July 28, 2020

Cheap Home Ergonomics: How to Avoid Injuring Yourself

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You have a job where you work all day on a computer. And now, during this global pandemic, you've suddenly been working from home. How can you set up an inexpensive ergonomic solution so you don't injure yourself?

Normally, Quality Coding focuses on technical agile skills for iOS developers. But because of my past, and these unusual times, I thought I'd share ergonomic tips. These tips apply to anyone who works on a computer, so please share this video with your colleagues, friends, and family.

In this 16-minute video, and in the text below, I'm going to show you how to work at a computer. The principles apply whether you sit or stand. But I'm going to focus on sitting, and assume you have a laptop.

Whether you watch the video or read the text below, please leave a comment sharing your own experiences and recommendations, and any questions you may have.

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Disclosure: The links below are affiliate links. If you buy anything, I earn a commission, at no extra cost to you.

I Was Badly Injured

First, what qualifies me to talk about ergonomics? My background is that I was pretty badly injured. It started as an ache that I kept expecting to go away. It didn’t. Instead:

  • I had increasing pain and weakness.
  • I had trouble manipulating things with my hands.
  • I was unable to pick up my children.

When I went to have it checked out, the doctor restricted my keyboard and mouse use to two hours per day. I had to elbow padding, and soft wrist supports during the day. At night, I had to sleep with these hard wrist splints:

Hard wrist splint

You don’t want this. Your family doesn’t want this. Your employer doesn’t want this.

If you have a persistent ache anywhere, see a doctor who specializes in repetitive strain injuries.

Bad Ergonomics: What Not to Do

Don’t work like this:

Bad ergonomic posture at computer

Everything about this is wrong. This is how I used to work, and it’s how I ended up severely injured.

Bad: Wrists resting

What’s wrong with this posture? For starters, my wrists are resting on the computer. Your wrists should not rest on anything as you use a keyboard or mouse, not even a soft wrist rest. Nothing.

Bad: Elbows resting

My elbows are resting on the armrest as I type. This is quite bad.

The combination of pressure on wrist and elbows together is killer, because there’s stuff moving around inside your arm as you move your fingers. And when there’s pressure pinching it off, it’s like you’re grinding the gears of a car.

Bad: Neck bent

To look at the screen, I have to bend my neck, so this is killing my back and shoulders.

Is slouching wrong? It depends

There’s nothing wrong with slouching, as long as you put your head back. Slouching is fine for thinking about things. What’s not good is slouching while you use your computer.

What to do with the armrests?

Let’s discuss armrests a bit more. If the armrests cause you to rest your elbows as you type, they’re too high.

There are a couple of things you might be able to do. First, lower the armrests if you can. You can still lean on them as you think or talk. But don’t type with your arms resting on them!

If you can’t lower your armrests far enough, remove them. Typically, there’s a bolt on the bottom holding them in place.

That’s how not to do things. Now let’s look at how to do things.

Good Ergonomics: Proper Seating Posture

When we’re dealing with ergonomics, we’re trying to reconcile conflicting constraints. But this is what we do all the time at work; it’s like iOS Auto Layout for your body! So let’s figure out these constraints, and you’ll see how they work.

Feet resting on the floor

We’ll start from the bottom up, with feet. In the video, my feet are dangling, and not quite resting. So the chair is too high, which is pinching off the supply of blood.

If your feet dangle, lower your chair until your feet rest on the floor.

Knees bent at 90° or greater

Another thing to think about is your upper leg and lower leg. Your lower leg should usually be going straight down. Your knees should be bent at 90 degrees, or a little greater. So your upper leg should be just off horizontal. We don’t want to pinch stuff off.

Adjust your seat to get the correct angle:

knees bent at 90 degrees or a bit greater

Some room for the backs of your knees

In this particular chair, the back rest is a long way back for me. If I try to position my back against the back rest, the front of the chair presses against the inside of my knee. That’s too far back, cutting off the blood supply.

You really want a little space between the edge of the chair and the inside of your knee. Check with your fingers; you should have two or three fingers of space.

If your back rest is too far back, you can get some sort of cushion to add back support. It’ll also keep you from sitting too far back and cutting off blood flow behind your knee.

Arm position: “T. Rex style”

Look at my arms in this next photo:

typing with arms outstretched

This is terrible. If you work like this, you’ve probably been experiencing back and shoulder pain by reaching forward. This is not good.

What you want instead is:

  • Upper arms dangling straight down.
  • Elbows bent at roughly 90 degrees or a little greater.

In fact, try this right now. Let your arms dangle. Then raise your forearms until they’re horizontal. Your elbows should be bent at roughly 90 degrees, or a little bit greater, as shown here:

forearms straight down, elbows at 90 degrees or a bit greater

You can think of this as “T. Rex typing.” ?

Are you using “T. Rex typing” ?? Watch this 16-minute video to learn proper computer ergonomics.

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Set your keyboard to the correct height

So “T. Rex style” is the arm position we want. But we can’t do this if the laptop is too high.

If you’re lucky enough to have an adjustable desk, set the height so you can type correctly.

But most desks have fixed height. If your desk happens to have a keyboard tray, this helps a lot. It gives you a way to lower the keyboard if you need to.

Otherwise, consider getting a keyboard tray you can attach to the underside of your desk. Make sure it’s wide enough to hold both your keyboard and your mouse.

Another possibility is to raise your chair. But we still want our feet resting, not dangling, so what do we do? You can solve that constraint by getting a footrest.

Monitor position: neck straight, eyes forward

Now I’m ready to type. My elbows aren’t resting against the armrest. I’m in T. Rex position. …But the screen is far down. Look at what it’s doing to my neck:

neck bent down to see monitor

Your neck is supporting your head: a big object with precious stuff in there that’s able to code, and do whatever else you do on your computer. And it’s pretty heavy. Working like this will cause you pain.

What’s the ideal position for our monitors?

  • Top of monitor at eye level. With your head resting right over your neck, looking straight ahead, the top of the monitor should be at roughly eye level.
  • Monitor at arm’s length. You don’t want the screen too close, because then you’ll be straining to focus. You don’t want it too far either, because then you won’t be able to see anything. Keep it at arm’s length.

So we want arm’s length, with the top of the monitor at eye level. How do we fix this? Here’s a cheap solution:

ream of printer paper

This is what I did for years: I used printer paper. I’d buy reams of printer paper and not open them. You can see I labeled it, “Daddy’s desk — Do Not Open.” Stack these up to the right height.

That’s one option. Another option is to use any big hardcover books you can find, like kids’ yearbooks.

Raise your computer so the top of your monitor is at eye level. Position it at arm’s length. Then you can look at the screen with your eyes looking forward and slightly down. This is how they like to look at things that are near. And you’ll save your neck.

(This image shows that I could add to the stack to raise the monitor just a bit more, but it’s not bad.)

Top of monitor close to eye level

Of course, you can’t type with the laptop keyboard this high. So what can you do? The answer is to get an external keyboard and an external mouse. Then you can position the inputs down, and the screen up.

An external keyboard and mouse (or trackpad) are relatively inexpensive things that you can get to solve this problem.

The Importance of Regular Breaks

No matter how good your setup is, you’ll still injure yourself if you don’t take breaks. Our bodies aren’t happy staying in the same position, even if it’s a good position. Set up some kind of system that reminds you to take a break at least once an hour.

I like to use the Pomodoro Technique of working for 25 minutes, then taking a 5-minute break. It’s good to physically step away from the computer. This lets your eyes rest by changing their focal point. It’s also a great technique for mental breakthroughs.

There are various tools to help with the Pomodoro Technique. My favorite is a Mac app called Tadam.

Keyboard and Mouse Positioning

Finally, let’s talk about the keyboard, and how it affects your wrists.

How to use an extended keyboard

Ideally, a keyboard is centered with the keys right in front of you. So the “home keys” F and J should be under your index fingers, right in front of your belly. And you should be typing T. Rex style.

But if you have an extended keyboard, the cursor keys and numeric keypad are off the right side. What we inevitably do is center the whole thing in front of our bodies. This makes your typing be off-center.

To make matters worse, if you mouse with your right hand, that’s past the extended keys, like this:

extended keyboard with mouse on right side

So the mouse is way off to the right. What happens is you end up typing with your right wrist cocked one way. And then to use the mouse, you cock your wrist the other way.

Working like this, going back and forth… pain. But it’s easy to fix.

Center the F and J keys in front of you. Then switch your mousing to your left hand, like this:

extended keyboard with mouse on left side

If you’re using an extended keyboard, this will solve a lot of wrist problems.

Rotate hands, keep wrists straight

Put your arms in T. Rex style and let them dangle in front of you. Shake out your hands and relax them. Then look at your hands — see how they’re angled?

Now starting from that relaxed position, straighten your hands so they’re level with the floor. Do this again: Let your hands relax. Then straighten them out. Do you feel that tension pulling inside of your arm?

Our bodies weren’t made to keep our hands level. Working with constant tension will injure you.

But there’s a way to type with your hands rotated: progressively curl your fingers. You want your index fingers straighter, and your pinky fingers more curled. This lets you type on a flat keyboard while keeping your wrists rotated. It takes practice to relearn how you hold your hands, but try to type like this:

progressive finger curl

(I'm raising my elbows to raise my hands so they're visible to the camera. Don’t copy the elbows, but keep your upper arms dangling.) The image shows how I progressively curl my fingers. It lets me keep my wrists angled, while my fingers type on a horizontal plane.

You should also keep this relaxed rotation while mousing. For a regular non-ergonomic mouse, let your hand slide off to one side. But if you like mousing, consider a mouse that’s angled to support hand rotation. For many years, I used a Contour Mouse. (I now use the Apple Magic Trackpad 2.)


Now we also don’t want to type with our wrists bent like this:

wrists bent

Instead, your wrists should be straight out in front of you:

wrists straight

This creates a little bit of an angle. There are ergonomic keyboards that solve this. I’ll show you what I use.

I have a Goldtouch V2 keyboard. It has a switch on the back to go between Mac and PC keys. And it has a locking lever. When unlocked, the keyboard can move in two ways.

  • It splits to support the angle of keeping your wrists straight.
  • It tents to support the resting angle of keeping your hands rotated.

So this keyboard solves both problems. I highly recommend it.

Goldtouch V2 keyboard


Keep yourself healthy. Remember that the most important development tool you have is your body. Take care of it.

Please share this blog post with any colleagues, friends, and family who are suddenly working from home.

The most important development tool you have is your body. Follow these cheap ergonomic tips.

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Jon Reid

About the author

Programming was fun when I was a kid. But working in Silicon Valley, I saw poor code lead to fear, with real human costs. Looking for ways to make my life better, I learned about Extreme Programming, including unit testing, test-driven development (TDD), and refactoring. Programming became fun again! I've now been doing TDD in Apple environments for 19 years. I'm committed to software crafting as a discipline, hoping we can all reach greater effectiveness and joy.

  • John,

    Thanks for the valuable and timely information.

    I am fortunate to have an iMac Pro at work with a second 27″ LG monitor. So when at home with my macBook Pro and its 15″ screen I struggled with the smaller real estate. I have since bought a cheap (compared to the LG monitors) 4K 28″ monitor and use wireless keyboard and mouse. Setting up is as simple as plugging in the power and monitor via USB-C and using with the macBook lid closed.

    You have inspired me to try using the mouse left handed!

    Cheers,
    Simon

    • Hi Simon! Yes, left-handed mousing was an important part of my recovery, at least while I had an extended keyboard. It will feel weird at first, but you’ll quickly get the hang of it.

    • After I initially gave this talk at work, I kept wondering how to share it with you. The sequel is far better than the original. 😄
      I add closed-captioning to all my videos, so ESL folks can turn on the captions and slow down the playback.
      There’s even an option for folks to submit their own translations… 😉

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