Why you think the Caps Lock key is useless

Years ago I thought like many of you do; that the caps lock key is a waste of space. I never really got any benefit from it. It was just as easy, if not easier, to just keep a pinky on shift while I typed. There was even an article in Wired: Death to Caps Lock.

But then my eyes were opened, and I learned that the only reason I didn’t “get” the caps lock key was because I was a shitty typist. Sure, I could type over 100 words per minute, but my typing still sucked. It was some awkward crap that was bad for my wrists and that I’d just organically taught myself.

Then I learned to type correctly.

For me it was a side-effect of switching to Dvorak (because I care about my wrists). I decided that if I was going to do it I was going to do it right, so I made sure I kept my fingers in home position, and typed the way you’re supposed to, with a minimum of movement. And along the way something magical happened: my pinkies became truly useful participants in my work. I didn’t consciously notice this until a few days ago, when I came across yet another article decrying the caps lock key, and thought, “But, I use caps lock regularly…” I realized that that wasn’t always the case. I started using it, when I learned to type correctly, because my pinkies were busy doing real work and couldn’t be wasted holding down some shift key for entire words.

If you think the caps lock is an essentially useless key, odds are, it’s because you’re simply a crappy typist.

I think Jeff Attwood said put it well. We are Typists First, Programers Second. If you haven’t read that yet, I strongly suggest you do.

On the off chance that some of you will actually get off your ass and learn to type correctly you should be prepared for a major obstacle, namely, your own bad habits. The thing is you “need to get stuff done” and it’s far easier to do that using your old crappy typing method than it is while having to focus on correct finger position. But, trust me, it’s far too easy to slide back into your old lazy habits. Your brain is going to fight you on this. It has millions of past keystrokes telling it the “right” way to do things. You need to make a clean break. Go cold turkey. No more crap typing for you. You will type correctly or not at all!

Now, the following is not for the faint of heart. It’s hard medicine. In fact, you should probably just stop reading right here, because you simply don’t have the willpower to do what’s best for you. Forcing yourself to type correctly will be mentally painful enough. Actually learning to type in such a way as minimize your chances of carpal tunnel and have a long and productive career at the keyboard… That’s too much for you. Going down that road is like quitting smoking. Sure it’s going to fuck you up in the end, but let’s face it, you’re just too lazy to do anything about it, and anyway that’s “in the future”.

Or, maybe you’re not. Maybe, just maybe, you are smart enough, and have the chutzpah, to recognize that going through a little pain in the short run is worth it to help avoid carpal tunnel.

What medicine am I talking about? Dvorak. If you’re going to rewire your brain to learn a new way of typing why not go all the way and learn a new keyboard layout that will make typing even easier. The Dvorak keyboard layout was designed to minimize finger movement, and to increase the alternation of hands between keystrokes. While the minimized movement is huge, the alternation of hands makes it much easier to go faster. And I swear on everything I hold holy, Dvorak really feels better. You know that feeling you get, when you’re all tense, and you stop and force yourself to relax your shoulders, and realize you’d been scrunching them up for hours without noticing? That feeling when you release the tension you didn’t know you were carrying around? That’s what typing in Dvorak is like.

Rewiring your brain to learn how to type once is painful enough, doing it twice… even I don’t really want to go there, so learning to type right, and learning to type on a healthier, and faster, layout are things that should really be combined. Plus, switching to Dvorak will actually make learning to type correctly easier for two reasons. 1) It’s harder to type incorrectly in Dvorak than it is to type correctly. 2) It will force you to learn to touch type by virtue of the fact that you don’t have a Dvorak keyboard. All those habitual glances down to your keyboard that you don’t realize you’re making. Suddenly they become totally useless. Actually, they become worse than useless, because they give you wrong information.  You look down, see the “Y” key you were looking for and then stop and say “shit, that’s not ‘y’ anymore”.

For me, switching to Dvorak, and learning to type correctly was two weeks of pain. I strongly recommend starting after work on Friday. Go home, print out a copy of the layout and stick it by your monitor. Get used to keeping those little dimples on the “f” and “j” keys under your index fingers, and type stuff all weekend, but only do it in Dvorak. It will be frustrating as all get-out. You’ll feel like an idiot when it takes you a minute to respond one sentence to an instant message, or ten minutes to send a short email, but by the end of the weekend you’ll be doing at least 30 words per minute (which is, sadly, in the neighborhood that most people live).

By the end of two weeks of consistently using Dvorak you should be back up to 80wpm or more. How much more, is up to you.

Now, there is a catch: login screens. Unless you know the magic incantations for your OS, your computer’s login screen is still going to be in QWERTY. And, if you’re on a work computer you don’t want to change that because then the sysadmins will never be able to log in when they have to sit down at your desk and poke something. But, it’s not a big deal for you, because there’s still a handy reference on the keyboard. You know, that thing you used to have to look at back when you sucked at typing and thought the caps lock key was useless?