Your thumbs are tragically underutilized with traditional keyboards. Take a moment, type a few words, and notice which thumb you use to hit the spacebar. Most people use the right thumb exclusively, some use the left thumb, but there’s few who use both thumbs when touch typing.

Using two perfectly good fingers to hit a single key is wasteful. The obvious solution is to place additional keys within easy reach of the thumbs, moving them from other parts of the keyboard. This will lighten the load on the other fingers and help keep the hands on the home row.

Some ergonomic keyboards do exactly this.

The Kinesis Advantage contoured keyboard: Kinesis Advantage

The ErgoDox hobbyist-made keyboard: ErgoDox

Unfortunately, both of these have pricetags of a couple hundred dollars.

Luckily, Japanese thumb shift keyboards exist and are as cheap as a normal keyboard. thumb shift keyboard

I paid a few dollars on eBay to get mine, which has a slightly different layout from the one in the picture.

I now have four keys within reach of my thumbs, which I map to Super, Backspace, Space, and Enter.

I picked Backspace and Enter because they’re usually pressed by the weakest finger, the pinky. The choice of Super was driven by my window manager.

Other keys like Alt (which I can hit by tucking my left thumb) or Ctrl (which is already on my Caps Lock key) or Escape (which I have on a mode switch mapping, more on that in a later post) are also good choices. These bindings can be set up by running xmodmap -pke > keymap, tweaking the mappings with the help of xev, and then running xmodmap keymap. You can see my xmodmap configuration here.

I’ve been using this keyboard and these bindings exclusively on my desktop for about a year now, and I like it.

I haven’t run into any problems. My thumb isn’t missing when I try to hit space. I’m still completely able to use a normal keyboard, which I doubt would be true if I was using an ErgoDox or Kinesis Advantage all day long.

On the other hand, the low monetary cost and the (possibly totally subjective) benefit of less hand movement and more balanced finger usage make this a definite win.

Since it can be very cheap to buy one of these keyboards, I encourage everyone to try it out if they can. It could save you from painful carpal tunnel syndrome 10 years down the line.