Relearning to type

I’m starting to feel some strain in my hands, so I’m going to take Vivek Haldar’s advice:

Act like you do have RSI, and change your set up right now to avoid it.

For one thing, I bought an ergonomic keyboard this weekend. It lets me hold my hands in a more relaxed position.

When I learned to type, I learned to use the shift key on the opposite hand of a letter to capitalize it. For example, holding down the shift key with my right hand to type an A with my left hand. But for some reason, I never developed the analogous habit for the Control and Alt keys; I only use these keys with my left hand. So while I’m getting used to a new keyboard, I’m going to try to use Control and Alt on the opposite hand of the letter they modify.

I may also try remapping another key to be the Escape key. I use Emacs, so I use the Escape key frequently. Some people recommend remapping Caps Lock to be an Escape key. I currently have the Caps Lock key mapped to be a control key. I may go back to using the default left control key and use Caps Lock as the Escape key. Or maybe I’ll remap the context menu key between the Alt and Control keys on the right side since I never use it.

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29 thoughts on “Relearning to type

  1. About 10 years ago I went through a similar situation. Learned to type in the Dvorak layout and never looked back. Worked great for me.

  2. I’m not adventurous enough to move to Dvorak. I want to keep my customizations modest so I can use other computers when I need to.

  3. When I found myself in a similar situation, I invested in a Kinesis Advantage keyboard and an Evoluent Vertical Mouse, and I have been able to use computers comfortably since then. (I also switched to Dvorak at the time, but I think the Kinesis could help you even if you don’t want to learn a new layout. If you do decide to try a new key layout, though, I recommend picking a quiet week and forcing yourself to do everything with the new layout. After the initial hurdle of immense frustration, you will soon notice surprisingly steady progress.)

  4. I am in the same situation that you John, and taking the same piece of advice (act as if I had RSI). Like Hector – I’m looking to a change of layout beside a change of hardware, though.

    While many assert that changing layout frequently will compromise performance while touch-typing significantly (which seems to be your concern as well), I must say that this belief seems to be contradicted by my personal experience: I frequently switch between 4 different layouts (of which 3 QWERTY and 1 AZERTY) and my touch-typing skill seems to remain unaffected, hovering around 80 WPM on all of those.

    Although I have not experimented with Dvorak just yet, I have difficulties in believing the two layouts are mutually exclusive. After all, most musicians have “typed” the same music on different instruments (e.g.: accordion and bayan) for centuries… why shouldn’t a writer be able to do the same?

  5. I actually started using a natural keyboard about 12 years ago now, not long after I finished with school and started working full time. It was the only spare keyboard they had in the office and so I got using it. It took me around a month to get back up to full typing speed I guess but it did fix a whole bunch of crazy quirks of my typing style. Looking back on things I guess if there was an inefficient way to cross my hands over to achieve any particular combination it seems like I did it.

    Fast forward a few years and I started working as a sysadmin and the computer I ended up on had a normal keyboard on it. Within days I had aches in my wrists. A lot of the typing I do as a sysadmin is repetitive, even within the general realm of typing. It’s a lot of the same commands over and over again in different circumstances (e.g. I type “ls -lstrah” without thinking about it dozens upon dozens of times a day). I don’t know whether the aching in my wrists was purely because I was using different particular muscles more than I do on a natural keyboard but given my livelihood is dependent on typing I decided to play it safe and persuaded my employer to buy me a natural keyboard. Now it’s my only request for a new employer :) It’s just not worth the risk.

  6. I’m curious, what do you use ESC for? I use Emacs all day, and never use escape.

  7. I learnt to type in high school. Double space after a period was ingrained into me. I did it, like many, without thought, but with the internet and writing e-books it’s not needed. I trained myself to type only one space. It took a week of fumbling and remembering but by the second week it became unconscious. It’s now one space where before it was two. Will it save you from injury? I doubt it.

    Knock on wood, all the hours I’ve spent in front of a computer hasn’t resulted in any permanent pain or injury. It seems it should have and I don’t know why.

  8. I reflected on my own typing habits when reading this post and found it surprising and somewhat strange that I also use both shift keys but only the left ctrl and alt keys!
    Then I thought about how and when I learned to type and the mystery was resolved: Old PC keyboards only had ctrl and alt on the left side of the keyboard and shift keys on both sides:

    So obviously it’s all IBM’s fault. Class action lawsuit anyone? :)

  9. Ivan: I often use ESC for the Meta key, though I’ll use Alt for two-key combinations, e.g. M-a. But for three-key combinations, e.g. M-C-a, I’d rather press and release the ESC key, then Control-a than to hold down Alt, Control, and a all at once.

  10. I bought this keyboard many years ago. Still alive and in good shape.
    Microsoft “branded” product are usually very good (i’m a linux sysadmin, not the usual MS fan).

  11. I have been using the same keyboard that you just purchased for 5 years or so and have been very happy with it. For me, the best results came when used with the included front riser, although I’m sure that’s very dependent on your specific desk/chair set up. I have read a lot of forums about RSI though, and many people say the MS Natural Ergonomic Keyboard ends up—for a lot of people—being an incremental step before moving to the Kinesis Advantage. I’m curious to see if I eventually end up choosing that as well.

    I do use an autohotkey script to switch the left Control and Alt so it more closely mimics OSX keybindings. I prefer using my thumb for Ctrl instead of pinky for Ctrl.

  12. I also recommend the Kinesis Advantage Pro keyboard,

    Using thumbs instead of pinkies for the CTRL and ALT keys has made using Emacs much less painful on my wrists. The mechanical keys are also a pleasure to type on.

    It’s an expensive keyboard but I think well worth the investment if your livelihood depends on typing.

  13. Piotr Kalinowski

    I tried using ergonomic keyboards, including that Microsoft variety, although in the end I ended up preferring a straight keyboard that uses mechanical key switches instead of rubber dome or scissor technology.

    After almost a year I can honestly say I prefer that a lot—I fell much less fatigue, and since I also do some freelancing as a translator, I type a whole lot ;) Then again I have a pretty specific way of keeping my hands on keyboard when I type—straight keyboard, and yet I have straight wrists as well with some movement of hands over keyboard.

    And even though I can use shift, I do not use both alts, because I learned to type on Polish Windows layout (and I still use Windows regularly for job), where right Alt is used for writing diacritics, and then only left Alt is an actual meta key.

    As for Ctrl, I will never go back to anything else in place of Caps Lock. Ctrl key there is probably the absolutely most useful thing I’ve done with my keyboard layout ;)

  14. Based only on hearing from just a few people, it sounds like MS keyboard users can still use a standard keyboard when necessary, but Kinesis users cannot. I’d rather not become dependent on a radically different keyboard unless I need to.

  15. A quick follow-up from a Kinesis Advantage user: I have no trouble using a standard laptop keyboard when necessary, so I wouldn’t worry about not being able to go back. (I would need more practice to switch fluently between the Dvorak and Querty key layouts, but I don’t have any trouble with different physical locations of the keys.)

    Just one data point, but I highly recommend that you borrow a Kinesis Advantage somehow and give it a try! Some universities have an “adaptive technology” center that will loan out esoteric keyboards so you can try them before you buy.

  16. John, from your comments is not clear if you are totally happy with the MS keyboard and uninterested in trying anything else (which would be a conversation stopper), or if you are just fearing the “something else” might prove too difficult to handle….

    If it is the second, in my experience the “difficulty” in going back and forth between different layouts is overrated: it’s like if one would refuse to use automatic gears on a car for fear to forget how to use the clutch, or giving up learning a language for fear to get confused with those already known…

    Let me point out that good ergonomic keyboards like maltron or kinesis have a ton of improvement on the regular ones: a) keys are in columns (fingers needs only to extend and contract, without lateral movements between the first and third row b) keys are positioned at different levels relative to the keyboard surface (keys to be pressed with the middle finger are slightly recessed, those to be pressed by the pinkie are bulging out) c) keys are mechanical, with tactile (sometimes auditory) feedback, making it unnecessary to bottom them down [and lasting a LOT longer than rubber dome ones] d) etc…

    Again: I don’t sell keyboards and have no direct interest in you getting something different than the keyboard you already got! ;) But seeing you passing on an opportunity to learn/experiment with something potentially better for not being “adventurous enough” just seems so strange in comparison to the image of yourself that you normally project through your blog! :o

  17. For what it’s worth, I regularly switch between a Kinesis at work, Microsoft Ergonomic keyboard at home, and laptop keyboard while mobile. I haven’t had a problem switching between the different layouts.

  18. As a former RSI sufferer and 30+ year professional programmer, I’d add a few points to your original post:

    * Change things frequently. That means the height of your keyboard relative to your elbows, the distance between your screen and your eyes, everything about your body position. The “R” in RSI rules here.

    * Switch your mouse to left-handed style. As a confirmed righty, I was stunned at how fast I adapted to this configuration, and it made a lot of difference – the “S” in RSI is often imbalanced between left and right sides of the body.

  19. On the lighter side, for all you Emacs addicts, there’s the classic The Real Reason Unix Hackers Get R.S.I. :-)

  20. I experienced some stress related hand, wrist, and finger pain a few years ago; at the time I was using emacs very heavily. As my keyboard has two ALT, CTRL, and Shift keys, I found relief by switching which of the two I was using for a particular chord. After several months I was better and able to resume my customary patterns.

  21. I wish you all the best with your RSI prevention.

    On Macs, I’ve eliminated all multiple key hold-downs by turning on sticky modifier keys. C-M-a becomes C, then M, then a, rather than hold C, hold M, hold a. It’s a lifesaver.

    Also, do explore dictation. (I use Dragon Dictate.) You will need to do some cleanup using the keyboard, but the amount of typing saved still brings you out ahead.

  22. Chuck Lauer Vose

    I’d also like to recommend an ortho-linear layout with the enter/backspace in the center; it saved my wrists. As an added coolness, it has a dvorak button in case you want to try it out. (For the record, I learned dvorak and it hasn’t caused undue amounts of pain. Every OS supports it natively and it really is important to keep your fingers from travelling).

  23. I use the keyboard you show at work; it helps, but (as desired) doesn’t really mess with my ability to use typical flat keyboards. I wish I had a vertical keyboard, in which the palms face each other — that translates pretty easily too, but is even better ergonomically.

    I also switched to the Evoluent vertical mouse, which you hold in a handshake grip instead of having to pronate the wrist. (It also has nice programmable thumb buttons, which I use for ‘copy’ and ‘paste’.)

  24. Using Vim I learned that C-[ is the same as ESC. I tested in both tmux and Aquamacs and it took C-[ as ESC. I just tried C-M-s which runs isearch-forward-regexp. I then tried C-[ C-s and it worked just the same. With the exception of swapping Caps and Control I don’t have any funky mappings.

  25. As someone who used all the right ergo techniques and tools for years and still developed severe RSI, I recommend learning to type *less* rather than just differently. As Vivek says, try dictation. Dragon will work extremely well out of the box for your blogging, tweets, and probably emails. Even better, get up, walk away from the computer and do some extra exercise. Weights or rowing machine seem to help prevent strain for me.

    Less typing, more upper body exercise, great sleep and regular breaks while typing helped much more than all the hours I’d spent tweaking my typing setup. It’s worthwhile reading .


    p.s. I used a Kinesis Advantage for years and had no trouble switching back and forth. Dvorak was another matter.

  26. In Emacs, Control should be mapped to the modifier keys adjacent to the spacebar, and Meta, to the next pair out. That way, you just whack them with the sides of your thumbs without taking your fingers off home row. If you look at the original <a href=""space cadet keyboard, this is how Emacs was designed to be used. I cannot imagine the pain of using emacs any other way.

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