How to Avoid the Emacs Pinky Problem

By Xah Lee. Date: . Last updated: .
palm pressing control key from youngstabber 2013-08-20
Palm pressing Control key. 〔photo by lanyueniao

Emacs makes frequent use of the Control key. On a conventional keyboard, the Control Key is at the lower left corner of the keyboard, usually not very large and is pressed by the pinky finger. For those who use emacs all day, this will result in Repetitive Strain Injury. 〔►see Celebrity Programers with RSI〕 This page lists some tips on avoiding this pinky problem.

I've been using computer since 1991, at least 8 hours a day on average every singe day. I was a QWERTY touch-typist with 80 wpm and worked as a secretary for about 2 years, then in ≈1994 i switched to Dvorak layout. I started to use emacs everyday since 1998. I am a keyboard and key macro nerd, and have used tens of keyboard macro or keymap type of utilities on the Mac, unixes, and Windows, always looking for the most ergonomic and efficient way to operate the keyboard. 〔►see Keyboards, Layouts, Hotkeys, Macros, RSI〕 This page summarize my experiences applied to emacs.

The best way to avoid the pinky problem is actually to use a good keyboard. Let us start with some tips on choosing a good keyboard.

Tips for Selecting a Computer Keyboard

GOOD Keyboard

Microsoft sculpt ergonomic keyboard 41754
Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard. The keys are split and oriented for each hand. The Ctrl and Alt are very large and symmetrically positioned with respect to each hand's thumb. Also, note the distance from F and left Alt. It's almost vertically adjacent. This means you just curl-in your thumb to hold Alt. 〔►see Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard ReviewMicrosoft Ergonomic Keyboard

BAD Keyboard

Apple keyboard
The Apple keyboard as of 2006. Note the distance of the right side's modifier keys. It is not possible, to use the right thumb to press the ⌘ command key while the index finger remains on the J.

Here's a list of keyboard i consider best for emacs: Best Keyboard for Emacs.

Avoid Laptop Keyboards

Apple G4 iBook
Apple iBook G4, ~2005. This laptop injured my hands, because i was typing on it daily, 6 hours per day, for 2 years.

Laptop computer keyboards are the worst beast. It is the quickest way to get RSI. The keys are packed into a neat little rectangular space and flat. Ctrl and Alt become tiny squares, jammed together with Fn. Many dedicated keys such as ↖ Home, ⇟ Page Down, Arrow keys, are reshaped into squares to fit into the rectangular array — losing their distinct positions that can be easily located by touch. Dedicated keypad for numbers is gone. Time saving Function keys, great for macros, become a thin strip and require 2 key presses with a Fn modifier key, also requires visual-contact to hit correctly.

It is neat, alright, but anything in perfectly geometric shape is a sign that it is the worst with respect to ergonomics and comfort. In the environment of nature, which our body evolved to cope with, there's almost never any straight lines, squares, or perfect circles.

I use a computer for 8 hours a day since 1991. Never had any problems. But, during 2004 and 2005, for 2 years, i was using a laptop always, i noticed RSI symptoms. My hand started to feel weird even when not typing. No pain, but definitely something's not right. (I've already read extensively about RSI)

So i went and bought a external keyboard, and actually bought a split-keyset ergonomic keyboard, the Microsoft Wireless Natural Multimedia keyboard. I always hated split keyboards, in particular because emacs's 【Ctrl+x】 on Dvorak is at the B position of QWERTY, and the B key on split keyboard is on the left side, but i always used the right hand to do the x and left hand on Ctrl. Also, the number 6 key is supposed to be pressed by the right hand by traditional touch typing, but the 6 on split keyboard is on the left side too.

Despite this initial difficulty, i adopted the split ergonomic keyboard, even after 15 years of using a traditional PC keyboard. Now, i won't go back to non-split keyboards. Typing on non-split keyboard feels discomfort even just for a few minutes.

How to Press the Control Key

Use Your Palm or Semi-Fist

Do not use your pinky to press the Control key.

palm pressing control key
Palm pressing Control key. (Photo by Daniel Arber…)
pressing control key by pinky knuckle 2015-06-23
pressing control key by pinky knuckle 2015-06-23. 〔image source

For some keyboards, it's not easy to use palm. Instead, you can curl in your fingers into a semi-fist, then sit your fist on the control key, or knock the key with your pinky's knuckle.

Use Both Hands

Do not use just one hand to type a Control+key combo.

Use one hand to press Ctrl, use the other hand to press the letter key. This is the same principle for pressing the ⇧ Shift key in touch-typing.

When the key you want to press is on the left side of the keyboard, use the right side of Ctrl. For example, to press 【Ctrl+a】, hold down the right Ctrl with your right palm edge, and use your left hand to press a. Make this into a habit. Using a single hand to press 【Ctrl+key】 combo means your hand is shaped into spider legs, thus putting stress on it when done repeatedly.

This is also why it is important to chose a keyboard with large Control keys positioned on both sides of the keyboard.

Software Ways to Avoid the Pinky Problem

A good keyboard and good typing habit is good. But suppose you are stuck with a laptop keyboard. Here are some suggestions for this situation.

Use a Ergonomic Keyboard Shortcut Layout

For programers, more than 50% of your typing are actually calling commands. 〔►see Emacs's Command Frequency〕 This means, the layout for command keybinding is actually more important than letter-key layout.

One good solution is to use a ergonomically designed shortcut layout for emacs. See: ErgoEmacs Keybinding.

Another solution is to use a modal mode.

I recommend evil mode or Emacs: Xah Fly Keys.

This way, most commands are single key press, but you have to press a key everytime you switch edit/command mode. Be sure to set a easy key for that, such as {Caps Lock, Alt, ▤ Menu}.

The above modes are by far the best solution. I suggest you get used to one of them. Following are lesser solutions.

Swap Control and Alt

Try swapping the Ctrl and Alt keys.

lisp machine keyboard 2 left
Lisp machine keyboard. 〔►see Space-cadet, Lisp Machine Keyboards

Emacs's shortcuts are developed for Lisp Machine's keyboards of the 1980s. They have Control key near the space bar, and the Meta key further away from the space bar. So, Control key is the primary modifier key. However, today's keyboards have Alt instead of Meta, and the Ctrl key is placed at the far corner. Emacs did not change its shortcuts. It simply mapped the Meta to Alt. That is why today, most frequently used keyboard shortcuts have the more difficult to press Control key instead of the Alt. For more detail on this and other aspects of emacs's shortcuts.

〔►see Why Emacs's Keyboard Shortcuts are Painful

Swapping the Alt and Control key will make Emacs's keyboard shortcuts easier to use.

The other advantage of swapping Alt and Ctrl, is that on Windows and Linuxes, most direct shortcuts involve the Ctrl key. By swapping, shortcuts are made easier too, because now Ctrl is right under your thumb.

On Laptop, do Swap CapsLock and Ctrl

On a Laptop, do Swap CapsLock and Ctrl.

Remap the Caps Lock and Ctrl key by swapping them. This is not a optimal solution, because the Control key is still pressed by the pinky. But on laptop, this may be better than swapping Alt and Ctrl, because the Caps Lock key is usually much bigger and in a easy open location.

See also: Emacs: Why You Should Not Swap CapsLock and Control

Use Sticky Keys

On {Windows, Mac, Linux}, you can setup your OS so that 【Ctrl+key】 can be pressed by pressing the Ctrl key then release it, then press the key key. Recommended.

Dvorak Keyboard Layout

One ergonomic improvement is the Dvorak keyboard layout.

Dvorak keyboard layout
Dvorak keyboard layout

You might hear people with concerns about using Dvorak with emacs. Actually, no problem at all. In fact, i feel it's better than QWERTY, even though i never used emacs with QWERTY. (I started using Dvorak in 1994, emacs since 1997.)

Dvorak layout does not help with the emacs pinky problem. However, it is good for typing health in other ways.

In the beginning, from 1998 to 2006, the only key i remapped for using Dvorak on emacs is to make “C-t” do emacs's “C-x”. 〔►see Emacs: How to Make Ctrl+x Easier to Type on Dvorak Keyboard〕 But now, i recommend not to use “C-x” at all. You should use key sequences. 〔►see The Roadmap to Completely Replace Emacs's Key System, Part 2

For more info about alternative layout, see: Alternative Keyboard Layouts

Relax Your Hand When Not Actually Typing

When in a active coding/writing session, perhaps more than 50% of the time your hands are actually not typing. You constantly take a pause to read or think. This pause can be 1 second to 10 seconds or more. However, for many people, their hands are still tensed up during these times, ready to type.

It's a good habit to remove your hands from the keyboard or mouse when you are not pressing keys, even if the duration is just few seconds.

Remind yourself to check your hands when you are not actually in action of typing or using the mouse. See if your hand is completely relaxed.

Hand Exercise Toys

Here's some fun toys i use that give my hands something to do, to take them away from the same muscle usage for typing or mousing. When i'm reading or thinking, it's a habit to pick these toys up and play with it unconsciously.

Hand Exercise Putty

hand exercise putty
hand exercise putty. Buy at amazon

this comes in different firmness. From reading Amazon reviews, even the “medium” firmness one is hard to squeeze. So, you might get the “soft” rated one.

Squeeze Ball

hand exercise ball
hand exercise ball. Buy at amazon

Get a squeeze ball. There are several types of squeeze ball. Some are spongy and light weight, requires little effort to squeeze, and spring back into shape immediately. Another type feels like clay; You have to squeeze hard with the whole hand for it to deform, and they deform slowly. I like the clay type better.

Hand Grip

hand grip ring
hand grip ring. Buy at amazon
hand grip captains of crush
hand grip. Buy at amazon

Rubber Band

expand-hand rubber band IronMind
hand exercise rubber band. Buy at amazon

cheap bulk rubber band

Get a rubber band. Wrap them around all 5 fingers, then try to open the fingers. This is kinda reverse exercise to squeeze balls. With the right size of rubber band, you can easily expand your fingers once every second.

Pen Twirling

me spinning pens

You might try to pickup Pen Spinning. 〔►see Pen Spinning video〕 Though, am not sure this is good for you. Learning the tricks can be addictive, and the constant pen dropping can be quite annoying to those around you. (In East Asia, majority of highschool students do some form of pen twirling. When walking into the class, you hear the sound of pen droppings all over.) Pen twirling has become a unconscious habit for me since age 13.


classic juggling balls
Juggling balls. Buy at amazon

It is universal advice that you should have AT LEAST 10 minutes of break every 2 hours. The exact schedule varies. I always take breaks. Some people use a alarm clock, but i tend to do it spontaneously. Every 2 hours or so, i'd get up and walk for 10 minutes or do some juggling during break. Been a juggler since age 17. (See many juggling videos at Juggling and Performance Arts.)

Chinese Hand-Exercise Iron Ball

chinese baoding exercise ball 81357
Chinese hand exercise balls. Buy at amazon

When taking a walk, i usually carry Chinese hand exercise iron balls. It's relaxing to rotate them. For buying advice, see: Chinese hand-exercise iron balls.

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