How To Avoid The Emacs Pinky Problem

Perm url with updates:

How To Avoid The Emacs Pinky Problem

Xah Lee, 2006, ..., 2010-07-24, 2010-08-28

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. 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. 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 and computer. (see: All About Keyboards, Keyboard Layouts, Shortcuts, Macros) 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

Here are some keyboard hardware advices:

• Buy a keyboard such that the Alt and Control keys are large.

• Buy a keyboard where Alt and Control are also available on the right side.

• The Alt and Control key's positions on the left and right sides should have the same distance to your left and right thumbs (while your hands are rested in standard touch-type position). Specifically: the distance from the left Alt to the F key should be the same as the right Alt to the J key.


Apple keyboard

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

Many keyboards don't have full set of modifier keys on the right side, and when they do, they are positioned far to the right, making them not much usable for touch typing. For example, the keyboards made by Apple Computer, their right-side Command/Alt/Ctrl keys are inferior citizens. They are placed far more to the right, making the right set of modifier keys difficult or impossible to reach with the thumb. It makes these keys essentially decorative in nature. (See: Apple Keyboards Review.)


ms n4000 keyboard

The Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000. 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. (See: A Review of The Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000.)

Avoid Laptop Keyboards

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. Control key and other modifiers become tiny squares. Many dedicated keys such as Home, PageDown, Arrows, 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.

laptop keyboard

Laptop keyboard. Source Sure way to ruin hands. Avoid prolonged typing on laptop keyboards.

Although i sit in front of the computer daily for more than 8 hours a day for the past 20 years, but i never developed any symptoms of RSI except one incidence around 2004. 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. Not exactly pain yet, but definitely something's not right and serious. (I've already read extensively about RSI)

So i went and bought a external USB keyboard, and actually bought a split ergonomic one. I always hated split keyboards, in particular because emacs's C-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 in C-x. 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 the non-split keyboard. 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.

For most PC keyboards, it is very easy to press the control key using your palm. Just open your hand somewhat and push down with the meat at the chopping edge of your hand. Alternatively, you can roll your wrist a bit, curl in your fingers into a semi-fist, then sit your fist on the control key.

Use Both Hands

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

Use one hand to press Control, use the other hand to press the combination 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 Control key. For example, to press 【Ctrl+a】, hold down the right Control 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 are shaped into spider legs, thus putting stress on it when done repeatedly.

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

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. A laptop computer usually don't have control key on both sides of the keyboard. Its control key is very small, and it cannot be pressed by palm. Here are some suggestions for this situation.

Swap Control and Alt

Try swapping the Control and Alt keys.

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 Control 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 Control, is that on Windows and Linuxes, most direct shortcuts involve the Ctrl key. By swapping, shortcuts are made easier too, because now Control is right under your thumb. See: How To Swap Caps Lock, Alt, Control Keys On Windows.

Swap Caps Lock and Control

Another commonly suggested solution is to remap the the Caps Lock and Control key by swapping them. This is not a optimal solution, because the Control key is still pressed by the pinky, and somewhat displaces your hand on home position. Also, there is now only one Control key, making the left pinky doing double work. (modifier keys comes in pairs for good reasons. Try pick out a Shift key and type for a week) However, if you are stuck on a lousy keyboard such as laptops, and unable to swap Ctrl and Alt, then making the Caps Lock key as Control might be a practical solution. (For detail, see: Why You Should Not Swap Caps Lock With Control)

See: How To Swap Caps Lock, Alt, Control Keys On Windows.

Use a Ergonomic Shortcut Layout

If you are adventurous, the best solution is to use a ergonomically designed shortcut layout for emacs. (See: A Ergonomic Keyboard Shortcut Layout For Emacs.)

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 pressy the ‹key› key. On Windows, go to Control Panel, “Ease of Access Center”, then the Keyboard section. On Mac, go to System Preferences, Universal Access, Keyboard tab. For Linux, see: StickyModifiers.

Dvorak Keyboard Layout

Perhaps a more important ergonomic improvement one can make is by using the Dvorak keyboard layout.

dvorak keyboard layout

I've been using Dvorak keyboard since 1994. It works beautifully with emacs. It makes typing more comfortable. (i use emacs since 1997).

For more info about Dvorak layout, see: The Dvorak Keyboard Layout.

Relax Your Hand When Not Actually Typing

When in a active type session such as coding or writing, perhaps more than 50% of the time your hand is actually not punching the keyboard. 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. This is one major cause of RSI.

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

It's a good habit to develop to even remove your hand from the keyboard or mouse when you are not actively typing, even if the duration is just few seconds.

Hand Toys

Here's some fun toys i use that give my hand something to do, to take them away from the same muscle usage for typing or mousing.

So when i'm reading or thinking, it's a habit to pick these toys up and play with it unconsciously.

Squeeze Ball

Get a squeeze ball. amazon 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 them both very much.

Rubber Band

Get a rubber band. amazon 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

You might try to pickup Pen Spinning. 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.) Personally, pen twirling has become a unconscious habit for me since age 13.


It is universal advice that you should have 10 minutes of break every 2 hours. The exact schedule varies. I always take breaks. Some use a 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. amazon

chinese baoding exercise ball2

Chinese hand exercise iron balls

When talking a walk, i usually carry Chinese hand exercise iron balls It makes me looks like a Asian sage. (don't buy those with decorative inlaid brass wire on the ball surface. They look pretty, but if you dropped or chipped the ball, the metal wire may stick out. Get pure marble or metal ball. Also, most of them chime. I prefer them not, especially if you work in the office.)

  • “Chinese Exercise Ball (Stone)” amazon
  • “Chinese Exercise Ball (Metal)” amazon
Was this page useful? If so, please do donate $3, thank you donors!

Popular posts from this blog

11 Years of Writing About Emacs

does md5 creates more randomness?

Google Code shutting down, future of ErgoEmacs