Hard Mode

Mar 16, 2013 00:00 ยท 960 words ยท 5 minute read

Recently, while watching Corey Haines and Aaron Patterson pair-program, I heard Mr. Haines mention vim’s “hard mode”. Apparently, this is when you disable the motion commands h, j, k, and l.

It’s absurd how great this exercise is for increasing your knowledge of vim. There are so many better ways to do everything. Just like complete novices might map the arrow keys to Nop to force learning hjkl, mapping the hjkl keys to Nop forces you to learn all these other ways to move around and edit parts of the file.

The real philosophical shift is thinking in Text Objects rather than Lines and Characters. Words are things, sentences are things, method definitions are things, and these can all be manipulated or navigated through as such.

While you probably can’t fully internalize this concept without going through the exercise yourself, I would like to share a few of the very first “better ways” I’ve been finding while restricted in this way.

Imagine my cursor is a ways down the document, and I need to change the above header in some way. I’m staring at “Search”, I know I want my cursor there. I used to just tap k or maybe a few 10ks with a j or two. What was I thinking?


And I’m there. In this case, the capital “S” made this word rare enough that I didn’t have to type very much of it. Recognizing the relative frequency of words or characters can be a useful skill for quicker navigation. Drew Neil, author of practical vim, calls this “Thinking like a scrabble player”.

Use the Ex, Luke ๐Ÿ”—

Another thing I didn’t realize I do a lot is move to some far away line to copy it, only to come right back to paste it. Really? I’m going to type a bunch of js only to then type the exact same number of ks?

You could use search to get to the far away line then double-backtick to jump back, or you could do this:

:2,7co .

This takes lines 2 to 7 and copies them to here. Not only is this less key-strokes (a number which grows proportional to the distance between here and there), but I’d argue it also keeps your focus better.

You can actually cut out a lot of unnecessary motion using commands like this:

:20   " go to line 20
:20d  " delete line 20
:2,7d " delete lines 2 through 7

In any of these commands . can be used to mean the current line. If you really get frustrated, you could use :.+1 and :.-1 to move like j and k – but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Finding Character ๐Ÿ”—

It’s times like these that I try to find a good first concept. Something that’s going to be useful enough to get me further along the habit-building path, but simple enough that I don’t have to remember too much.

First, know that 0 puts you at the start of the line. This gives you a common reference to move from so you only have to think in one direction (for now). Second, know that f and t go to a letter (so fa to go to the next “a” in the line). The difference is t goes till the character, stopping with the cursor just before it and f puts the cursor right on top. You can then use ; to repeat the last search, moving a-by-a along the line.

Once you’ve gotten the hang of this, the capital versions, F and T do the same thing but backwards. , is the key to repeat the last backwards search, but so many people (including me) map that to Leader or LocalLeader that it’s difficult to rely on. I haven’t found a good solution to this, since the only other convention I know of is the default \ which I can rarely type consistently.

There’s a bit of stategy here. It’s true of most motions, but it’s most recognizable with f. You have two choices in approach: pick the letter that you want to be at (no matter what letter it is) and use ; to repeat the last f or t until it gets you there (regardless of how many key strokes that is), or you can choose a letter that appears first in the line (knowing that it will only take one stroke to get there) but which only gets you near your goal. These are the two extremes, finding the best middle ground (lowest overall keystrokes) for any given scenario is something worth mastering.

Word-wise ๐Ÿ”—

In addition to finding by character we can start to think in words. Again, we’re making it easy by always starting from 0. Given that, just use w to move word by word with the cursor on the front of each word or e to move word by word but with the cursor on the end of each word. Eventually, I’ll attempt to internalize the same commands in the other direction: b and ge.

All of these have capital versions (W, B, E, gE) which have the same behavior but work on WORDS not words.

The exact rules about words vs WORDs aren’t worth memorizing. WORDs are basically just a higher level of abstraction. For example, <foo-bar> is 5 words but it’s only one WORD.

Conclusion ๐Ÿ”—

So far, I’ve gotten myself to consistently use a number of new vim tricks:

  1. Use search to get where you want
  2. Use Ex commands to manipulate text not near the cursor
  3. Move by word, not by character

There’s still plenty to learn, but I’ve found that just these few simple ideas make me effective enough that I’m sticking with it and not just giving up in frustration.