Dirty Little Secret About QWERTY Layout and How I Switched to Colemak to Reduce Trauma and Gain Productivity

Dirty Little Secret About QWERTY Layout

Typing is everywhere right now. We type for work in emails and on IM clients, we type for personal relationships on Facebook (when was the last time you spoke with a friend on a phone?), and we type to have fun in Whatsapp or iMessages. Then of course, we code in editors and IDEs, and type commands in shells.

Imagine that you woke up tomorrow and weren’t able to use your keyboard. Maybe you would have broken both of your wrists skiing… Terrible, right? Even if you don’t write books or blog posts like I do, typing on a keyboard is how most of us live. And touch screen typing and voice dictation take only small roles. Let me tell you why you might be in danger of losing your ability to type and maybe even close to losing your job, career and relationships.

Did you know that the default keyboard layout QWERTY is highly inefficient. Yes, it’s the most popular layout and pretty much the standard for English. That is its only advantage. Qwerty was designed for typewriters to help prevent the breakage of the machines. For this reason, QWERTY is not optimized for humans. You are losing time. It’s making you slower at typing than would a layout specifically designed for humans. In QWERTY, the letters are just in the wrong places according to how frequently we use them in English.

Moreover, with QWERTY you are creating more damage than needed. For instance, I had a coworker who had a Repetitive Stress Injury (RSI) of wrists. She could NOT type for long periods and had to take breaks every 15 minutes. It almost ruined her IT career and scared the crap out of me because I type a lot. I published 12 books and over 200 blog posts in addition to delivering code and tech documentation. I probably type at least 1,000 words most of the days.

Colemak Keyboard
Colemak Keyboard

Colemak is like Dvorak but easier to learn coming from QWERTY. It’s also more effective for using shortcuts. Even though, I heard about Colemak a few years ago, as with any big change, I was reluctant to switch. The demand for typing increased dramatically with my promotion to a Team Lead while authoring my second traditionally published book. I stayed healthy, but I just had to jump ship.

All in all, I switched cold turkey to Colemak. After roughly two years of using Colemak, here are the good things about it:

  • I was able to learn Colemak in 2–3 weeks going cold turkey. The speed was slower and there were a lot of silly typos. I’m glad I have good editors. Once I learned the basics, I got a good feeling of accomplishment.
  • Now, I learned to type faster with Colemak than I was ever typing with QWERTY. It took me about a year to pick up the pace. I could have achieved this level faster if I practiced typing exercises and not just typing for work.
  • I published more traditionally-published books (one more is coming) and tons of other stuff.
  • I retained the ability to touch type in QWERTY on my iPhone and iPad. In fact, I’m writing this on my iPhone 6 in a restaurant while waiting for my food.
  • The strain on fingers reduced dramatically. On QWERTY, my fingers had to do some crazy acrobatics and jump too far for the most frequent English letters.
  • I have fun at the expense of people trying to type something on my computers like help desk staff or coworkers. :-)
  • Going cold turkey is better (more tips on learning Colemak).

Unexpected and bad things: I lost ability to touch type on QWERTY on a physical keyboard. I thought that I’ll retain it because I can touch type in non-English language layout just fine. I guess brain has space just for one layout per language. However, it’s not a big deal. Virtually all keyboards, even outside of the US, have English QWERTY printed on them. I can always look up the characters.

Another drawback was that I was still making silly typos after 6–8 months of using Colemak exclusively. The most often offenders were r and s. I think doing typing exercises can solve this issue faster. Sorry. Work typing doesn’t count as an exercise. Most often, I used Keybr trainer software. It even allows you to paste your own text. I tried to paste code and it was fun to practice words like function and symbols like {,}, [, ], =, etc.

In spite of the prevailing advantage of touch typing, I still see IT professionals who type with two fingers while looking at the keyboard and/or use mouse/trackpad to save a file or refresh browser (that is a function well suited for shortcuts). My heart bleeds and I feel pain watching these people trying to locate the floppy disk icon in the toolbar. Above all, if you don’t touch type (type with less than 10 fingers or have to look at the keyboard letters), or don’t use shortcuts—start learning them too! They’ll save you hours!

Moreover, investing in an economic keyboard is a great idea too, although I found Kinesis keyboard not good for me. It’s just collecting dust and I use terrible from ergonomic perspective, but familiar and convenient for travel Apple keyboards on my laptops.

All things considered, switching to Colemak is one of the best investment of your time you can make for boosting your productivity and reducing risks of a chronic disability alongside learning the shortcuts and touch typing. I recommend any person seriously thinking about improving their career to learn Colemak now. The faster you can type with fewer injuries the more competitive and productive you’ll be.

Author: Azat

Techies, entrepreneur, 20+ years in tech/IT/software/web development expert: NodeJS, JavaScript, MongoDB, Ruby on Rails, PHP, SQL, HTML, CSS. 500 Startups (batch Fall 2011) alumnus. http://azat.co http://github.com/azat-co

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