My New Ergonomic Writing Habitat

A few months ago, I wrote a post about my ongoing struggle with back pain.  I am happy to report that I’ve been doing much better, in large part because I finally got myself an actual desk for writing.  Here’s what the old setup looked like:

My "comfy" writing chair

My “comfy” writing chair

Short-term, it is actually a pretty comfortable chair, but sitting in it for hours every day, hunching over a laptop, was torturing my poor back.  You’ll notice the lumbar roll, which was my meager attempt a couple years ago to give my back the support it needed.  In hindsight, I think it may have actually been counterproductive; compared to the bare chair, it was comfortable enough that I didn’t notice for too long that I still had a problem.

Fast forward to this spring.  After lots of online research, measurements of me and the available space, and several trips to go sit in every office chair I could find within 20 miles, here’s what I put together:

desk

The key here is the laptop stand and the new keyboard and trackpad, which lets me put the screen at eye level and keep my hands down where they belong.  The chair is not as fancy as some available, but it’s got good support, and I was able to take off the arms (or rather, not put them on to begin with) to keep them from straining my shoulders.  There’s a footrest hiding under the desk that lets me adjust my chair to the height of the desk, and keep that neutral ergonomic posture that was so lacking before.

I won’t pretend this new desk has magically increased my productivity—it hasn’t—but back pain was an easy and guilt-free excuse to not write, and one that I am heartily glad to be rid of.

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Staying Healthy as a Writer

Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut / FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

One of the unavoidable hazards of writing is that it’s almost always a sedentary activity.  There are exceptions—Kevin J Anderson dictates his first drafts while hiking—but that kind of process doesn’t work for everybody, and all drafts eventually need to be read and edited.

I get a double dose.  My day job has me sitting in front of a computer for nine hours a day, and then I spend another hour in the car.  I’m a very visual person, so when my writing time comes around, I have to sit down again, and I spent most of my leisure time curled up with a book.  It worked for a while, but lately bad habits have been catching up with me.  For the last year or so, I’ve been in pretty much constant pain.  Back pain, neck pain, and I’m not even going to get into the chronic headaches and allergies.

This post is not about complaining.  Think of it as a public service announcement.  This kind of stuff is all too common, and you don’t want it to happen to you.

I guess the first thing you should know is that I’ve never been an active person.  I hear about people feeling energized when they’re done exercising, but it’s never happened to me.  I mostly just feel sore and tired, and if we’re talking aerobic exercise, sweaty and gross on top of it.  I’ve never had a weight problem, so I always regarded exercise as an unpleasant waste of time.  I mean, I knew it was good for me, but I never saw the benefits, and I never had enough time for things I wanted to do, much less something I disliked.

Bad idea, in case you were in doubt.

It’s been an excruciatingly slow process, identifying the problem and deciding that no, it’s not getting better on its own, and then figuring out what to do about it.  The pain started in my neck, so my first move was to change pillows, and then change again.  I may have to try a third pillow if this latest one doesn’t do the trick.  I’ve slowly become more aware of the strain placed on my body when I contort it into my habitual fetalesque sleeping position, and I’m trying to train myself into a more neutral posture.

The backaches snuck up on me.  The first acute pain happened about a year ago, bad enough to send me to the wellness center at work. They gave me an icepack and a prescription for muscle relaxant, and in a few days it was back to normal.  I figured I’d pulled it somehow, and went back to worrying about my tension headaches.  It wasn’t until last fall that the back pain became strong enough and constant enough to catch my attention again.

I got an ergonomic evaluation of my workstation.  I tried lumbar support pillows.  I finally started seeing a chiropractor, which at first made things worse, and then a little better.  But I didn’t see any real hope until I found the discipline to start doing yoga every morning.  I changed up my entire schedule in order to form the habit, but yoga’s a great gateway into exercise: low impact, minimal sweat, and I can do it on a mat in my living room where nobody can see me.

It’s slow going.  I’m definitely improving, but six weeks in, my back still hurts almost constantly.  The difference is, it’s dialed back from Something Is Really Wrong to Wow I Haven’t Used These Muscles in Forever.  And as I keep using them, I have faith that the pain will become less and less.

So, the point of all this is, take care of your body.  For years, I coveted that half hour a day as time to write or relax, but when you’re not healthy, it gets damn hard to do either.  When the body gets sluggish, so does the mind.  There’ve been a lot of days this past year when I didn’t write at all.  Now, slowly, that’s starting to improve as well, and I’m happy to say that I’m on an 18-day writing streak (and counting!).

Sometimes, giving up a little writing time really can help you write better.