Computers and Ergonomics

6 minute read

I spend almost every moment of my waking hours in front of a computer or a screen of some kind. Some would say “way too much time” but, hey, I have a world to conquer! Jokes aside, I recognize that sitting all day long in the wrong position won’t do me any good.

Unlike some of my lucky colleagues, I tend to suffer from RSI which manifests as wrist and shoulder pain. I’m also quite susceptible to it. It takes me a short while with the wrong posture, just around a month if I’m fully recovered, to feel sore. To the point I have to wear wrist braces. On both arms.

Over the years I tried almost every conceivable technique, tool and posture trick to feel better and I finally found the best combination of tools and habits that is both inexpensive (I’m obsessed with finding cheap but best-in-class gear) and easy to follow.

As usual, incorporate my advice at your own risk. Ergonomics is half science and half common sense. What works for me may or may not work for you. Your mileage may vary. Also, I’m not a doctor, if you’re looking for medical advice that should make you close this browser tab for good.

The Correct Posture

Reducing pain begins by adopting the correct posture whenever you sit at a desk and that doesn’t just involve the areas where you feel discomfort. The whole body must cooperate.

Keep the desk surface aligned with the abdomen. I have an IKEA Galant desk with adjustable, T-shape legs. It’s cheap and it’s relatively easy to adjust its height as long as you get everything away from its surface beforehand. You better make sure to get the height right before putting your monitor, keyboard and everything else back into place, otherwise you won’t change its height ever again. Trust me. Thankfully desks at my workplace are just about right or I’d have to be that troublesome guy asking management to buy a new one.

Center the stuff in front of you. This means both monitor and keyboard should be centered in front of you. Some online guides say that you should align the top of the screen near eye level but with today’s large displays I found that I bend the neck too much, thus prefer to align the center of the screen, or one-third below the top edge instead. The monitor should also be placed at about an arm’s length in front of you.

Wrists should be inline with the forearms with the keyboard directly centered in front of you. Unless you have to do lots of data entry I strongly suggest you to buy a “tenkeyless” model. That is, one without a numeric keypad so that it takes less horizontal space. That is to reduce the excursion your arm has to do in order to reach the mouse. That’s the major cause of shoulder pain for me.

Use more than one input device. Once I put a trackball on the left side of the keyboard and a regular mouse on the right, shoulder pain magically vanished. This is all connected to the idea of variance. Alternate frequently between your left and right arm to prevent stressing one side too much when you reach for the pointing device. I decided to buy a trackball to use with my left hand because I’m more proficient with it than with a regular left-handed mouse. The mouse sits on the right-hand side of the keyboard ready for occasional use or gaming.

Variance is Key

We weren’t made to sit all day at a desk. Take frequent breaks and force yourself to do so. I use a little program called Time Out on my Mac and I set it to force me a three-minute breaks every 57 minutes of work.

By “forcing myself” I really mean it. These programs usually have buttons to postpone or skip breaks and I make sure to disable them since I noticed my tendency to eschew pauses too often, negating the program’s usefulness.

On Linux I use drwright. It appears not to be maintained anymore but I’ll keep using it as long as it works.

During a break I usually walk to the water machine to refill my water bottle and wander around for a while drinking from it. Do not sit during a break. That would be cheating and doing a great disservice to yourself. Remember, the whole point is to get up and move around.

Layout Matters

If there’s one thing I always suggest people to try it is to change keyboard layouts. It is known that the QWERTY layout is like that to prevent typebar clashes. Modern keyboards (and since the first electrical typewriters, really) don’t have that mechanical constraint. QWERTY, however, survived due to network effects with all its inefficiencies dictated by requirements which don’t apply anymore. There are alternative layouts designed with modern keyboards in mind: those with no moving parts.

Switching keyboard layout can be done, simply and in software, though each Operating System has its own way to change the keyboard layout at runtime.

I chose to switch to the Colemak layout. It builds upon QWERTY/US but changes the position of 17 keys while retaining positions for most non-alphabetic characters and keyboard shortcuts (such as Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V, etc) reducing the travel fingers have to make when typing most English words, increasing the chance you will be hitting keys on the home row. To learn it, I followed a free course on GoodTyping.com.

There are statistics saying that switching from QWERTY to anything else greatly contributes to reduce strain. 1

What didn’t Work for Me

Earlier this year I bought a MacBook Pro and I obviously got both Apple Wireless Keyboard and Apple Magic Trackpad. After about a month, however, I started to feel intense pain. I had to wear wrists straps, type only during working hours and totally restrain myself from using a computer on weekends.

While Apple makes good looking peripherals, these in particular are totally bad from an ergonomics standpoint. The keyboard is too low on the desk, is tilted toward me and keys are not sculpted. The only redeeming quality is that it uses scissor switches instead of cheap rubber dome ones.

Unfortunately the trackpad suffers the same design problems since it shares the same design aesthetics with the keyboard. It is also hard to click, though enabling tap-to-click makes it drastically better.

Ultimately, I think that Apple did a very good job at integrating touch gestures in a desktop setting and if I have to choose a trackpad, it is theirs I want to use. However, it looks like I can only use the one on my MacBook (probably due to the laptop’s shell acting as a wrist rest and the fact it is positioned below the keyboard instead of sitting next to it) and only for a short period of time.

Things I’d Like to Try

Reading List

Footnotes

  1. Keep in mind, though, that switching between e.g.: Colemak and Dvorak doesn’t provide the same return-of-investment one would gain by switching from QWERTY to either Colemak or Dvorak.