I’ve been meaning to write about ergonomics for quite a while now, as I’m capable of getting quite evangelical about it. I realise there are already a lot of tips out there, but because these things vary so much from person to person I think it’s always worth adding some personal experience. Please bear in mind, though, that for the same reason things that work for me may or may not work for you. They might give you some ideas for other things you could try, though.

If you’ve had problems with RSI, I hope you’ll find something here that helps. If you haven’t, lucky you! Also, remember that prevention is better than cure. We use computers so much more than we used to: 40-year-olds who have RSI now were not using social networks or buying cinema tickets online when they were in their teens. Anyway, here goes:

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Mouse:

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  • I’m putting this first because it’s so important: a lot of the other points are intended to reduce mouse use. Not using an ordinary mouse any more is without a doubt the best single thing I’ve done: it almost completely eliminated the pains I had. Somebody told me a few months ago that mice might as well have been designed to cause RSI, which seems to imply that it’s not just me. Tip no. 1: Use the mouse as little as possible! Unfortunately, even “as little as possible” is still several times a day, so here are some more tips for when you do have to use it:
  • Laptop mice are better than ordinary mice, especially if the pad has raised dots rather than being completely flat.
  • Vertical mice (ie, mice with the buttons one above the other rather than next to each other) are better than horizontal mice.
  • Don’t rest your forearm on the desk when you move the mouse. Use your arm to move it, not your wrist.
  • Buy a mouse mat with a cushion at the end nearer to you for your forearm to rest on when you click the mouse buttons. This way your wrist is straight instead of bent backwards.
  • Surely that little wheel between the mouse buttons was designed for the sole purpose of destroying the joints in your middle finger? Avoid it like the plague! (Except for pressing it to close a browser tab, but they could have put a button there instead of a wheel for that.)

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Keyboard:

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  • Learn at least a few keyboard shortcuts so that you can use the mouse less. Even learning the shortcuts for the three or four operations you use the mouse for most often will make a big difference, and they’ll be easy enough to remember after a few days’ use.
  • On the same principle, set up some personal keyboard shortcuts for common operations that don’t have ready-installed shortcuts.
  • If you have long nails, try to make sure it’s your fingertips that hit the keys, not your nails: fingertips are soft and absorb the impact, nails are hard and pass it on to the joints in your fingers. Fine, laugh, but it’s true!
  • If you need to press two keys at the same time, use both hands. If you must use only one hand, at least use your thumb and finger rather than two fingers.
  • Buy a separate, full-size keyboard if you have a laptop. Laptop keyboards are usually smaller than standard ones, which means you end up hunching your shoulders more when you use them.

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Screen:

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  • Position the screen so that it’s basically in front of your face, not lower down. If you do this then most of the time you will still be looking slightly downwards, at least if you’re using Word, because you’re usually typing at the bottom of the screen.
  • Tilt it slightly backwards: if it’s tilted forwards you’ll end up hunching over to look at it.
  • Reduce the brightness and increase the contrast: you’ll be able to see things just as clearly, but without the glare. Your colleagues will laugh at you for having such a murky-looking screen, but that doesn’t matter. :-)
  • If you have a laptop, buy a stand to set it on so that the screen’s a good height for you, or even just put it on top of a pile of books. This means you definitely need to buy a separate keyboard, though.

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Other:

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  • As you can see from the photo at the top of this post, my office “chair” is actually a Pilates ball. This is a new development, and I highly recommend it if you’re not too embarrassed to sit on one. I cannot bear supposedly ergonomic office chairs: I’ve never yet sat on one that wasn’t tilted to one side or the other, for one thing. A Pilates ball is much comfier than a normal chair, and keeps your back muscles working. It also means you’re sitting slightly lower than you would on a chair, which helps with screen positioning.
  • Make sure your office is well lit if there isn’t enough natural light coming in. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that because the screen’s lit anyway you don’t need other lighting. Make sure the light doesn’t bounce off the screen and into your eyes, though.
  • Speech recognition software (or “voice recognition software”, if you prefer): this cuts down on mouse and keyboard use a helluva lot! It also helps you work faster (at least on the first draft of a translation). And if my experience is anything to go by, all your friends will want to play with the program, so if you let them, make sure you create separate user profiles for them!
  • Use your torso muscles. For example, if you have to reach over to get something, move your torso as well as your arm, rather than keeping your torso still and moving your arm further.
  • Use a footrest if necessary so that your feet are resting comfortably on the floor.
  • Take breaks every so often. This helps with concentration, too.
  • Look at something in the distance every now and then, and focus on it for a couple of seconds. This gives your eyes a break from focusing on close objects. You’ll probably do this automatically when you take a break from your work, but you can do it more often, too, without interrupting your workflow.
  • Exercise! Even if you have the most ergonomic workstation in the world, your back will not exactly feel great if you’re a couch potato outside working hours. Anything that gets your back working and your circulation going is great. And that Pilates ball will come in handy…

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Tips other people have given me:

  • Split keyboards, with a gap in the middle so you have one half of the keyboard for each hand. It seems to me that these would make you hunch your shoulders more, but I know people who swear by them.
  • Putting the mouse (and mouse mat) on the other side for a few days every now and then: this gives your usual mouse hand a rest. Obviously it’s harder to use the mouse with your other hand, but I’m told it gets much easier with practice.
  • Touch-typing: Your neck and upper back will be much happier for not having to bend over to look at the keyboard. I’d like to try this one myself.
  • Programs that tell you when it’s time for a break: I know there are some very sophisticated ones out there, although for my money an alarm clock (or the alarm on a mobile) does the job just as well.
  • Keyboards that are positioned flat or with the space bar side higher than the far side help keep your wrists straight while you’re typing, though of course it depends on the height of your keyboard. Unfortunately, keyboards are usually tilted the other way.
  • Hanging upside down a couple of times a day: apparently this really helps your back. If you find this is a workable option, you’ll probably be very glad you don’t work in an office full of people!
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