Colemak: One Year In

February 15th 2016 marked my first anniversary using the Colemak keyboard layout. Colemak is a different arrangement of the computer’s keys, designed to be far more efficient than the traditional QWERTY layout.

I am glad I made the switch.

What made me try and switch to Colemak cold-turkey was Tim Ferris’s interview with Matt Mullenweg, in which he sings the praises of Dvorak, which he picked up many years ago, and mentions Colemak as being slightly more efficient.

I opened Mac OS’s keyboard settings and found Colemak right there. A Google search got me to Colemak’s website and a website with basic exercises, supposedly to be done in 9 days. I made Colemak my new keyboard, of course without changing the physical keyboard at all, and did the simple exercises for a few hours, maybe 3-4 over two days.

In the beginning I was extremely slow, and made many mistakes. However, I quickly realized my technique for typing numbers and capital letters had always been non-existent. I saw the new beginning as an opportunity to get those together too. I found a typing speed test and got my first performance measurement: 15 words per minute. Two days later I thought it would be a good idea to see how much I was doing with QWERTY, if only to have a term of comparison: even after the few days away from it, I did 74 wpm on the first try, and switched back to Colemak for ever.

I quickly learned that I could keep using qwerty on mobile keyboards — it’s a completely different context, and getting a Colemak keyboard for the iPhone was impossible with SwiftKey at the time.

I also learned that situations where I just have to use qwerty are rare: I don’t remember having to use someone else’s computer, but when using the iOS simulator or Windows/Linux VMs to test things, it’s just been easier to type on qwerty rather than install Colemak. My qwerty chops went down the drain pretty quick, and now I have to look at the keyboard to type. Again, I can go weeks without having to use qwerty, so to me it’s been all right.

Progress on Colemak was, or felt, very slow. One month into it, I was typing 46 wpm. Yes, that’s a 3× improvement, but try spending one month typing at about 40wpm. I didn’t care, I was measuring results every day in the beginning and knew it was a matter of staying the course.

Two months into it, I had improved to 50 wpm.

Six months into it, I did 62 wpm.

By then I was measuring my speed only rarely, and while I knew I had been far better on the qwerty before, the key configuration was clearly more efficient on Colemak and I knew I was bound to catch myself up. This was actually clear just by looking at the layout and envisioning key usage.

Today I measured my speed and it was my record: 73 wpm. Pretty hilarious to realize that, after a year, I still haven’t broken my late, unpracticed measurement on the qwerty, let alone my real speed which must have topped 85 wpm. I have no doubt I will get there and at the same time have a healthier typing setup for the rest of my life.

Another benefit of taking a hard look at my typing was developing tools for programming, which is really where most of my typing goes. I created Colemak Home Row Frenzy, which uses a totally insane set of dependencies but gives me a lot of efficiency typing typical programming symbols on a regular MacBook Pro keyboard. I have a hunch my move to Colemak rules out my ever becoming a Vim user, but I may be wrong.

In conclusion: for those of you who type a lot and see yourselves typing a lot 3 or more years into the future, I suggest you consider switching to Colemak. For terminal patients, luddites or people who are trying to quit computers altogether soon, don’t bother.