Emacs Repetitive Strain Injury is Coming for You

By Xah Lee. Date: . Last updated: .

I started the revolution of alternative keybinding in emacs, starting with ErgoEmacs Keybinding in 2007.

In the emacs community, many tells you to stick to the GNU Emacs keybinding, or even telling you to set your browser or OS to use emacs's keys.

emacs keybinding causes RSI, but it is the most inefficient keybinding possible. It is not much better than a random map.

Here's a simple practical advice. Put this in your Emacs Init File:

;; make cursor movement keys under right hand's home-row.
(global-set-key (kbd "M-i") 'previous-line)
(global-set-key (kbd "M-j") 'backward-char)
(global-set-key (kbd "M-k") 'next-line)
(global-set-key (kbd "M-l") 'forward-char)

(global-set-key (kbd "M-u") 'backward-word)
(global-set-key (kbd "M-o") 'forward-word)

(global-set-key (kbd "M-SPC") 'set-mark-command)

with just this few simple clunky non-robust lines, you will save perhaps 30% of finger distance moved, and never going back.

if you want a more robust system, use https://ergoemacs.github.io/. (the alternative would be evil-mode. I've never used, but i think it's comparable with respect to key efficiency or preventing RSI, provided you make the mode switching key (Escape) to be something more easy-to-press on the KEYBOARD YOU ARE USING. (such as CapsLock, Alt, or ▤ Menu))

yes, you'll need to go thru the painful process of changing muscle habit. JUST DO IT.

on the net, today there's a lot report from programers who suffer RSI. You see them every month. (you can see a lot on reddit, hacker news, and keyboard forums such as geekhack or Deskauthority (but all these are huge sites, so you have actually to dig in the community to start seeing RSI related stories.)) When you read them, you see dreadful stories.

there are also lots people insisting “i program for n decades and never had a problem…”, defending either their flat PC keyboard, or defending GNU Emacs, and mostly just defending nothing but their personal HABIT sans any scientific basis whatsoever. There are huge amount of other myths about keyboarding. I've written tens of articles about this. Myth in society is extremely hard to kill. I can only repeat. See Emacs Keybinding, Keyboard, Articles Index.

if you find some article that make sense, share it, tell other people about these issues. Perhaps someday, GNU Emacs might go for a better default keybinding set, but for now, at least a lot people will be aware of the various issues.

keybinding and keyboard are very vibrant today. Huge amount of alt layouts comparable to Dvorak today, and lots of new ergonomic keyboards with mechanical keys are out in recent years. The change in society is slow, but progress is steady. Your number one enemy is: HABIT.