Desk Rx: How to Hack the Desk Life to Become a More Healthy Writer
Let’s face it: Writing isn’t the best job for optimizing health. (I drink way too much coffee and indulge in way too much cheesecake from my favorite writing café.) Any job that keeps us confined to a desk glaring at a computer screen isn’t all that great, but for many of us, the desk life is our reality.
I’ve been writing long enough to know that even a few years of this lifestyle is enough to negatively impact the body. I struggle with carpal tunnel syndrome and am showing early signs of arthritis. (My right middle finger already stretches to the right from years of playing the flute, so that knuckle is particularly wonky.)
I want to keep writing for the next 50 years — or as long as this body lasts — so I now take ergonomics, mobility, and movement very seriously. Here are the practices I’ve implemented to support my body throughout the day.
Hack 1: Use an Ergonomic Desk Setup
One of the most critical steps I’ve taken to alleviate my carpal tunnel and combat that crick in my neck from hunching over a computer screen is to create an ergonomic desk set-up. Let me first start by saying that you can spend as much or as little on your setup as you want. I have chosen a middle route.
The items in italics are things I consider absolutely essential if you spend more than two hours at a desk every day. They are both affordable and necessary if you are serious about being able to write for a lifetime. The rest are good “someday investments” if you are stretched for cash.
Please note that I did not receive any of these items for free. None of the companies asked me to promote their products, and I do not collect affiliate income from the links. These are just the items I personally use.
Laptop riser. I write on a MacBook Pro, and it goes with me everywhere. I do not have a second screen, so a riser is the next best thing. I use the Rain Design mStand, but I’m tall at 5’9”, so I also sometimes stand this riser on a thick book. (In case you’re wondering, The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe is the perfect size. The 2017 Chicago Manual of Style is the next best thing.)
I actually purchased an adjustable laptop riser first, but I found it too wobbly and hideous to keep. The Rain Design stand is very stable, and it’s probably the perfect height for someone who is about 5’7”.
Ergonomic keyboard and mouse. Currently, I use the Microsoft Sculp Comfort wireless keyboard and mouse. It runs on radio frequency, which means MacBook users will have to purchase an adapter for the little dongle thingy. It also means that you must use the mouse that the keyboard comes with. (I found the mouse to be inferior to other ergo mice I’ve tried, but it does the job.)
Before the Microsoft Sculp, I used a Logitech keyboard/mouse set, but the model I used crapped out on me twice. The company sent a replacement for the first dud, but within four or five months, the keys began sticking on the second keyboard, too. I’ve only had the Microsoft set about four months, but so far it seems to hold up under heavy use.
The wireless keyboard is nice because I can stuff it into my bag when I go to work at a coffee shop. I get some strange looks when I pull an entire office out of my handbag, but it keeps my carpal tunnel symptoms manageable when I am having a flare-up.
Adjustable desk. Let me start by saying that I wrote 16 novels on an $80 IKEA stationary desk for years with no problems. I only upgraded my desk in November because my husband needed my old desk, and I thought mama deserved something nice.
An adjustable desk is wonderful because it allows you to change positions throughout the day. You can stand for an hour, sit for an hour, go back to standing, etc. (I’m standing right now, in fact.) But what’s also great is that you can make the desk the perfect ergonomic height for your body no matter which position you’re in.
FYI, this is what you should look like whether you are sitting or standing:
I chose the Jarvis Bamboo Standing Desk by Fully because of the excellent reviews and the $400 price tag. (There are other big names out there that spend a lot on advertising whose desks are more than twice as much.)
So far, the Jarvis has been wonderful. It is incredibly sturdy. The power motor is loud but works flawlessly. I chose the rectangular 42 x 27” size and upgraded to the extended range because I’m tall. My only complaint is that the extended range does not quite allow me to sit comfortably on the floor as the description suggests, even if I use a meditation cushion. If I purchased another desk, I do not think I would spring for the extended range.
Fatigue mat. If you spend any time at a standing desk, you will want a foam fatigue mat to support your knees and hips. I did not purchase mine from Jarvis. I chose the Imprint Cumulus Pro. It provides adequate cushion; just be aware that the mat will start to warp if you store it on its end for any length of time. I now store it flat under an armchair when I’m not using it.
Hack 2: Take a Walk at Noon
I stumbled upon this hack by accident because I have two rambunctious dogs that are at home with me all day while I’m working. In the summertime, I would often take them to a park or on a hike after work, but this winter I started walking them around the neighborhood every day around lunchtime for 30 to 45 minutes.
I find that walking at noon provides a much-needed reset in the middle of my workday. It gets me moving, boosts circulation, aids in digestion after lunch, brings inspiration, and allows me to soak up some vitamin D. I feel much more energized afterword, so I think it has helped me be more productive. As per the original goal, it also ensures the dogs won’t destroy the house while I’m writing.
Hack 3: Take Regular Stretch Breaks for Carpal Tunnel
Any stretching you can do throughout the day is good, but I like to focus my stretch routine on alleviating my most pressing symptoms, which always center around wrist and hand pain. If you look online for carpal tunnel stretches, you’ll find some pretty silly-looking photos. I am not a physical therapist (I mean, obviously), so this should not be considered medical advice. Here are the stretches that work for me:
Splayed prayer position: Start with your hands at the chest in a prayer position. Rest your thumb knuckles against your sternum and stretch your other fingers wide while pressing your palms together.
Palm to wall: Stand arm’s length from a wall and flatten your palm against the wall’s surface with your fingers spread wide. Your arm should be completely extended. Rotate the shoulder closest to the wall forward until you feel a nice stretch.
Inverted wrist stretch: Stand in front of a desk, chair or any other low, flat surface. (I like to use a chair because it gives me more leverage.) Turn your hands palm up, and then place your palms on the desk/chair so that your fingers are pointing toward your thighs. Your arms and the desk/chair should form a ninety-degree angle. This stretch may be too intense for some people, so listen to your own body.
Stop signal stretch: Hold out your hand as though you were going to tell someone to “stop in the name of love.” Grab the tips of the fingers with the hand that is not fully extended and gently pull your fingers toward your face until you feel a nice stretch. You can also do this stretch in the same position with the fingers of your extended arm pointed toward the floor.
Hack 4: Lower Your Word-Count Goal
There was a point in my writing journey that I set absolutely ridiculous word-count goals for myself. I found that pushing to hit 6,000 words really caused my wrist and hand problems to flare up, so I reduced my daily goal to 4,000 words. (Keep in mind that I write full time and only produce that many words during my first-draft phase, which lasts about three weeks.)
If reducing your daily word count goal isn’t going to work, you may want to try dictation so you can spend less time pounding the keyboard.
Hack 5: Minimize Non-Writing Computer Tasks
It seems as though I’m on the computer for everything these days, from shopping to doing the family budget. But during my most computer-intensive writing phases, I try to avoid the computer as much as possible when I’m not writing — especially if I’m having any pain. This can be an inconvenience, but I know that it’s necessary in order for me to stay healthy.
I’ve switched back to paperback books instead of reading on a Kindle to protect my eyes, and I try to print off anything that I need to scrutinize closely. I limit the time I spend in Excel and try to always use my ergo keyboard.
Hack 6: Work by a Window
Research shows that exposure to daylight while we work increases productivity and boosts our mood. It also helps regulate our biological clocks, which is great for those of us who may have trouble getting to sleep at night.
But working by a window also has another benefit: fresh air. According to the EPA, the air quality inside our homes and offices tends to be more polluted than the outside air in even the largest, most industrialized cities. (This is a result of the chemicals in our household cleaners, paints, solvents, and off-gassing from carpet, furniture, etc.) I find this particularly troubling since most of us spend approximately 90 percent of our time indoors.
If you can, crack a window while you’re writing to allow fresh air to circulate. Who knows? Maybe your ideas will begin to circulate, too.
Hack 7: Protect Your Vision
On my most recent visit to the optometrist, I was startled to confirm what I had long suspected: that all my computer time was making my vision worse. The glare from our screens combined with the evil blue light produced by electronics and all the squinting we do is a deadly mix.
Here are a few ways to protect your eyes from the computer:
Wear computer glasses. Okay, I haven’t done this one yet. But it was my eye doctor’s top recommendation. As someone who wears glasses and contacts, she suggested that I get a special treatment on my prescription glasses to make them anti-glare and anti-blue light. This was the most expensive option; there are much more affordable non-prescription glasses available online. You can find a ton of semi-ugly computer glasses for dirt cheap on Amazon, but I am eyeing a pair of Felix Gray glasses for myself. They’ll set you back about $100, but I’ve heard some really good things.
Install f.lux. I writer friend of mine recommended this app, and I have been loving it. The f.lux app works by using your time zone to adjust the lighting of your computer screen to mimic the time of day. It gradually changes color to be more “glowy” near sunset, and at night it mimics indoor lighting. To be fair, I don’t know that the app can keep your eyes from shriveling up and turning to dust after a few decades of heavy screen time, but it certainly makes working on a computer more pleasant.
Make your text bigger. In Microsoft Word or Scrivener, this is as simple as increasing the display size of a document to 175 or 200 percent. This way, you don’t have to squint or hold your head close to your screen (causing you to become a hunchback). If you use a smartphone, there is also an accessibility option to increase the size of the font so you don’t have to squint at your text messages. Your friends may look at you funny, but I promise that it’s a game-changer!
Recently, I learned all about “text neck” from a podcast with Dr. Lara Heimann, which was absolutely horrifying. When we spend time looking down at a screen (especially our smartphones), the weight of our head causes the cervical spine to misalign with other vertebrae. It obstructs blood flow and can cause headaches and neck pain. This is why it’s important to keep our head balanced on our necks the way they were meant to sit. When your head is in the correct position, you should experience a sense of weightlessness.
Wear sunglasses outdoors. Yep, this one is pretty basic, but it’s something that a lot of us neglect. Keep a pair on sunglasses in your car or purse if you always leave them behind. Your eyes will thank you someday.
Hack 8: Practice Yoga at the End of the Day
When I first met my husband (who is 10 years my senior) I remember him saying that yoga was the secret to everlasting youth. I threw my head back and laughed in the way that only a carefree 24-year-old with no body creaks can, but in the last year, I have come to believe that he’s right.
Despite what all the beautiful Instagram stars would have us believe, yoga has little to do with performing a handstand by the ocean in a sports bra. (If you really understand the rich cultural history of the practice, you know that the asana, or physical postures, are just one of the eight limbs of yoga.)
Yoga postures are all about creating a mind-body connection, but to me, the greatest benefit of asana is increased mobility. One of the areas I focus on is my hip flexors, which can become tight from too much sitting. If we have tight hip flexors, it can affect our pelvis, which can lead to low-back pain. (Good postures to open the hips include Mālāsana, goddess pose, pigeon pose, lizard pose, and floor frog.)
I also like to do heart openers to counter slouching (such as fish pose, low cobra, sphinx pose, cat/cow, and upward-facing dog) and poses that force me to stretch and strengthen my hands (a side benefit of downward-facing dog, plank, and side plank).
I aim to practice yoga three to four times per week — sometimes in a class and sometimes at home. It’s best if you can attend classes to get adjustments from a trained instructor, but if that’s not in your budget, there are a ton of free videos available online. Since all you need is a mat, a home yoga practice can actually be one of the most affordable ways to exercise. Best of all, you can roll out your mat anytime and anywhere.
I hope you found this mega-post helpful. Normally I like to focus on the mental and practical aspects of writing, but I think taking care of our bodies is so important — both for our day-to-day comfort and the longevity of our careers.
For more information on getting healthy while living the #desklife, I suggest checking out “The Healthy Writer” by Joanna Penn and Dr. Euan Lawson. Joanna really understands the importance of living a balanced life, as well as the mental health hurdles that come with the territory of being a working writer.
What do you do to take care of your body? Let me know in the comments below.
Featured image by Patrick Hendry
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