Keyboard

If you have been looking for a way to increase your productivity without having to train your mind to think or behave in a completely new way, then many will point you to the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard. Well, they’re wrong, as I discovered; the time and effort to re-train your mind is quite extensive, but the time spent is worthwhile!

If you’re prepared to make some sacrifices – or rather, put up with some inconvenience – Dvorak can certainly save you some medical bills and some time.

The History of the Dvorak Layout

In the 1860s, Mr. Christopher Sholes developed the first commercially successful typewriter. When it came to the keyboard layout, he researched the most efficient key patterns. Unfortunately, when it came time to type on this layout, at any decent speed the machine would jam up – the key mechanisms would get in a tangle. To get around the mechanical limitations of the machine Sholes simply redistributed the keys so that the more commonly used letters were separated across the keyboard – effectively solving the problem by slowing the typist down.

The typewriter eventually became a commercial success, but by the time Sholes rectified his engineering shortcomings and proposed a better keyboard layout, the bigwigs selling the product weren’t interested in changing it, fearing that would hurt sales.

Fast-forward to the 1930s when August Dvorak became fed up with the inefficiency of the standard QWERTY layout and set out to engineer a better keyboard that met the demands of modern typists. He studied a number of things, such as letter frequencies, physiology, and ergonomics to design what came to be known as the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard.

Almost eighty years later, Dvorak’s keyboard layout is still rarely used, despite the numerous problems with popular layouts such as QWERTY and AZERTY. Dvorak died a poor man with his faith in humanity shattered:

I’m tired of trying to do something worthwhile for the human race, they simply don’t want to change!

- August Dvorak

Benefits of the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard

One of the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard’s greatest innovations was putting all the most frequently used consonants on the right hand side of the home row, and all the vowels on the left hand side. Every word has a vowel, and with QWERTY that means you’ve got to sprawl all over the keyboard to type almost all of them – the only vowel on the home row is the letter A.

By putting all those keys on one row, the typist has to move about less and can type a huge number of words all on the one row. This means:

  • Less strain on the wrist, and
  • The average typing speed increases

It’s not only an ideal layout for those experiencing wrist pain after working with computers all day long, but also ideal for those who want to squeeze the most out of each minute.

My Experience with Dvorak

At the beginning of 2007, I began experiencing pain in my wrists. For a while I just ignored it, but when I realized it wasn’t going to magically disappear I decided to do something about it. I figured it was obviously because, as a writer, I spend most days doing nothing but typing.

My first investment in 2007 was the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000. I set this up with my Mac mini (the irony was not lost on my wife, who still taunts me to this day) and within a week my wrists were feeling better; my left wrist was pain-free, but the effects on my right hand were, while existent, quite minimal.

In October, 2007, I purchased a Logitech VX Revolution mouse, designed to be a comfortable ergonomic mouse. It’s a notebook mouse that’s not too small, so I figured I could use it at home or take it on the road. It does a good job as a powerful (though somewhat overpriced) rodent, but the effect on my wrist was again minimal.

My search for some pain relief was what brought me to the next stage, my obsession with productivity aside.

Three months ago I rearranged my iBook’s keys and started learning Dvorak myself. While the layout has been refuted in studies as having little to not effect, I say: screw the studies. The pertinent wrist pain I was experiencing has all but disappeared, and I can safely say that I get more writing done each day. Whether that’s because it’s simply easier and less stressful, or because the Dvorak layout is by nature more productive, I can’t say for certain – the important thing is that it works.

Some Tips for Learning Dvorak Faster

If you type frequently, you’re going to have to prepare for this change mentally. As a writer, I spend most of my time typing every day, so I was expecting some annoying disruption to my usual way of working – but what I experienced was totally unforeseen. At first I felt as if I had been muted – as though someone had ripped out my tongue and throat too, cutting me off from my primary method of communication. It’s very disconcerting and feels a lot worse than it sounds. I think I learned something, in some small way, of how those with communication impairing disabilities feel.

Along the way I picked up some tips for getting over this incredibly uncomfortable phase:

  • Don’t do any QWERTY typing for at least the first three months. It is possible to be fast and efficient with both later on, but trying this from the get-go will only hinder your progress. I never completely gave up QWERTY during my transition because typing is my bread and butter and I couldn’t afford that much of a disruption; this decision did slow down the process. When I spent extended time away from QWERTY, using only Dvorak, I experienced significant gains in speed.
  • If you can afford the time and handle the frustration, don’t change the keys on your keyboard around. Print an image of the layout and keep it above your monitor, so you’re forced to refer to something at eye-level as you learn; this allows you to start touch typing much faster.
  • Do use a touch typing tutor that supports the Dvorak layout; if you dedicate yourself to learning the layout instead of just picking it up on the fly, you’ll have a much better chance of success. I suggest Keybr.

The most important tip is to relax. It’s going to pretty disturbing at first if you’re anywhere near as dependent on your keyboard as I am, so you just have to remind yourself to take it easy. In a couple of days you’ll be getting the hang of it; in a week, you’ll be typing pretty reasonably, and within a month or so you’ll start to see your initial speeds return. Know that they will come with time and patience, and don’t stress over it.

I do have to stress that investing in an ergonomic hardware set up helped a lot, and that if you’re considering Dvorak for pain relief or ergonomic reasons you should get these things in order too. However, if you find yourself unable to afford the ridiculous prices of some of this equipment, changing your keyboard layout is a good start.

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