Typing as a mindfulness exercise

Typing as a mindfulness exercise

Typing speed is one of those things a lot of programmers strongly dismiss as being highly irrelevant to overall productivity.

Yet there is a sizable contingent of tech workers that are passionate about their special keyboards, whether that be their custom rainbow LEDs, their ergonomic three-piece, or their 90 dB mechanicals. The time and money these people spend to find the perfect keyboard must be paying off in some way, and I have to presume at least some of that payoff comes in the form of a productivity boost.

Somehow there seem to be fewer moral objections against buying niche keyboards than there are against a programmer trying to improve their typing speed. Is this because keyboard hardware is more about enjoyment than productivity? If you spend an hour building a custom keyboard you’re a fun geek, but if you spend an hour trying to improve your typing technique, that’s stupid because typing speed doesn’t matter.

What if typing could become inherently more enjoyable by virtue of some intentional practice?

A while ago, I decided to revisit my typing technique. I’d been able to type at an adequate speed (around 100 WPM) for as long as I can remember, and typing was something so deeply ingrained it would never come to the foreground of my awareness. This changed one day when I suddenly realized how much I suck at touch typing the numbers and symbols row. It was noticeably slowing me down, sometimes devolving into undignified spurts of trial and error. I started to wonder how much, say, a thirty-minute session of focused practice would improve my proficiency in this specific area of the keyboard. Given that I am usually in front of a keyboard for ten hours a day, it couldn’t be too absurd of an idea to spend thirty minutes practicing the symbols row. So one weekend, I decided to take those thirty minutes.

I’m only exaggerating a little bit when I say that this kind of changed my life. As an amateur piano enthusiast, I am intimately familiar with the process of analyzing keystroke errors and prescribing the physical/mental modifications necessary to correct them.  And yet because typing was such a mindless, unconscious activity, I had never thought to apply these corrective techniques to my computer keyboard playing.

That practice session is documented in full in a separate article (Japanese), but here I want to focus on the most important thing I learned that day: All my typing errors had a specific, fixable cause. Mistakes aren’t nearly as “accidental” as you’d expect.

This became increasingly apparent during the week after my practice session, when I resumed my regular typing. With my heightened awareness, I was able to notice that my typos were not randomly distributed. In fact, there were some words where I almost always made the same typing error.

One of the basic rules of any musical instrument really, is to correct your mistakes as soon as possible. The more you repeat your mistakes, the deeper they get etched in your muscle memory. So to do something about this I started keeping a list of all the words I had trouble typing.

I then set aside some time to go through each word in the list to figure out what was going wrong. One way to approach this is to slow down until you can type accurately, and then gradually speed up. However, I know from piano practice that this often doesn’t work. This is because the physical movements required to play quickly are often drastically different from what is sufficient to play slowly. Sometimes it’s just impossible to “work up to” a certain speed when your movements are inappropriate to begin with. So it can often be more effective to approach it from the other direction, which is to first figure out a movement that actually allows you to play effortlessly and accurately at the speed you want.

That means the point of this exercise is not to “slow down for accuracy”, but rather to figure out some more appropriate movements so I can improve accuracy while maintaining my desired speed.

When I observed what was happening in my error-prone key sequences, they fell into three categories.

  1. Bad form: My hand is positioned in a way that does not allow for accurate keystrokes. Usually something to do with finger or wrist angles.
  2. Bad timing: When a word is chunked into two or more bursts of keystrokes in alternating hands, I sometimes start typing the second chunk before the first chunk is complete.
  3. Bad sequence: Certain sequences of keys are just very difficult to type using the standard QWERTY finger placement.

Bad form and bad timing are somewhat straightforward to address. You just experiment with some modified angles and rhythms until you find a motion that feels solid. But a bad sequence, what do you do with that?

I was able to move some words from the Bad Sequence category into the Bad Form category by altering my wrist angles more substantially. I also adopted a new technique which I’d never used before, which is a “slide”.  This greatly eases the uncomfortable movement when you have a key in the top row followed by a key in the middle row using the same finger. For example, common sequences like “ik”, “ol”, and “ed”. I’m not sure you can execute this slide on a bulky mechanical, but lucky for me I use the ultra low-profile keyboards from Apple.

And yet, there were still some words that were just impossible to type comfortably in standard QWERTY. To make matters worse, some of these words come up quite frequently in my line of work, such as:

  • number — The horrible “n-u-m” triangle with the index finger
  • sequence — The “c-e” middle finger hop
  • select — The impossible “c-t” combo

At this point, I had exhausted all my options. It’s time to break bad. We’re deviating from QWERTY rules.

Turns out, the remaining problem words can be resolved with an altered fingering.

  • number — Use the middle finger for the “u”
  • sequence — Use the ring finger for the final “e”
  • select — Use the thumb for the “c” (GASP!)

By the time I had this breakthrough, my typing had transformed drastically. What used to be some very iffy key sequences could now be typed with much more speed and accuracy. But that almost feels like a side effect compared to the way it turned the entire act of typing into something more… pleasant. And might I say, pleasurable.

Of course, some of it is due to the fact that I did remove a lot of uncomfortable movements and instability from my typing. But that’s not what I mean. Typing became pleasurable in the same way that breathing becomes pleasurable when you practice meditation. Just injecting a bit of intentionality in a formerly mindless, unconscious act, turned it into something that I can enjoy in an entirely new way.

When I sit down at the keyboard every day, I can feel my brain processing a lot more sensory information from my finger tips. I have the presence of mind to notice when I’m having trouble with a particular key sequence. But also, to notice when things are going just right, and ever so slightly appreciate those sensations in the background.

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