It’s rare to find someone who doesn’t work at a computer these days or spend significant amounts of time on there. When people recount their experience of working at the computer they seem to fall into two camps. One talks of the sore backs and stiff shoulders and the other about getting distracted spending many hours achieving nothing. Having experienced both of these first hand, I have a few preventative measures up my sleeve that work well for me.
The two camps of complaints that I have mentioned earlier could loosely be categorised as physical and mental difficulties or challenges. Let’s start with the physical.
If you look in your computer manual you might find a short section on this but who looks at their computer manual. You could have a look here desk ergonomics. Stiff shoulders stem mainly from holding the head in place. The head is heavy, up to 10kg and that weight is held by muscles at the top of the shoulders and behind the neck. When the head and neck lurch forward or even look down, these muscles have to work harder and so the stiffness begins. The head should be placed so that these muscles have to do the minimum amount of work. That means having your monitor at eye level. The height of the chair and the desk also come into play determining the position of the arms. If the arms can be relaxed then the shoulders can be more relaxed. One shoulder always seems to be stiffer than the other and that’s the one that controls the mouse.
Many people are not aware that they can change the mouse settings so that it moves faster or slower according to their preference. Along with the double click speed. If you use the mouse a lot as most people do then adjusting the mouse settings can make computing a lot more comfortable.
Having set up the height of the desk, chair and monitor, adjusted the mouse to your preferred settings, it’s time to look at your posture. The back should be upright yet comfortable. Neither bowed nor arched. The spine then attains a neutral position which requires the least amount of effort to sustain for long periods. If the core muscles (transverse abdominals, etc.) are doing their job and engaged correctly then back support is not required. I used to sit at my desk on a Swiss ball to work at it (until one day I tried to balance the cat on top of it and he dug his claws in and burst it). Good posture takes a bit of trail and error then you can feel when it’s just right.
A focused session at the computer should last for around 45 minutes and no more than an hour. Both to liberate your posture and to retain your focus. Taking a break even for 5 minutes can help to assess how you’ve been doing and also to do some stretches for the shoulders. A good way to prevent eye stain too. Most people don’t realise that they can stop squinting and make the text bigger if that would be more comfortable. That’s what the zoom controls are for.
Taking breaks is good for the mind and for the body. But too long a break e.g. more than 20 minutes does not allow for continuity. I often use the oven timer to set my 45 minute session.
Now let’s take a look at the mental side of things. How can we avoid distractions and stay focused and motivated?
Setting specific goal
Before you go near the computer be absolutely clear what you are about to do. If you just want to randomly surf the web then so be it, but be clear that that is your intention. You already have a time frame in mind, 45 minutes, so what could be achieved in that time? Two e-mails? Three e-mails? Clearing the desktop? Write it down before you sit at your desk. You are doing that and only that.
We are constantly surrounded by noise. Traffic, phones and the hum of machinery. Music can lift your spirits and create on single background layer of noise rather than a jumble of conflicting sounds. I find that it really helps me to focus as it gives me the feeling of being cut off from the rest of the world and more connected with what I’m doing. On speakers or with headphones. But this feeling of being cut off is not agreeable to everyone. Music can also break up your work periods. So if your playlist lasts for 45 minutes then when the last track ends it’s time to take a break.
Using templates – don’t reinvent the wheel
Computers are supposed to make our lives easier and we do some things over and over again. More than anything else we use e-mail. There are some things in e-mails that we write again and again. Why not put them into a template or draft? Or create a signature with your contact details? Saves you having to write the same thing over and over again. The same can be said for online forms. Most browsers have a feature called autofill forms so that all the typical fields such as name, address and postcode are filled automatically. If you use a word processing program such as Microsoft Word all the repetitive elements can be saved as a template. You can create a variety of templates for various scenarios such as business or personal letters. These programs will have some ready made templates, but it’s always better to make your own.
Keyboard shortcuts and macros
Some people are amazed at the speed at which work can be done using keyboard shortcuts. The basic cut, copy and paste commands are much the same in all programs. If you haven’t used keyboard commands then that would be a good place to start. It’s faster than using the mouse and saves your shoulder from getting stiff. It’s also very satisfying to press one key or key combination and see something happen.
Macros take this a step further. They allow you to record a series of simple or complex steps and then play them back. For example, let’s say you have wanted to resize a batch of images. You would turn on your macro recorder before you started on the first one and then and simply click on the play button to perform the same set of operations on all the other images. I once created a mail merge macro that would take a list of addresses from an excel spreadsheet and bring them into Word then create mailing labels with them. Perhaps you are doing things in hours that could be done in minutes simply because you weren’t aware that there was an easier or faster way to do it.
To make your time on the computer more focused and less stressful on your body here is a list of all the points that I have outlined. Say good-bye to stiff shoulders and distracted meandering.
- Make your workstation more ergonomic
- Work on your posture
- Have specific goals
- Take breaks
- Use music
- Learn keyboard shortcuts & macros
- Create templates