for some. If ArcMap crashes, you can lose precious hours of work. And we already know that time is money. That’s why the first tip is to save your MXD and edits often.

MXD stands for Map eXplorer Document. ArcMap uses this GIS format to store and display map layers. You can also use geoprocessing tools and change map layouts in MXDs.

Over the years they’ve gotten a bad reputation for crashing. This is why we saving your work (and saving it often) is rule #1.

  • Before adding an ArcGIS online basemap, save your MXD
  • Before adding a data set, save your MXD.

Because in the long run, it pays off. Not only your MXD, but save your edits when digitizing. When you lose your edits, you might want to throw your computer out the window. The damage is not as bad if you’ve saved your work.

Save your MXD. Save your edits. Save time.

2 Use Definition Queries

ArcMap Tips and Tricks Definition Queries

Definition queries are useful in so many ways. Definition queries use simple SQL statements to limit the features being displayed in a MXD. For example:

  • “STATUS=”CITY” will only include cities in your MXD.
  • “STATUS in (“CITY”,” TOWN”, “COUNTY”)” would only be cities, towns and counties
  • “STATUS not in (“VILLAGE”,”METRO”, “STATE”)” would not include villages, metro areas and states

When you export a shapefile with a definition query, only these features in the query will be in the end result. That’s much better than exporting all and deleting records.

Use definition queries. Limit your output.

3 Automate workflow with batch processes, model builder and Python

Batch Processing

Automating your workflow can be a big time-saver. This comes in the forms of:

  • Batch processes
  • Model builder
  • Python code

BATCH PROCESSES: Batch processes are great for automating redundant tasks. Batch processes run the same tool multiple times to different files. The alternative? Manually processing each file.

MODEL BUILDER:Similarly, model builder does the GIS programming for you. Instead of running the same tool repeatedly, model builder can run a set of different tools in a certain order.

PYTHON: When model builder cannot perform the operations, Python code will more than likely be able to automate your workflow. This takes a bit of coding skill, but learning Python is well worth the time and effort. A quick tip is to build a model similar to what you need done. Then, you export the model as Python code. Instead of writing code from scratch, you can use this exported Python code as a starting point.

Automate workflow with batch processes, model builder and Python code. Shed away hours of manual work.

4 Print from PDFs

Print from PDF

In the past, ArcGIS has had issues in printing directly from MXDs (File > Print). It was a bug that was always there just waiting to crash an unknowing victim’s computer.

Bottom line is that MXD and printers are not the best of friends. It’s another one of those quirky ArcMap bugs that turns your smile upside-down. This makes a good chance to review ArcMap Tips and Tricks #1 again: Save your MXD often.

Never print from a MXD. Export as a PDF. Print the PDF.

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5 Set up subtypes and default values

Geodatabase Schemas

When digitizing in a geodatabase, there are ways to improve efficiency for data entry. For example, you can use:

SUBTYPE: A subtype is a drop-down list that restricts which values can be entered. When entering attribute information, the user can select a predefined list of values. This also ensures users enter in valid text and values.

DEFAULT VALUES: Another option is to set up default values. If a specific value is more common than another, it would make sense that a default value is already there when creating a feature. Just make sure you change the default value, if it is different.

Set up subtypes and default values. Speed up data entry. Ensure quality.

6 Find and replace in attribute tables

Layout View

The find and replace tool has always been handy in Excel. But did you know that it also exists in ArcMap attribute tables?

ArcMap’s “find and replace” is a powerful, yet simple tool even though it gets little mention. It gives you the ability to search and optionally replace text or values in an attribute table.

This is one of those tips and tricks in ArcGIS that really extends your ability of how to edit attribute table data. Please note: Editing mode needs to be turned on to access this tool.

Find and replace text and values in attribute tables.

7 Customize your toolbar

Customize Toolbar

Some of us often use the same tools in an ArcMap session. You’re working hard at your desk and want to find these tools as quick as possible. There is an easier way to do this then searching for the same tool every time.

You can edit the toolbars in the upper portion of your MXD with all your favorite tools. All you have to do is drag and drop your most used tools in the upper toolbar to quickly locate them when needed.

Customize your toolbars. Locate tools with ease.

Bonus: Geoprocessing Overwriting

Geoprocessing ToolShapefiles can really start to pile up when you are running different geoprocessing tools. There is a way to prevent this from happening in ArcMap.

Under ‘geoprocessing options’, you have the option of overwriting outputs. After this option is turned on, you will be able to overwrite existing shapefiles.

But be careful which outputs you overwrite though. It’s not easy recovering an overwritten shapefile.

Overwrite output is available. Create new output by overwriting pre-existing shapefiles.


This is the list of what we found as the most valuable for ArcMap tips and tricks. Next time in an ArcMap session, follow these golden rules and you’ll be able to save time and improve workflow.

As we’ve learned, there are exceptions to every rule.

Tell us where we have gone wrong in this list. We are hoping to make this list a dynamic one with as much user input as possible.

Share us your ArcMap tips and tricks with a comment below. We hope to expand this list with some great input from our readers.

ArcMap Tips and Tricks Checklist

Take a look at the ArcMap Tips and Tricks checklist below.

Mark what you already know and where you can improve your skills.

ArcMap Tips and Tricks Checklist
ArcMap Tips and Tricks PDF

Additional Resources:

  1. How to Export a Shapefile Table to Excel Spreadsheet in ArcGIS
  2. ArcGIS Desktop Tips and Shortcuts (Ersi)
  3. 11 Useful ArcMap Editing Tips and Tricks (Esri)

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