Change Your Keyboard Layout, Change Your Life

Change Your Keyboard Layout, Change Your Life

I want you to try something.

Look down.

At your keyboard, not your shoes (but I'll get to your shoes later)

Hit Ctrl-L on windows, or ⌘-L on mac (opens up the address bar so you have a blank text field)

Now type the letter "P"

(or just look at this if it's too dark or you're on mobile)

Here's what I'm imagining is happening:

  • About 40% of you think this is weird
  • 95% of you are lifting your PINKY, which is, by function of metatarsal structure, our weakest finger*
  • You're experiencing a pretty awkward movement path—if you pay attention, the P** key is a little too far left for your pinky and a little too far right for your ring finger

Now go ahead and type "THE" (the most common word in the English language)

  • To get to the T, your index finger has to stretch about half an inch.
  • Your right hand also has to shift slightly over to hit the H
  • These are micromovements, yes, but relative to your fingers, a little delay goes a long way.
  • Don't even get me STARTED on suburban (try that if you're a hand masochist)

Ok finally, go ahead and type "typewriter"

Beautiful. Your hands glide back and forth across the top row—there's a little redundancy on the left hand on "writer" but you get the point.

But hold on—- WHEN IN THE ACTUAL FIRE TRUCK are you ever going to type the word "typewriter"? I can't even remember the last time I typed "typewriter" before writing this rant.

You know who did type "typewriter" a lot? Typewriter salespeople. In 1874. It was a nice marketing gimmick to show off this fancy machine by rolling off a relatively complex word all in one fell swoop onto people who have been writing with quills their whole lives. Cue jaw drops.

Here's a heatmap of QWERTY key presses

The distributed blue spread shows the following flaws with QWERTY

  • It places very rare letters in prominent positions (J, K, F)
  • It makes you type common letter combos on the same hand (e + r)
  • It causes home-row-jumping sequences that waste time and strain hand muscles (e.g. "minimum")

Here's a heatmap of COLEMAK, the layout I use.

Colemak minimizes finger movement by 30-40% through placement of common letters on the home row. It also increases the incidence of "alternating hands"—if you can believe it, it's really fun to click-clack back and forth.***

So why are we still using QWERTY?

Because humans are stupid and lazy.

I'm being facetious. What I mean to say is: we don't know where most social norms come from and usually don't even know that a better way of doing things exists.

Why is any of this life changing?

It's a good question, why should anyone who's not a productivity fiend like me care about keyboard ergonomics?

Because "pole cats".


You heard me — "Pole cats"

I'm borrowing the term from Elizabeth Gilbert, who, in Big Magic, shares an Indian folk tale about an ancient meditation cult.

The Saint of this cult led his followers in meditation. Unfortunately, a pesky cat kept wandering through the temple premises, disturbing the peace with its meows and purrs. To solve the problem, he tied the cat to a pole during meditation so it couldn't move around and bother anyone. He would tie the cat to the pole first, then everyone would meditate.

The act became a routine. Routine became ritual. Ritual became religion.

Eventually, the Saint died, but his followers carried on tying the cat up before every meditation session. And then, one day, the cat died. The cult went bananas. They couldn't imagine performing their daily routine without the cat— even though with the cat dead, there was no need to tie him up anymore (last I checked, dead cats don't meow).

So... how will this change my life again?

Our lives are full of "pole cats"—old routines that don't serve us anymore. I switched keyboard layouts in 2017, which, I'll admit, was pretty crippling at first. I was a college graduate with 4th grade typing speed.

Switching keyboard layouts, and quickly realizing how ridiculous the old way I had been typing,  I realized how absurd it was that I was using a system that dates back to the 1800s without ever questioning it.

So I started asking "How many things do we accept as just because it’s always done that way?"

It turns out: a lot.

The way I read my books

  • Pole Cat: School taught me I should read books start to finish, at an even pace, to get a good grade.
  • Problem: 80% of the value derived from a book exists in a few key chapters, the rest is publisher flush. Also some books are trash.
  • New Paradigm: I skip and skim boring chapters. I drop books halfway.

Phone homescreen layout.

  • Pole Cat: My homescreen originally laid out 1) the apps I had first downloaded and 2) the apps that I used most frequently
  • Problem: I don't use a lot of those old apps anymore (Overcast > Apple Podcasts) and apps that I'm tempted to use most often (Instagram, Gmail) are huge time sucks
  • New Paradigm: My homepage is only "aspirational apps" (health, meditation, productivity apps). The rest I force myself to swipe down and search for intentionally.
Confession: I moved Whatsapp and Youtube before taking this screenshot—guilty as charged, but proof of iteration!

Meal timing

  • Pole Cat: Eat lots of grains, 5 square meals a day.
  • Problem: Carb overload with no rest to our digestive system causes insulin sensitivity. It also increases risk of diabetes, cancer, and alzheimers.
  • New Paradigm: I never eat breakfast and fast 16 hours most days.

Shoelace tying

  • I told you I'd come back to this— just watch this video and have your mind blown

The list goes on and on and on.

But what if I don't want to change my keyboard layout?

I'd say two things:

  1. Why not?
  2. You don't have to.

My point is not to force you to make any specific change. I'm just asking you to ask yourself "what systems and routines no longer serve me, but I continue tocarry on because it's more convenient to do so?"

P.S Am I actually typing faster these days?

The short answer: no. I'm brushing 100 WPM. On QWERTY I could hit 150 if focused (or trying to appear like I was taking notes in class). But let me contextualize this. I spent eighteen years typing on QWERTY. I don't expect my speed to be matched in three.

But does it feel a lot more intuitive and less carpal-tunnel-inducing? Yes.

Slowly, but surely, I will get faster. And better. And slay all my other pole cats.


*I'll be honest, P  actually only has relative frequency of 2%, the ~15th most common letter.  I was trying to prove a point.

***To test how well defined pinky mobility is, go ahead and tap your index finger up and down a bit. See how it has smooth, isolated range of motion? Now try to tap your pinky without moving your ring finger. Harder right?

***Colemak Effort index vs QWERTY