So, you want to Colemak.

I just made the switch from QWERTY to Colemak over a period of roughly 4 weeks. Several people have asked me about it, so I decided to share why I switched, how I did it, and some lessons learned.

Why Colemak

Having spent more 50% of my life touch-typing, I've done a lot of typing (final test before switching was ~105 WPM). As a result, around two years ago my hands started aching. Nothing too painful, but I took note.

So, over the last 24 months I've done various things that have helped a bit. Along the way I remembered reading about more efficient keyboard layouts and how they help to avoid awkward finger movements.

There are lots of alternative layouts out there. Colemak stuck out because of its similarity to QWERTY. There are only 17 key changes (only two of which are between hands), which is a manageable transition with the proper approach.

Some Colemak statistics (source):

  • Your fingers on QWERTY move 2.2x more than on Colemak.
  • QWERTY has 16x more same hand row jumping than Colemak.
  • 35x more words can be typed using only the home row on Colemak.
  • Many shortcuts (including Ctrl+Z/X/C/V) remain the same.

If less movement means less pain, Colemak wins by a long shot.

Transitioning

It took me three attempts to transition. I went cold-turkey for the first two attempts and switched my layout on my computer, phone, etc. Both times I was back on QWERTY after three days. It was just too much all at once. You know that feeling you get when you try to pat your head and rub your belly? It's like that. All day long. I would not recommend doing this.

Tarmak was the solution for me. It's a 5-step program that moves 3-4 keys in each step. 3-4 new keys was easy to keep in my head while still thinking about what I'm typing; 17 is not.

It took me about a week to get through each step. My typing speed took a big hit at the start of each new step. Because of this, I found it helpful to work back up to ~50 WPM before attempting the next step.

Each step followed a similar flow:

  • Drop to ~32 WPM at the start of a new step
  • Back up to ~54 WPM after ~7 days

Installing Tarmak Layouts

If you're on a Mac, use Karabiner. It ships with Tarmak layouts and you'll be taking your first step in seconds.

For all other operating systems, read here.

Lessons Learned

I'll assume that my superb writing has convinced you to make the switch. Here are some things I wrote down as I went through my transition that you might find helpful.

Take Typing Tests, Keep Notes

Take typing tests twice a day (morning / afternoon) and write down the results. Seeing improvement will help you stick to your goals and know when to take the next step.

Moving Keycaps

I chose not to do this for a few reasons. First, it sounded like a lot of work (especially on a Macbook keyboard). Also, the home row keys with bumps on them would be in the wrong place, which is just weird. I have a Code keyboard so I could order new keycaps. But the reason I'm not is because of the next tip.

Typing Multiple Layouts

Yes, it's possible to go between multiple layouts, at least in my experience. Don't move your keycaps and you should be able to look at the keyboard and type QWERTY without too much trouble. Helpful for typing on a coworkers computer (assuming you can't convince them to switch).

VIM Commands

Don't remap your keys to keep them in the same physical place. This is more confusing than learning the new placements. It only takes a day or two to adjust.

Colemak Everywhere?

There is a Colemak keyboard for iOS, but I recommend that you just stick with the default QWERTY keyboard on mobile. It's such a different typing feel that it shouldn't impact your transition.

Mac Keyboard Prefs

After you're through Tarmak, use the OSX keyboard preference pane to add the Colemak keyboard layout. Then delete the existing one. Otherwise your keyboard will change back to QWERTY in the middle of typing and you'll think you're having a stroke.

Macbook Keyboard Covers

It's a waste of money because Tarmak has 5 steps. Also you're touch-typing, right?

Conclusion

Making the switch was a fun process; 10/10 would do it again (eh maybe not).

Is it worth it? I don't know yet. Really the only thing I've noticed is that Colemak has a really nice rhythm to it. In my experience, typing cadence is important for achieving flow, so this was a pleasant surprise. Over time I hope to see an improvement in my hands, but I expect that'll be hard to measure.

Anyway, maybe this will inspire you to try a new layout. Thoughts or input? Tweet or email me: @bryanp | bryan@metabahn.com