Let’s see … what could I do to make it even more difficult to get things done. Oh, I know. I could work with one hand tied behind my back, or I could switch over to the Dvorak system. In case you hadn’t heard, the QWERTY system was designed to slow down typing speeds because the original mechanical typewriters would jam at words per minute above say 70words-per-minute (wpm), or 100 wpm.
I had heard about the advantages of the Dvorak system for many years – faster typing speeds and less risk of repetitive stress disorders – but couldn’t bring myself to self-inflict the pain of re-learning to touch type.
Learning/Skill is all about building new neural pathways
Then I heard a someone speak about how the Dvorak system was a major step forward in his typing efficiency and it really helped prevent repetitive stress disorder. A few days later I began reading The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle which breaks down the myth of natural talents or being born gifted.
Coyle maintains that the real key to talent is myelin, the substance that facilitates and strengthens neural pathways. Apparently, the biological basis of improving through practice is that the more you practice say a stroke in tennis, or golf the more myelin is laid down around the nerves responsible for those movements.
This explains why everyone must practice in order to maintain and improve performance. Essentially we are biological organisms that are governed by a wonderfully complex nervous system: a nervous system that allows us to continually learn new behavior.
So, I decided to re-live this experience of acquiring a new skill – in this case: touch typing with the Dvorak system – and see how I can deepen my own understanding of practice. (More on this in other posts)
My experience so far
Today is my thirty-first day into the experiment and I am still only about 20 wpm. Mind you, I think that my average speed on the old QWERTY keyboard was never consistently above 35 wpm. The most frustrating part of the process is that even after a full month of practice I must still consciously think about each key as I type, otherwise it goes wrong.
At times it goes well and it’s not consistent. My fingers automatically reach for the old layout and many times they hit keys that are wrong for both layouts. Many times I am aware of a curious sensation as I type; a sensation that I imagine is coming from the competition between my well established twenty-year old QWERTY neural pathways, and my month long DVORAK neural pathways. It helps manage my frustration when I think of the history I’m up against.
I notice that just typing is not enough. One of Doyle’s more interesting observations is that mere experience doing something does not mean that high levels of competence or proficiency are achieved. In fact, the skill levels or the degree to which people were able to accomplish a task often tended to be lower among the “old-timers” than among the new-comers who were newly acquiring the skill.
I observed this even in my typing skill on the QWERTY keyboard. Every now and then I would notice that my speed and accuracy would deteorate even though I was typing all the time. A few days of doing typing drills and there would be a noticeable improvement.
If you take on changing over to the DVORAK system, or indeed if you are trying to improve at anything, take care to structure specific exercise drills into your day; drills designed to improve specific components or elements of your target skill. In golf, it might be your drive, or putting, in tennis it might be your serve or your back-hand. In typing it might be hitting the “g” key firmly and accurately every time with your right index finger.
OK, not my most exciting post but alas this is often the source of what makes practice effective: the willingness to organize yourself around what’s required to produce results and minimize your costs, and not what feels good.
Would I recommend the Dvorak typing system?
What’s my experience so far with the DVORAK system and would I recommend it?
It’s too early to say.
One significant drawback to it is that any keyboard shortcuts you use won’t automatically transfer to the new keyboard layout. For example,` CTRL/CMND-C for the familiar copy short-cut becomes CTRL/CMND-J on the DVORAK keyboard. This is not too much of a drawback for me because I’m using a keyboard overlay from KB covers that has the old QWERTY letters in small type on each letter so that I can find these old keys when I need them.
I also have not acquired enough speed with this new keyboard to be able to sing its praises … yet.
I will say that I would not recommend it if you are constantly shifting from one computer to another or you use lots of programs with keyboard shortcuts.
Then there’s the frustration of giving up what typing speed you have and going back to zero. You can say you’ll wait for when work slows down, or maybe you’ll go on sabbatical and have the time to acquire this new skill. The likelihood is there will never be a good time to begin. Once you commit, change your keyboard and don’t look back.
It took another Dvorak converter I came across three months to get competent again without consciously thinking about her fingers on the keys. I had hoped to become proficient in a month and my experience so far suggests that three months is a realistic target. Will post my conclusions/recommendations then.