I don't know what I'd do without my computer. I can't do my job without the internet. I communicate with employers, friends, and family through emails, video chat and Twitter. I schedule meetings and plan deadlines. I bank. I shop. I read the news. I play games. I watch my favorite shows. Yes, I'd be rather lost without this little plastic box of circuits.
But all that computer time takes its toll. I bet plenty of you have felt as stiff and tired as I have after getting away from the computer. My shoulders would hurt from hunching over the keyboard, or from leaning to the left as I used the mouse. My legs felt stiff. My fingers and wrists ached. Sometimes I ended the day early with a headache.
Over the past year, I have been on a quest to make my body and computer work together in harmony. Adjusting to better posture and usage habits can take a little getting used to, but it's entirely worth the effort.
I apologize in advance for sounding like your mother, but sit up straight. I know it's tough. Once you fall into a comfy computer lull, it's easy to forget about how you're holding your shoulders.
The setup of your desk has much to do with how your shoulders are going to feel at the end of the day. Look at where your keyboard is right now. Okay, now let your arms fall down by your sides. Bring your forearms up so that your elbows are bent at a ninety-degree angle. If you have to raise your forearms up any higher than that, your keyboard is too high. If you have to reach your elbows out past your torso, the keyboard is too far away. If you have to scrunch your arms up like a T-Rex, the keyboard is too close. Ideally, you want your hands to fall naturally over the keys. It's amazing how comfy it is once you get the placement right.
The other factor in sitting up straight is the placement of your monitor. You want your monitor smack in front of you. It may not seem like much work to turn your head to the side to look at an angled monitor, but you'll feel it at the end of the day. You also don't want to crane your neck up or down too much. According to OSHA standards, the top of your monitor should be either at or just below your eye level (OSHA's workstation guidelines are pretty spot-on in general, so I recommend checking out their handy diagrams).
People are fussy about their chairs, and rightly so. If you're going to be sitting down all day, you want to be comfy. Whatever model of chair you decide upon, make sure it's got armrests that support that ninety-degree angle thing I just talked about. You'll want strong back support and a nice squishy seat, too. Not only is this a key component for good posture, but it's important for maintaining healthy blood flow as well. Sitting for too long can also bring about nerve-related conditions such as sciatica, which is, y'know, no fun.
Now, you may decide that you prefer a less traditional chair. Some people like kneeling chairs, which take the pressure off of your posterior and spread it out more evenly through your legs. I tried a kneeling chair for a few weeks, but it wasn't quite my cup of tea. My knees felt a little achey after a while. But I've known some folks with back troubles who swear by them.
And then there are those who say you shouldn't sit at all. There has been some worrisome new research into the long-term effects of spending most of your day sitting down. The prognosis isn't good. The data seems to indicate that some fairly significant health problems can be exacerbated or even triggered just by spending most of your day on your keister. Most troubling is the apparent link between long periods of sitting and the risk for heart attack, even if you exercise regularly. If you can't do your job without your computer, a possible solution is to use a standing desk. I haven't made the switch yet myself (though I plan to), but standing all day means that you have to factor in yet another body part: your feet. If you use a standing desk, invest in an impact-absorbing gel mat and a pair of comfy house-shoes with good arch support. Take it from this former bartender -- if you're going to be standing all day, a good pair of shoes makes all the difference.
It's amazing how much good ten to fifteen minutes away from the computer will do. I work at home, so if I'm starting to feel stiff, I'll get up to wash the dishes or fold my laundry. If I have the time, I'll take a short yoga break. Not only are my muscles happier, but it gives me the chance to clear my head and regain my concentration. Office-bound folks don't have the ability to do chores or jump into Downward Facing Dog, but you still can find ways to get away from the keyboard for a bit. Go get a cup of coffee. Take a few minutes to sort through some old paperwork while standing up. One of my old office jobs was on the second floor of an old warehouse. Once an hour, I'd go down the stairs and then back up again, just to get my blood moving. No matter how busy you are, you can find a few minutes to give your body a rest.
I've had a computer-related headache here and there over the years, but since I started writing full-time, I've started suffering the occasional bout of eye strain. Not only is it less than pleasant, but it seriously messes up my productivity. Over the past few months, I've discovered a few good ways to keep my eyes happier.
Firstly, I've adapted my computer habits to be a little less, shall we say, manic. My monitor used to be a multitasker's paradise -- instant message windows, a Twitter client, and a cornucopia of browser tabs. What I didn't think about was that even if I was focused on just one thing at a time, my eyes would reflexively dart towards anything that blinked or flashed. It took some self-discipline, but now I seriously limit the amount of things I have open while I'm working.
I came across an article that recommended the 20-20-20 rule as a remedy for eye strain. Every twenty minutes, stare at something twenty feet away for twenty seconds. It sounded way too simple to be effective, but my eyes are noticeably more relaxed if I do this regularly.
I've also stopped wearing contacts. While I like my face better without frames, too much time in front of a computer monitor dries a person's eyes out even if you don't have little plastic coatings on them. If you can't bear the thought of life without contacts, make sure you have a bottle of good-quality eyedrops on hand at all times.
Despite all these tricks, sometimes eye strain is inevitable. I've got a gel eye-mask in my fridge, just in case. Ten minutes of shut-eye with that green, gooey thing strapped to my face does wonders.
If I've piqued your interest in healthifying (yes, this is now a word) your workspace and computer habits, here are a few things that I've found useful.
- Lifehacker's Workspace Show and Tell Flickr Pool - In which ordinary folks share pics of their customized work environments. Good for getting inspiration for your own new tricked-out desk.
- IKEA Hackers: Workstations - Nothing's more hackable than Ikea furniture. If you're good with basic hand tools, you can get an ergonomic desk put together on the super cheap.
- Linda Stone: May I Have Your Attention Please? - This video changed my whole attitude towards computer use. If you have found yourself feeling jittery, unfocused, or lethargic after being at the computer for a while, this one's for you.
Title photo credit: Anita Hart