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Gain a superpower by learning to touch-type - Back to School

Touch Typing Tutor listIf you're a fan of life hacks of any kind and you can't touch-type, you're wasting your time. Just like the best current upgrade you can give your computer in terms of overall speed improvement is a solid-state drive, the best overall speed improvement you can give yourself when it comes to the time you spend on a computer is the ability to touch-type. I'm not kidding, and if you're skeptical I intend to convince you.

For our Back-to-School series, I really wanted to write a post about how great Gmail's keyboard shortcuts are. They really are fantastic, and if you learn them, you can really fly through your email without using the mouse at all.

But, I realized that most of the people I've talked to about keyboard shortcuts -- for Gmail and for any other application -- feign interest, then politely lets me know that they "can't memorize keys", or some other similar excuse.

The thing is, I don't believe this. But I'm getting a clear message that people aren't interested in keyboard shortcuts. And I think I know why: most people can't touch-type. Keyboard shortcuts lose almost all of their value if you constantly have to look down at your fingers to find the right key.

If you can't touch-type, then you really need to learn. It's a completely attainable goal, and it gives you a sort of human-computer interface superpower.

Superpower? Really?

Yes, I realize that characterizing a mundane skill like typing as a superpower seems a little over the top, but hear me out.

Here's the thing: If you ask people if they could learn to touch-type, most people will say yes. But yet, most people just don't. So here you've got a situation where you can set yourself apart by learning a skill that most people acknowledge is readily attainable, but don't bother to get.

Okay, fine. But why?

So why is touch-typing better than hunt-and-peck?

  1. Editing on-the-fly -- When you can type without looking at your fingers, that means you can look at the output of what you're typing instead. You can see problems as they happen, and fix them as you go. This by itself can improve your overall speed when writing.
  2. Transcribing -- If you've ever had to type something out that someone else wrote, the ability to keep your eyes on the original document as you type will let you power through it in no time. Every time you have to switch your focus back and forth between two or more places, the slower and less accurate you will be.
  3. Ten fingers are faster -- There are some surprisingly fast hunt-and-peck typists, but they're unlikely to be faster than someone who is typing with all ten of their fingers.
  4. Keyboard Shortcuts! -- Learning keyboard shortcuts in the applications you regularly use is like adding another gear to your gearbox - suddenly you're able to reach a new top speed. It really is like having a superpower (there's that word again).

You've convinced me. How do I get started?

Back when I decided to learn to type I was running Windows 3.11 on my family's 486, and my options for touch-typing tutor software was limited. I tried a few different typing programs before settling on a relatively simple piece of shareware called TTT Touch Typing Tutor. What I liked about TTT was that unlike some typing programs, it didn't let you continue typing if you hit an incorrect letter, thereby allowing you to miss a big series if letters. Instead, it played an alert sound at you when you missed a letter, and forced you to hit the correct letter before it would allow you to continue. That way, your score isn't artificially lowered by typing one letter off, and more importantly it interrupts a bad habit (hitting the wrong letter in a pattern) and helps replace it with the right habit (the right letter).

While it's been awhile since I've needed to use typing tutor software, the good news is that there are infinitely more options available than there were back when I was learning. Even a quick Google search turns up a bunch of promising links, one of which is All the Touch Typing Tutors. This site aggregates and provides summaries for freeware, and shareware typing tools for Windows, Mac, and Linux, and provides a list of online tools.

I recommend trying a few, and using the one you enjoy most, but keep in mind that it should be one that stops you if you hit a wrong letter, and forces you to hit the right one to continue.

When am I going to find the time to learn?

If you're in school, the answer is "right freakin' now". I'm not kidding. Find 10 to 15 minutes every day, maybe at the beginning of each of your study sessions. [I was forced to learn touch-typing when I was 12. It was the single best thing I learnt at school! -Ed]

If you've got a 9 to 5 job, consider asking your boss if you can spend 10 to 15 minutes per day working on your typing speed for a month. They might be willing to go for it, since it's an investment that will payoff in terms of increased productivity, and it costs them nothing except a bit of your time. If they say no, consider just using your coffee break, or showing up to work 15 minutes early and doing it then.

Like any skill that you repeatedly practice, you're going to surprise yourself with how much progress you can make in the space of one short month, if you really commit to it. You will eventually reach a point where typing without looking becomes fun, and your speed will continue to improve just by continuing to use your new-found superpower.

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