A Serious Inefficiency Of My Computer Use (And Probably Yours Too)

Since the start of the year I’ve been making an effort to reduce my screen time. That is, I’m trying to limit the hours I spend in front of my laptop each week, so I can spend more time out and about, meeting cool people and enjoying the places I’m traveling through.

In December I averaged approximately 59 hours per week, which didn’t allow for much of a life away from the Internet. So before January hit I made an ongoing deal with my Matermind group1: If I exceed a set amount of screen time each week, I must donate $40 to a charity of their choosing.

I’ve been gradually setting the limit lower and lower, forcing myself to become more effective, experimenting to find an ideal. Currently I’m trying to stay under 45 hours per week.

I felt the squeeze this past weekend. It proved to be a busier week than most, with several client projects to juggle, many more emails and comments than usual, plus my no self-promo efforts.

I ended up barely working at all on Saturday, and powered down my laptop on Sunday evening with literally just two minutes of screen time to spare2.

My serious inefficiency

Thanks to this challenge, I’ve been forced to acknowledge a serious inefficiency of mine when it comes to computer use: Typing. I never learned how to touch type, and I realize now just how much time it costs me not to have that skill.

Recently I read an excellent book on effective computer use titled Bit Literacy (the Kindle edition is free). The author, Mark Hurst, drives home the importance of touch typing for anyone who works with a keyboard:

The keyboard is supremely important to bit-literate users because it’s their primary input device. The mouse, and everything it clicks, like hyperlinks and application icons, are all secondary; users must primarily know how to use the keyboard. And that means touch typing. It’s unacceptable for someone to have to look at the keyboard to remember where the keys are, or to use only 20% of one’s fingers–the “hunt and peck” method with two forefingers–when eight other perfectly healthy fingers are available. You might as well drive a sports car only in first gear because you’ve never bothered to learn how to change gears correctly. For physically able users, there is absolutely no excuse for not knowing how to touch type.

Sixty words per minute is a good baseline speed to achieve–using all ten fingers and without looking at the keys. With concentrated practice, and the use of a bit lever, it’s not difficult to exceed one hundred words per minute.

Learning how to touch type

Of course I’ve known for years that I should learn how to touch type, but I kept downplaying the importance of it. Now, finally, I’m taking it seriously and forcing myself to learn. My approach is two-fold:

  1. I simply force myself to touch type all the time, even though it’s currently much slower for me to type that way. I know this discipline will eventually pay off and I’ll save a ton of time in the long run.
  2. I play at least one game of Z-Type on expert mode3 every day. It’s a free Space Invaders-style game where you have to type a word to kill each descending enemy. In about three weeks, I’ve worked my way up from ~30 words per minute to better than 40 words per minute. My best score to date on expert mode is 693. See if you can beat me 😉

Short term pains, long term gains

As mentioned, learning how to touch type is actually slowing me down in the short term. With my old “hunt and peck” style of typing, I was able to free write 1,000 words in 17 minutes. Now I’m struggling to write 800 in that time.

But that’s okay. I’ve written before about giving myself permission to suck. To become good at most pursuits worth pursuing, you have to endure a period of suckage. I’ve gone through this with blogging, being social, public speaking, and many other things. Now it’s time for me to suck at typing for a while, so that I can be really good at it later.

The way I see it, if I can get to 80 words per minute touch typing, I’ll halve the amount of time I spend replying to emails and comments. That adds up to a few extra hours each week away from the computer and enjoying my travels.

What skills will benefit you in the long run?

Aside from typing, consider what other skills you’ve put off learning for fear of short-term inefficiency. Might it be worth embracing the suckage and disciplining yourself to learn those skills now?

In the comments:

  • Let me know what skill-building activities are likely to slow you down in the short-term, but would benefit you greatly in the long run.
  • Share any other cool resources you’ve come across for learning/practicing touch typing.

Show 3 footnotes

  1. Shout out to my Mastermind cohorts Kai and Spyros. If you’re not already in such a group, I highly recommend it. We once meet every two weeks for one hour on Skype to help each other brainstorm and hold ourselves accountable. How do you start a Mastermind group of your own? Simple: Email a few people you admire and ask them to join.
  2. I use the free version of Rescue Time to record my screen time
  3. I started with normal mode and jumped to expert when it became too easy.
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    1. If you need some variety in your typing practice you could try Typer Shark too – one of my faves and I used to send students to that site all the time. 🙂

      I learned to touch type in high school and I still think it was one of the most useful things I learned there!

    2. Lol, I guess it wouldn’t help me a lot to increase my typing speed. I don’t spend most time typing but figuring out what I want to type. 🙂 Anyway, have fun learning this new skill!

    3. lol i love those typing games and sometimes do typing tests for fun. i was fortunate because my school education trained us to touch type in 6th grade!! my natural affinity to the online space (i was a huuuge internet addict lol. still am, but now i can make a career of it *wink*) also helped.. learned my typing skills through AOL chat rooms back in the day and “prog” games where you had to unscramble a word to get points, and the first one to type the correct word would win the round until the highest overall score won the game. it’s such a natural part of me that i take it for granted that a lot of people (especially around here in third world) just aren’t fast typers (I can now type around 80-90wpm but in 6th grade I got up to 60..).

    4. I was just thinking about this earlier today! I use about 50% of my fingers when I type, and peek at the keyboard as I go – I’m fairly fast but could be faster…. A really great way to increase your speed is to “talk-type”, have you tried Dragon Naturally Speaking software?

      As far as what I’d like to learn, but I’ll likely initially suck at: manual driving! It’s an importnant skill and on my list 🙂

      Thanks for the post!

      • Hi Jada. I haven’t tried that software or anything like it. It doesn’t appeal to me all that much, as I work frequently from hostels and coffee shops, where I don’t want to be speaking aloud to my computer 🙂

        As for manual driving, I was lucky because in Ireland all cars are manual, so I learned that way from the start. I was amazed at how easy it was to drive an automatic when I got to the US.

    5. Touch typing will pay off big-time; you’re right.

      I love how you make it in the nick of time. Mission Impossible: Niall Doherty. 2 minutes to spare.

      Here are some cool skills where it’s worth it to suck initially:

      -Learning a language
      -Math! (not because I love math, but because I love the effect it has on my thinking)
      -Social interaction (learning to be more candid and honest/speak my mind more. That’s a HUGE one that I’ve been working on lately.)
      -Writing and engaging with books/history. Learning to write analytic essays, outline books, and create lectures that help people learn the info in fun/creative ways.

      Those are some that I’ve been working on. I’m sure I’ll come up with more as time goes on 🙂

      • Very cool, Josh. I hear you on social interaction. I sucked at that for a long time, but now I’m quite good. Friday evening for example, I went out for the night on my own here in Bucharest for several hours, met lots of cool people and had a great time. No way I could have done that a few years back, but all my practice has paid off.

        Love that you’re working on all of those things. Rock on!

    6. I beat your score… but I also type quickly, and will all 10 fingers. Hooray for 9th grade keyboarding class! It’s a skill I’ve never forgotten.

      I’m currently doing the Couch to 5K program, and also a 100 pushups and 200 squats challenge, alternating days. Ouch, I’m sore, because I’m pretty much a couch potato! So while I’m temporarily inconvenienced and achy, I know that within a few weeks, I’ll be feeling great… and that within a couple of months, I’ll be quite fit, and should be able to run a 5K!

    7. Best of luck to you on learning to be a better typer. I suspect that with a month or two of solid practice, you’ll be typing at great speeds in no time.

      Some skills that I’m working on that I know are definitely going to benefit me are coding, photoshop, and web development. I suck at all three, but I’m practicing and getting better.

      I have really great taste in terms of what I think is good design or good development, and it’s a bit of a letdown when my initial efforts don’t match what I like. But the only way to get the two to meet up is with intentional practice.

      Best of luck, Niall!

      • Absolutely, Taylor. Embracing that suckage will payoff big-time in the long run. Let me know if you ever have any questions re: web development. I’ve been doing it for professionally for >5 years now.


    8. On the flipside to learning to type quickly is learning to read quickly.

      One tool that I find useful for this is Eyercize (http://www.eyercize.com/practice/paste_read).

      I sometimes use it for speed reading practise, but I also use it to get through those painfully long web article as quickly as possible.

      Just copy and paste the text, set your reading speed as high as you can and hit Play.

    9. Dear Squirrel please let my comment through…haha

      Great Post Niall, this typing thing has been “buggin” me for a while too. I think as a result of this post I will spend time getting better at this – Happy Typing

        • Aah no the gauntlet… us Saffers cannot resist a good challenge 😉

          OK lets do it…

          As an aside I wish I had done typing at school but back in the 80’s a boy doing typing classes would have been very UNCOOL

          Actually I probably would’ve attracted a beating… was at an 60% Afrikaans rugby mad school that offered agriculture classes – I think you get the picture

          Hmmm thinking back perhaps I wouldve got better marks in typing…LOL

    10. I’m glad I learn touch type in school… those long ways carrying a heavy iron red manual typewriter from home to school and back were at last worth it! 😉

      I don’t know what my speed is, I’m gonna check that out in second, I’m very curious!

      There is this one skill I need to learn but I keep putting off because I wont experience any pleasure learning it, I think. I need to learn that “computer”language 😀 Only in a basic way, of course, but only that seems unattainable. However it has to be done, it would save me a lot of time and headaches, and it would make me more independent facing “website obstacles” 😛 . Is there any funny way of learning this? 😀

      • Hola, María!

        I can tell you how I learned to code. The best thing I did was try to build a website around one of my passions, which at the time was basketball. I wanted to make a great basketball site, and I got a kick out of figuring out how to add extra features.

        One site that helped me learn a lot was w3schools.com. They’ve got very easy to follow tutorials on there.

        But perhaps the most valuable skill of all isn’t knowing how to code, but knowing how to google for the answers you need when you need them. 99% of the time, when you come up against a web dev problem, you can find the answer out there somewhere on google. You just need to know how to phrase your search correctly.

        Hope that helps!

    11. I always try to show people the keyboard shortcuts for programs, because most “ctrl Z- alt:tab- ctrl V” moves take 1.5 seconds. Moving the mouse to right click, left click the menu, cut, move mouse to otther window, left click, right click left click on paste” takes.. Hours seemingly 😛

      I can half touch type thanks to program called “Mavis Beacon” which was kid-friendly. You had to write the words up so the car would keep driving and still be able to see the words.

      Good luck with your learning.

    12. A few years back, I switched to using the Dvorak keyboard layout. It’s optimized for typing in English – your fingers have to travel a total of about 4-5 times shorter distance than when typing on qwerty. Most of the typing is done on the home row, and it’s not only faster (once you get used to it), it feel more comfortable for your hands and is less likely to lead to RSI!

      Try googling “dvorak keyboard layout”, and look into it.

      For me, the switch has been totally worth it, because I’m blogger, so I type a LOT. And I think it might be the same for you.

    13. You need to design web pages and work online so how are you planning to cover those work when you’ve decided to lessen the time in front of the screen?

      And for typing I would highly recommend you to check this out : http://speedtest.10fastfingers.com/
      This is online Type testing which is very efficient for increasing our typing speed.
      I’ve increased a lot with this.

      All the best 🙂

      • Ohhh, I like that link, Enwil, thanks for sharing!

        To answer your question: I figure I should be able to spend less than 40 hours per week in front of the screen and still get all my most important tasks done. I charge $45 per hour for web design, so 10 hours of paid work per week should easily cover my expenses, leaving me with the remaining 30 or so to do my writing, respond to emails and comments, and whatever else.

      • Yes, that one’s good too.

        For Niall – both Dvorak and Colemak are good keyboard layouts, vastly superior to QWERTY (they were both designed for typing comfort and speed, as opposed to qwerty, which was designed for making typewriter keys not stick together). You can read up on the differences and pick whichever you prefer, but don’t sweat it too much.

      • Cheers, Mark. Both for the comment and for writing Bit Literacy. The book really helped me realize how much more efficient I could be with my computer use.

        I found TypeRacer and have been playing around with it. Very cool. Here’s a link for anyone else interested.

    14. I see somebody already mentioned keyboard shortcuts, but I wanted to reiterate how important they are to speeding up computer use. If you’re using a mouse to copy and paste, or even to do something simple like getting up to the address bar of your browser to type in a URL, you’re wasting time.

      It drives me crazy how many people I see working in IT-related jobs who use a mouse when they just need to memorize a few simple keyboard shortcuts. Of course, I grew up using MS-DOS, so keyboard shortcuts and macros are second nature to me, but it’s not hard to print out a short list and memorize the most common ones.

      • Agreed 100%, Drew. Among my most frequently used shortcuts on the Mac (more for others reading, since you probably know all these yourself):

        – Cmd + C
        – Cmd + V
        – Cmd + Z (undo)
        – Cmd + L (browser address bar)
        – Cmd + K (browser search bar)
        – Cmd + T (new tab in browser)
        – Cmd + tab (switch between applications)
        – Ctrl + tab (switch between browser tabs)

        I also use keyword shortcuts for my Firefox bookmarks, so I can open Gmail by hitting Cmd + L and then typing just the letter g in the address bar, then return. I don’t even have my bookmarks toolbar showing anymore because I created keyword shortcuts for all of them and it’s faster that way.

        • Speaking of one-letter (or short) shortcuts for different websites, I use them for:

          – gmail
          – my blog’s admin page
          – flickr search for images I could use for my blog posts (so, allowed to be modified and used for commercial purposes)
          – facebook
          – wordreference.com (I use this one a lot now that I’ve moved to France and need to type e-mails in French)

          Any other ones you would recommend to create a special one-letter bookmark shortcut for?

          • Actually, you’re further ahead than me. Gmail is really the only one I have a single letter shortcut for. The rest are multiple letters, but you’ve made me realize that they don’t need to be.


            Might also be good to install Rescue Time on your machine to figure out which applications and sites you spend most of your time on. Then you’ll know which shortcuts will benefit you the most.

            • Typing up the comment above, I also realized that I don’t NEED shortcuts for a lot of the websites I visit. Because I always start typing them the same way, they pop up immediately in firefox. So, for example for twitter, I just type “tw” in the address bar, and it immediately pops up as the first option.

              I also just added a shortcut for the “write new post” page in wp-admin, because it does take a few moments to get from the main page to that one. So… yay!

    15. On the subject of temporary suckiness .. I’m committed to do my first triathlon at the end of April – only I have never run and am not a strong swimmer.

      I’m taking swimming lessons and I’m gradually getting there. I feel kinda foolish not being able to do stuff that kids can do, but hey – gotta start somewhere and I give myself permission to suck – until I don’t suck any more.

      • Thanks for the comment, Martin.

        I hope to do a triathlon as well some day, and I’m also a sucky swimmer. I never learned as a kid and only took a few lessons several years ago. I can tread water now but I wouldn’t consider myself a swimmer.

        All the best with your training. Way to embrace that suckage. You’ll be much better off in the long run.

    16. Right now I’m building all the skills that will help me write, travel, and explore away from what I’m used to. I’ve found your blog at just the right time, Niall. When the student is ready, the teacher will come, right? And I’m starting to make big changes. Thanks so much!

      • Thanks, Lisa! Wishing you all the best with those changes.

        And hey, I learn as much from my readers as the do from me, if not more! This comment thread is a great example of that 🙂

    17. Hey Niall, I see you’ve got a lot of suggestions here, but what I’ve used (to great success) is an app for Google Chrome called The Typing Club. It takes you step by step through all the keys and makes sure you’re using the right finger for the right key. There are also WPM tests (but those are more for beginners). I got the most out of these lessons when I would only go on to the next when I didn’t make one mistake.

      I’ve found it’s better to type slower, with less mistakes, than typing fast and having to backspace. Not only do my WPM increase this way, but it greatly helps with flow.

      Good luck on improving your typing skills (and thanks for the Twitter mention! :))

    18. Hi Niall!

      Quite different subject this time, but still very interesting.

      I find odd that you haven’t learned to touch-type when you spend that much time typing… I actually never learned to write either on a typewriter or on a computer keyboard, because back in my time it wasn’t really necessary, but when I landed my actual job, I do 98% of the job via a keyboard…
      I also use to “hunt and peck” and the beginning, but I slowly and naturally started to use 4 instead of 2 fingers (2 on each hand), then 6, then 8 and no I can use all 10 fingers most of the time with no problem. I think it was just matter of getting used to where the keys are, and my fingers learned fast.

      I actually just got 929 on easy on the Z-Type, on my very first attempt! And in English which is not my first language 😉

      Oh, and I can touch type in 2 different languages, and in computer commands an everything 😀
      It’s just matter of doing it often, I guess.

      Also, the shortcuts come natural to me. Control + C, Control + V and all those little shortcuts really make a difference.
      Google makes a great approach to using the computer efficiently, starting with fast applications like Chrome and Gmail, and the ultra fast searches you can do.

      Well, I’m always loving your subjects! Keep them coming!

    19. Niall…I’m fortunate to have taken typing in high school (yeah almost 30 years ago) on a typewriter. Priceless.

      Speed reading and touch typing are very valuable skills. I’ve had monitor issues and moments where my touch has saved the day from the lack of visual. BTW using the Eyercize is great to get through your RSS feeds, essentially killing two birds with one stone while increasing your retention!

      Here’s two great typing tools (I use em randomly for a bit of practice once in a while and to benchmark).


    20. Hmmm need to commit more to this… LOL

      Score 82 – Boooo !
      Accuracy – 32.8
      WPM – 10%

      Looks like we are chasing Kai 😉

      You ?

      • We’ll be chasing her for a while methinks!

        My best score so far 1426 on expert mode, accuracy 92.2%, wpm 40.2.

        I’ve noticed though that there are a few flaws in the game. There have been times where I’ve had a much higher wpm score but not such a high score.

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