Ergonomics and the writer

Evolution didn’t prepare our bodies for writing. There’s evidence that our primitive ancestors tended to lie down when not chasing wooly mammoths, rather than rest on their bottoms, as we writers do most of our working lives.

Sitting too much is genuinely dangerous. It’s been associated with type 2 diabetes, obesity, and certain types of cancer. Sitting slows the body’s metabolism, so sugar and fat isn’t broken down as efficiently, and blood pressure also rises.

When considering the ergonomics of writing at a computer – as most of us do nowadays – three areas need to be addressed: body posture, eyes, and mind.

Sitting properly

Basic sitting posture can be easily researched online but the principles are simple. Sit with your feet flat on the floor, so your knees are at right angles. Your chair height should be adjusted so your elbows form right angles to the desk allowing easy reach of the keyboard – which, if you’re sat correctly, should be positioned close to the edge of the desk.

The monitor height should be adjusted so the top of it is approximately level with the top of your ears. You can buy all kinds of devices to raise a monitor but a stack of books works well.

Laptop-Stand

While desktop PCs don’t encourage good sitting, laptops are an ergonomic disaster zone. There are solutions, though. Consider attaching an external keyboard and mouse in the home or office. Standard USB models for PCs will work fine. You can then raise up the laptop so that the top of the screen is again approximately level with the top of your ears. Inexpensive laptop stands can be bought for this purpose – just search eBay or Amazon. You may well be amazed at the benefits doing just this alone brings for your back and shoulders.

I’m still standing

Hemingway infamously wrote standing-up with his typewriter on a shelf, and apparently Virginia Woolf, Dickens, Churchill and Nabokov also weren’t averse to inking paper while on their feet.

It’s certainly an intriguing and indeed very fashionable idea, and so-called standing or telescopic desks can be acquired for executive-level amounts of money, although Ikea produces a decent range in the £400-£500 bracket (http://goo.gl/qiXKLy), which is actually pretty cheap as these things go. The best examples of such desks can be raised or lowered to suit the stander, while the very best can be lowered entirely so they switch to being a standard sit-down desk.

hemingway-standing-desk

And you will be extremely happy for the opportunity to sit, at least occasionally. If you’ve ever done factory work standing up you’ll know that adjusting to being upright yet mostly stationary for the working day is agonising. Expect several weeks of leg and back ache, and don’t be surprised if varicose veins appear or get worse. As with any standing work discomfort can be alleviated by wearing shoes (not slippers!) and standing on an anti-fatigue floor mat. Again, such things can be had cheaply on eBay or Amazon.

As yet another alternative you could always try writing while squatting, as was derigeur in eastern countries until relatively recently. To sit in the style of a Turkish mystic, all you need is a square yard of carpet and chalk tablet – although might a modern tablet such as an iPad work just as well?

Taking a break

A simpler alternative to upright working is to simply stand-up every hour and spend a few minutes doing something else – brewing some proper coffee, perhaps, or deadheading flowers. There’s a lot of research showing this not only brings physical benefits, including avoiding eye strain, but can help sharpen the creative mind by essentially giving it a break. Don’t underestimate this benefit. While deadheading the roses, you may well receive the plot breakthrough you were looking for. On the other hand, however, standing up and breaking your flow when the ideas are already coming thick and fast can be hard to justify. Personal discretion is clearly required.

The new Apple Watch includes an app that’ll tap you on the wrist after every hour of sitting, and remind you to stand-up. One commentator who allowed his watch to boss him around in this way actually lost weight. It can certainly be surprising how easy it to sit hunched in the same position for hours with the only movement being via our eyes and fingers.

However, there’s no need to spend hundreds on an Apple gadget. EyeLeo (http://eyeleo.com/) runs on your PC and not only will remind you take a break at any interval you set but can even blank the screen for a set period – leaving you no choice! It can also remind you to take micro-breaks, in which the app will remind you to blink your eyes to avoid eye strain. As an alternative, Workrave (http://www.workrave.org/) is also worth checking out and both it and EyeLeo are entirely free of charge. There’s a version of Workrave for Linux, too, while Mac users might want to take a look at Dejal: http://www.dejal.com/timeout/.

Eye strain

A lengthy explanation of eye-strain avoidance is beyond the scope of this article, but I can pass on two pieces of advice from health professionals that work for me. The first comes from my GP, who said that cold used teabags resting on her eyes made it possible to revise prior to her medical finals. It’s something to do with the astringent component of tea leaves. The second bit of advice comes from an optician who advised thoroughly washing the eyes morning and evening with baby shampoo, chosen for the job because it doesn’t sting. Pay particular attention to washing the eyelashes and eyelid edges, which some of us tend to instinctively avoid for squeamish reasons.

Positioning of the monitor or laptop is also important. It should be obvious you shouldn’t place your workspace directly in front of a bright window, for example, because your eyes will constantly be adjusting between light levels. Sitting right-side on to a window makes more sense but watch out for reflections on the screen which can be a huge cause of eye strain. Anti-reflective protectors for screens are possible and work reasonably well, although usually darken the screen and can cause a strange shimmering effect.

Common sense

Aside from taking breaks, as discussed above, and ensuring you get the best possible glasses prescription (tell your optician you write for a living!), good advice is simply to make everything that appears on screen a bit bigger. Luckily this is easy to do. Click Start, then Control Panel, and under Appearance and Personalization, click Adjust Screen Resolution. The slider offers three options: Smaller, Medium, and Larger. Counterintuitively, smaller is the default and represents 100%. Medium and Larger represent 125 and 150% zoom, respectively. Give each a try, but be sure to give them a few minutes so that your eyes and mind can adjust.

Alternatively, you can simply adjust the size of on-screen text using the selection dropdown list in the lower half the dialog box. A size of 14 or 16 will make things “large print”.

Macs are a little harder to adjust in this way. If you’ve a modern Mac with a Retina screen, you can open System Preferences, click the Display icon, ensure the Display tab is selected, and then click Scaled. Then select one of the options near the Larger Text end of the scale.

Here’s some more obvious advice: Give yourself reasons to get up out of the chair. For example,. rather than placing your printer on your desk, put it on the other side of the room, or even in a different room entirely. You’ll find USB cables come in very long lengths on eBay but you might find your Internet router can act as a print server, which means you can attach the printer to it and let all the computers in your household use it. Of course, this will mean it’ll have to be near your Internet router too. Check the internet router’s manual for more information.

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