The best way to move to the Colemak keyboard layout

The original QWERTY keyboard layout is inefficient. It was developed in 1873 – originally for typewriters, but as newer technology was manufactured, it stuck as the layout of choice.. It’s been over a century and we’re still using it. This is because switching is really hard. It’s essentially the same as a piano player trying to play a piano in which every single key has been switched.

I like the Colemak layout. It’s a practical layout comparatively to the “fastest”1 keyboard layout, Dvorak. There are seventeen keys moved from QWERTY to Colemak (versus Dvorak in which, from what I can tell, every key is changed), so it’s not a complete change, but still pretty comprehensive.

I’m not going to go into too much detail about why you would switch; personally, I was having RSI problems and switching to Colemak seems to have helped a great deal. Jason Trill has a great post on the ErgoDox keyboard that includes great keyboard heatmaps – a representation of how typing is distributed on the physical keyboard. The below example shows a large Javascript framework being typed on each layout.

QWERTY:

qwerty heatmap

COLEMAK:

colemak heatmap

DVORAK:

dvorak heatmap

The more keys that can remain on the home row, the better. While Dvorak seems to have the upper hand, I’ll defer to the 80/20 rule–if we can get a large portion of the benefits of a new keyboard layout by doing a less intensive transition to Colemak, that’s a win in my book.

Switching is hard! If you’d like to retain a reasonable amount of your typing speed, switching cold turkey to Colemak can be brutal, and dare I say, traumatic. Everyday typing becomes an infuriating experience!

Enter Tarmak. Tarmak is an ingenious system devised in the Colemak forums, which acts as a “transitional” layout system from QWERTY to Colemak. Here’s a nice GIF from the introductory forum post that sums it up well:

You shouldn’t expect to be at maximum typing speed immediately – after about two months, I still had some inaccuracies day-to-day. When should you switch? Here’s a nice answer from the Colemak forum:

I think focusing on accuracy is very important when considering when to level up. From my experience I suggest the aim should be between 95-100% combined with a speed of >25WPM. Having a greater speed initially helps, as performance will very likely decrease when adding more keys from the colemak layout.

If you’re looking for typing tests to score your WPM (words per minute), there’s lots of online options. I used GNU Typist–if you’re on Mac or Linux, it’s easy to install and navigate around, even as you learn a new layout. Because it was in the command-line, it was easy to hop in and do focused typing practice every day, while still continuing my normal coding patterns. Of course, just being on the computer at all is good practice!

The forum includes various downloads for most operating systems. I used this Github project that adds Tarmak options in the native OS X keyboard layouts. I was happy to see that once I finished Tarmak, Mac OS X had Colemak built-in. You can find all the various layouts in “Input Sources” under the Keyboard section of System Preferences.

One thing you may want to consider is how to transition between multiple machines. I have a work laptop and a personal laptop, and it was important to keep those machines synced on the same Tarmak transitional layout. I handled this by scheduling a calendar event where I would open both machines and change the layouts at the same time–of course, you’re welcome to implement whatever system works best for you.

Unfortunately, iOS doesn’t have Colemak support for day-to-day typing, but does have it for Bluetooth keyboards. I find that I type fine on my phone still, but interestingly enough, I revert back to Colemak sometimes when I’m not looking.

Overall, the move to Colemak seems to be a win so far – my wrists feel a bit better, and it’s another item checked on my ergonomic to-do list.

2 Replies to “The best way to move to the Colemak keyboard layout”

  1. I’m a Colemak Typist and Programmer(100+ WPM real AVG and hit peaks of 180+ WPM on websites like typeracer.com or 10 fast fingers) for a few years and from my experience and the great knowledge of Internet I suggest you never ever go “Cold Turkey” on anything because your brain basically overrides the old skill and the only advantage you have is a marginally faster learning curve for the new stuff.

    If we talk about Typing does it worth to dump Qwerty? No. You should keep it in your bag but use a better layout like Colemak on your systems only, there is where you spend most of your time. Helps you on your system and helps on when you need to go to someone’s else system.

    What you should do in this specific case we talk about is to continue use Qwerty as you do normally for your day to day activities and only train Colemak a period of time at your choice daily, let’s say 10-20 minutes. Do that 1-2 months and tell me you can’t type Colemak if you can :-)), the speed would vary based on your initial Qwerty speed after that period obvious but nevertheless you will be able to use both in paralel and instantly switching between them.

    Tarmak is a new thing for me to hear about but I see it as a tool developed by the impacient ones, the ones that don’t really think what is the best outcome at the end and only seek the fast immediate gain sacrificing too much, it’s sad for me that people rush…

    This is also true for the typing speed, we should aim as you said to type at 95+% accuracy(i’d say close to 100%) and the speed should be the 2’nd goal for the first few months since a point indeed will come when training purely for speed is advantageous, but most people don’t hit that point because they rush and experience a mix of speed and accuracy evolution.

    Most important to remember: Train daily, don’t rush and don’t kill existing skills unless there is a real well thought reason + people should realize that the way the brain works is that sometimes your “skill” decreases sometimes in order to later increase because even though you were “better” previously, the neuron paths were in such a way that impeded further improvement.

  2. The heatmaps show a huge use of the Shift key in both Qwerty and Colemak
    Compared to Dvorak where it’s used a LOT less. Since I mostly use my pinky for shift, using a Dvorak is much better for me.

    Also, Dvorak main heat map positions are the ones below the indexes of each hand
    Which seems to be far superior…

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