The Efficient Mac User

Simple Ergonomics for the Road Warrior

- 2007.01.16 - Tip Jar

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Every now and then, my wrists get stiff and sore. Often it will be right in the middle of a large writing project or after a long stretch doing research.

When it first began to happen, I thought, "I'm too young to have these problems!" But I've been a computer power-user for nearly two decades, and that's more than long enough to do some damage.

Maybe you battle the beginnings of Repetitive Stress Injuries (RSIs) as well. If you do, there are lots of ways to encourage healthier computing in regular, everyday use.

My colleague Charles Moore, who himself suffers from severe RSIs, has written extensively on his solutions. Charles is a particularly strong source of input on ergonomically-sound keyboards. You can find a lot of his wisdom in the Low End Mac archives.

Most solutions, however, address the problems inherent in using a desktop computer. But what about using a laptop?

My MacBook is my main computer, and I've had to find creative solutions for devisinig a more ergonomic computing environment on-the-go. Here's what I've learned.

Setting Up Stations

To begin with, I have set up "docking" stations for my MacBook wherever I'll be working regularly. At home, for example, I have an external keyboard, trackball, and a permanent charger/power cord in place, and it only takes a second to plug them in. These provide me with full-sized keys at the proper height so my arms are wrists are in the right position. The trackball (a Logitech Trackman Wheel) minimizes movement in my hands and wrists; it also changes which joints get the repetitive movement.

I also use the Griffin iCurve laptop stand, which lifts my MacBook up to eye level - this way, my neck, shoulders, and back are not as strained or sore as if I were looking down all the time. And also I use an external monitor (ViewSonic 19" LCD) - easily possible with the MacBook's display spanning ability - as my primary workspace at home. This not only helps ergonomically; it also improves my efficiency and productivity.

With a docking station at home and at work, my laptop is easily transformed into an ad-hoc desktop. I have the benefits of portable computing with the ergonomic health of a proper chair and computer desk plus the efficiency of two monitors.

On the Road

The benefits of portable computing, however, include the fact that I can do my work wherever I go - indeed, wherever I want to work. When I go to the library, the local coffee shop, or the waiting area for my doctor or auto mechanic, I enjoy working remotely - and my ergonomic efforts let me do so in comfort.

...if you have a hard surface you should use a mouse.

To begin with, an external mouse is a must. Trackpads are helpful for literal laptop computing, but if you have a hard surface you should use a mouse. I love my wireless Mighty Mouse, because it doesn't require a cord or dongle to set up. Whatever mouse you get, I recommend a laser mouse - they respond much better to the variety of surfaces that you'll face on the road.

Next, I recommend a laptop stand - not one like the iCurve that raises it off the desk, but one that elevates the back of the machine at an angle. Just like the feet on the bottom of an external keyboard, raising your laptop keyboard at an angle reduces the stress on your wrists and hands. I like the Targus CoolPad for this; it's small and fits into my bag easily, and serves my needs.

Relaxing at Home

One of the things everyone loves about a laptop is that you can use it in the comfort of your den - or even in bed. As convenient as this is, I've found that it often leads to poor habits in terms of ergonomic positions: It's hard to take care of your wrists when you're laying down or reclining heavily.

The first rule of thumb is to pay attention to your posture. Don't use your laptop for extended periods while in an awkward position. Change positions regularly - or simply sit up.

One of the accessories that I use often is a lap desk. You can buy really nice ones from Levenger, get specialized ones for computers at an office store, or buy a cheap one at Walmart. The one I use is simply a piece of 1/4" plywood, cut to shape, sanded, and coated in polyurethane.

The benefit of a lap desk is several-fold: To begin with, it all but forces you to maintain a reasonably healthy computing posture. It also allows you to use an external mouse. And it keeps the heat generated by the electronics from making you uncomfortable (or worse).

All-the-Time Ergonomics

If I'll be typing for any length of time, there's one thing I do no matter where I am - wear my Hand-Eze gloves. These are a lot like the "sleeves" that a basketball player might wear on his knee: They provide extra support to the wrists, thereby decreasing the likelihood of injury. I like the Hand-Eze gloves because, while they give my wrists great support, they are light and comfortable - and fingerless, so I can type and mouse easily. I was surprised when I first got them, because I figured my hands would get hot and sweaty - but that's not a problem. They are a wonderful addition to my ergonomic efforts.

I don't use wrist supports under my keyboard or mouse/trackball, because I've read that these can cause problems with circulation. They've always been uncomfortable over long periods of time and actually make my wrists hurt more. Your experience may vary.

The other thing that is always in place is Dejal's free Time-Out utility. This application runs in the background and periodically forces a work break. I have mine set to give a mini-break (10 seconds) every 15 minutes and a full break (10 minutes) after one hour of work. I use the mini-breaks to stretch, close my eyes, and simply look away from the computer screen - I'm almost always surprised at what a relief it is to rest my eyes. For the full breaks, I usually get up from my desk and walk around - either to refill my water bottle, visit with a coworker, check the mail, turn over laundry, etc.

I have Time-Out set to launch at startup, and I try to discipline myself to take the breaks every time, if possible. (Time-Out will allow you to delay the breaks by five or ten minutes or skip them altogether.)

It is worth noting that another free utility, AntiRSI, does almost exactly the same thing. I've found Time-Out suitable, and since I found it first I've stuck with it.

I hope my experience is helpful for you in fighting Repetitive Stress Injuries. It isn't hard to put these measures in place and use them, and your body with thank you for it. LEM

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