Introduction: How to Develop Ambidexterity

About: After spending 2 years traveling my wife and I have lived in 8 different cities across the United States. Among other things we've had the privileged of visiting nearly half of the national parks in the US. …

“I know something you don’t know…I am not left-handed”
-Inigo Montoya                             

I am naturally right-handed, but one day during my senior year of college (over five years ago now) I found myself so board I started writing notes with my left hand.  This got me wondering how much practice would be required to develop genuine ambidexterity.  I’ve been practicing using my left hand ever since.  I started this process fairly late in life and haven’t focused on it as much as I could so I’m still far from ambidextrous.  Nevertheless, the practice has started to pay dividends recently, so I decided to share some tips.

Because this instructable could be used by either right or left dominant individuals I will be using the good old roll playing game terms of “main hand” and “off-hand” to describe the naturally dominant and non-dominant hands respectively

I’ve divided up these tips into several areas where I have found it easy to incorporate off-handed activities and further divided each area into varying difficulty levels.

Disclaimer: I am neither a neuroscientist nor a physical therapist.  Everything I’m offering is from personal experience.

Step 1: Eating

The first area where I really incorporated off-handed practice was eating.  It’s not all that challenging, but it adds a baseline of fine motor skills to the fingers and wrist to help get over the awkward, ham-fisted, shoulder and elbow dominant movements you’ll experience initially.

Beginner:Forks and Spoons.  Pretty straight forward, hold your selected utensil in you off-hand and try to get food from your plate to your mouth without any messy detours.

Intermediate:Knives.  Try cutting your steak with the knife in your left hand.  Just make sure that you don’t accidentally flip your food onto your neighbor’s lap.

Advanced:Chopsticks.  In modern Western culture chopsticks are the epitome of esoteric eating implements.  They’re also a good precursor to holding and manipulating writing utensils.

Step 2: Personal Hygiene

Building on the foundation of motor skills established by off-handed eating, personal grooming starts to develop the all-important kinesthetic sense.

Beginner:Tooth brushing.  Once again, pretty easy, just don’t poke yourself in the eye.

Intermediate:Hair care.  Hair brushing and shaving can be a bit uncomfortable if you get them wrong, which means you have a lot of incentive to get them right

Advanced:Makeup, and…other things.  If you’re of a makeup-wearing persuasion, try applying it with your off-hand.  For non-makeup-wearing types your alternative is even riskier: toilet paper.  There’s a strong negative feedback loop here, so be careful and learn fast.

Step 3: Cooking

It’s a bit of a dying art among my generation, but I still cook my dinners from scratch almost every day.  This makes a fantastic arena for off-handed tool and technique practice, as well as strength and endurance development.  If you don’t cook for yourself regularly, maybe you could start practicing that too. 

Beginner:Stirring and opening.  Chances are you can do this already, just stir/mix/kneed your food items with your off-hand.  (Hopefully you’ve washed your hands thoroughly after your advanced personal hygiene practice.)  You should also be able to open jars, bottles, and cans off-handed with a little extra effort.

Intermediate:Peeling and spreading.  Peeling carrots and potatoes and spreading condiments on bread require a surprising amount of endurance and dexterity that you don’t usually think about when using your main hand.  Just be prepared to clean up after the mess you're going to make.

Advanced:Knives.  Try cutting your ingredients while wielding your well-sharpened weapon of choice in your off-hand.  Simple in theory, terrifying in practice.  WARNING: I have cut myself severely on several occasions while holding a knife in my main hand.  Be very mindful of your skill level and limitations.

Step 4: Other

There are dozens of other activities in your daily life that can be easily converted into off-handed practice.  Just be aware of what you do with your hands and switch it up.

Beginner:Reaching.  Make it a habit of reaching out with your off-hand.  Every doorknob, button, switch, and glass of water is an opportunity for practice.

Intermediate: Technology.  Can you browse the web, send a text, or change tracks on your MP3 player using only your off-hand?

Advanced:Writing.  The Holy Grail of ambidexterity is writing.  If you ever get to this point, leave me a note.  I’m not there yet.

Step 5: Additional Tips

Switch responsibilities, not just tools.  If you’re eating a steak, don’t just swap utensils, make sure your off-hand is taking over the responsibility of manipulating the food.

Make it a habit.  The only way to develop ambidexterity is to get practice, and lots of it.  Your brain has been wired by years of repetition from birth to favor one hand over the other.  The only way to get enough practice to even things out is to make it part of as many daily tasks as possible.

Make it fun.  You’ll never keep up with this if you don’t find some value in it, especially after you’ve spilled or broken a few things.  My primary motivation for practicing with my off-hand is personal amusement and it keeps me interested.

Step 6: Why Bother?

Amusement: As I’ve said my primary motivation is personal amusement in the face of a boring daily routine.  I bet you could turn it into a good party trick too.

Mental Exercise: I haven’t seen anything specific about ambidexterity, but experts are always telling us that our brains are a muscle that we need to exercise.

Sports: I can’t think of a single sport in which ambidexterity would not be an advantage.  Switch hitting, anyone?

Music: Maybe I would have been better at playing the piano if my teacher had suggested I start eating my cereal with my off-hand.

Injury: Hopefully your chances of a hand-crippling accident are fairly low, but having a solid foundation with your off-hand will give you a head start if your main hand ever winds up in a cast.