The ergonomics of writing
Writing is a freelancing business. Like all other freelancers and most hourly positions, you can’t get paid for new work if you’re too sick or injured to produce more. (And, as a massage therapist friend learned when she broke her arm, hospital bills tend to pile up when the money’s not coming in.) Therefore, it’s a good idea to not only prevent the work-related injuries to hands, wrists, neck, back, eyes, and arms, but to also keep the rest of your body and your immune system in as good a shape as you can.
The first way to stay in healthy & uninjured is to avoid doing things that’ll get you injured. So, let’s discuss your writing setup. While curling up on the couch with a laptop occasionally is fine, if you’re going to be spending much time on the computer (and all the internet, email, and gaming time counts, too), you should have an ergonomic setup.
This is a link to a good PDF with the proper angles for seated positions at a desk: note that unless you’ve put conscious thought into it, your monitors are probably too low, and contributing to neck and back strain. http://doa.alaska.gov/ada/documents/OfcErgoAid.pdf
The next step up is to make a standing or walking desk; this allows you to get out of the chair, and give your body a break from sitting. Walking desks range from homemade setups on garage-sale treadmills to expensive custom jobs. If you’re using the standard home treadmill as part of your setup, expect it to die sooner than you expected; treadmill motors made for short bursts of running don’t do well with long periods of slow walking. (high speed low torque motors vs. low speed high torque motors) Do pick up some treadmill lube appropriate for your machine; a well-lubricated belt and regularly-vacuumed motor makes for a much longer-lived treadmill desk. (Youtube has lots of treadmill maintenance videos, to make it easy.)
Peter has a dual-monitor / dual-keyboard / dual mouse setup run between a standing desk on a shelf next to his main computer at his sitting desk (with an anti-fatigue mat to stand on.) This way he can literally switch between sitting and standing by just getting up and walking two steps over.
I use a treadmill desk, because I get more than enough sitting at Day Job. I have a laptop with the monitor set at a compromise point between Peter’s eye height and mine, and a second shelf with a USB keyboard and mouse at best ergonomic arm height. We’re running dropbox, so if Peter wants to use the treadmill desk, he just pulls up the file on my laptop and sets his walking speed – no computer movement required.
(He sometimes carries his laptop and mouse over anyway, because he doesn’t like my trackball. No shared setup is perfect!)
When I do sit, I have a yoga ball to sit on at the ancient media laptop’s desk, which keeps facebook isolated and unable to suck my time away until I sit down there. It also lets me work on core strength and stability, even though I’m sitting.
The second way to stay healthy & uninjured is to take breaks and stretch regularly. You can search for “computer & desk stretches” or “office stretches” and come up with hundreds of variations; pick the set that work for you, and try to work them in regularly.
However, if you’re working from home, don’t feel limited to chair stretches: you can get up and do plenty of other things to loosen up. Whether it’s getting up and doing five minutes on a chore (putting a few more dishes in the dishwasher, sweeping a room, folding a couple clothes or moving a load over to the dryer), or getting out of the house and walking up and down the block while muttering over plot points, you can incorporate giving your eyes and body a break in many different ways. (If you’re in a coffee shop, you might stick to chair stretches, so you don’t lose your seat. But try to look away from the screen and spend a little while people-watching, to give your eyes a variety of focal lengths.)
If you haven’t heard of it yet, check out the pomodoro method. It’s basically breaking your time into 25-minute chunks of writing, followed by 5-minute breaks, and then every 4th break, taking a 15-20 minute break instead. Some writers use it as a way to increase productivity, because mini-sprints that are timed help. Others use it as a productivity increase because “I can only write, not skim social media or check news, for the next 25 minutes.” For ergonomic health if you use this method, please spend some of your breaks getting up from your computer, stretching, or letting you eyes rest by focusing elsewhere – not just switching from Word to MyTwitFace.
The third way to stay healthy & uninjured is to exercise. The stronger you are, and the more you work at improving balance and coordination, the less likely you are to fall, and the less injury you’re likely to take when you do fall. I’m not going to specifically advocate one size to fit all writers: do your own research and pick what works best for you. Mark Rippetoe has many very persuasive arguments about the value of strength training at all ages and states of health – and given that a good chunk of physical therapy is indistinguishable from very heavily monitored weight training, I can’t argue too much with him. Cardio, if possible, is also very good for your heart and lungs. Yoga is good for stretching tendons, coordination, balance, and many of the moderately advanced positions are basically bodyweight exercises. Pick something, set a routine, and work at getting better at it.
My day job has started doing 5-minute breaks for stretching that include full-out aerobic exercise… so you don’t have to do either/or, you can combine this stuff.
The fourth way to stay healthy and uninjured is to eat healthy food, in moderation. Diet is a very sticky topic and wanders well away from ergonomics; find out what works best for you. Personally, I’ve found that I feel best if I’m on a high-fat, low-carb, moderate-protein diet (ketogenic is the extreme end of this; I rarely actually achieve it, but the recipes are handy for aiming at that target.) However, again, one size does not fit all (other than to note that sitting all day and eating chips and soda has not proven healthy for anyone yet.) So do your own research, and take care of yourself.
Writers are in a luckier position than massage therapists; with the stories you already have written out on the market, you can get sales and income even when you’re not up to producing new work. (A massage therapist with a broken arm or tendonitis can’t get money coming in from past work like we can.) On the other hand, masseurs tend to get paid immediately upon receipt of services, where writers can be stuck in the awkward position of knowing the sales this month were great, but not able to meet the mortgage because the money won’t hit their bank account for several months.
Either way, it pays to put the time in now to avoid getting into that jam in the future. Because trust me (says the person whose physical therapist made approving noises as she caught me wheezing through the post-discharge exercises yesterday), physical therapy sucks. You really want to avoid ending up like me if you can!
If you want some good stories to read, this last week was a bumper crop of releases.
Sarah Hoyt’s latest: Darkship Revenge
J. L. Curtis’s latest: Rimworld: Into the Green
Cedar Sanderson’s latest: Tanager’s Fledglings
Full disclosure: I wrote the blurbs for Jim Curtis & Cedar. I’m not getting anything for mentioning them; I just happen to like the books!