by Niall Doherty

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.