Wait, why am I talking about ergonomics? Didn’t you just quit a job so you could get miles and miles away from people telling you to sit a certain way, type a certain way and all that other health & safety stuff that bored you senseless?
Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be one of those dry-as-dust boring pieces on ergonomics, but you do need to read this article from start to finish.
Because otherwise you’ll probably wind up with some kind of soft tissue injury you’ll have plenty of time to regret. And when you work for yourself, if you don’t work then you don’t get paid.
Sick leave…what’s that?
So, let’s get down to discussing why ergonomics is important for those of you who no longer have to commute to and from work each day. An added bonus is that using some of these tips might help you create a home office that’s more comfortable for you to be in for hours on end.
Oh, and I’m not an expert in ergonomics, but have had some formal training in the subject. Just in case anyone was wondering.
1. A dedicated workspace
The idea of working from anywhere in your house or apartment will appeal to you, especially if you’ve spent years trapped inside a tiny office cubicle. You look forward to the freedom of just planting your laptop wherever you feel like, and getting stuff done.
This is a nice idea in theory, but it falls apart in practice.
Firstly trying to work while other people are passing by you, looking over your shoulder, and distracting you is infuriating. Setting up your laptop on your kitchen or coffee table each day might seem like freedom, but you’ll waste a lot of time getting everything just how you like it.
Then it’s time for coffee.
Then your kids come back from school, and hey presto, your entire day is gone.
What you’ll wind up doing is ruining your own productivity levels without even realizing it. You’ll waste a huge amount of time chasing your own tail every single day. And believe me, that frustration can and will lead to arguments with your loved ones.
Having a dedicated office might be an inconvenience if you’re already strapped for space, but this is something you need to strive for. You don’t need a huge budget, or a huge amount of space, to set up your home office, so don’t let that stop you. You can set up a functional home office in the smallest of spaces.
Your own office space means that you can create the ideal environment for you to work in. You can lay it out the way you want, and the added bonus is that you can reinforce to your family and friends that once you’re in your office that means you’re working.
So, where can you set up a dedicated office?
The most obvious options are a spare or guest bedroom (my personal preference), but there are lots of other options too. You could convert a closet to a tiny office that opens out and gives you some privacy.
Another option is to use the space underneath a stairs to work from – you won’t have a lot of space but it’s better than trying to cram everything onto your coffee table each day.
Or if you have attic space you could consider converting that to a small office. Obviously that will cost money, but if you’re serious about this “working from home” and “running your own business” thing then you’ll need to make that happen.
Another option – and one I’m seriously considering – is the idea of getting one of those tiny homes. It would fit neatly beside my garden shed, and it would be far enough way from the actual house to cut my interruptions down to almost zero. Again, doing this will cost money but this is your business you’re talking about.
How does all of this tie into an article on ergonomics?
Because without a dedicated space to work from I can pretty much guarantee you’ll wind up with neck, back or shoulder pain from being hunched over your coffee table.
2. Get a comfy chair
There’s an old saying that goes something like this, “In life you need two things – a good pair of shoes, and a good mattress, because if you’re not wearing one you’ll be sleeping on the other.”
That’s a really rough paraphrasing of it, but it applies to ergonomics in your home office too. What most people don’t realize about working for themselves – not until they’ve done it for a few months – is that working for yourself means putting in more hours than you would at a 9 to 5 job. This is doubly true during your first few months when those unseen hurdles and problems appear. Like when your best client disappears into a cloud of ninja smoke.
Your office chair needs to:
- Be height adjustable
- Have rollers/castors on it
- Include arm rests
- Have adequate back and lower back
- Include an adjustable backrest
- Have a padded seat
- Fit underneath your desk
It also needs to fit under your desk to stop you from leaning forward to reach your keyboard. Please don’t use a household chair to sit on while you’re working unless you want to lose the feeling in your legs on a daily basis. All joking aside, cutting off the circulation to your legs can be very dangerous. Uncomfortable office chair solutions are cheaper on the short-term, but over the long term they’ll leave you aching all over.
Measuring up your chair is pretty easy.
1. Your feet need to be able to reach the floor from a sitting position. If that’s a struggle then invest in a foot rest.
2. You need to have 3 – 4 fingers (about 2 inches) of space between the back of your knee and the front of the seat cushion
So, what’s a good ergonomic chair for sitting in all day?
In an ideal world you could splash your cash on a Herman Miller chair, but here’s a quick list of great chairs for your home office, all costing under $150/€150
- Amazon Basics Mid-Back Mesh Chair
- Amazon Basics High-Back Executive Chair
- Modway Articulate Ergonomic Mesh Office Chair
3. Get a good desk
Stephen King is one of my favourite authors, so much so his book “On Writing” convinced me that I can be an author. One thing that stuck with me from the book was when King described always wanting to have this huge desk to write on – one that dominated the entire room. He came to realize afterwards that having an amazing oak desk didn’t make him a better writer. In fact, it was part of one of the most destructive phase of his life. A time when drugs, booze, and blackouts were just part of his working day.
The point here is that a fancy, expensive desk won’t improve your business or your productivity. It might look nice, but that’s it. In the same breath you can’t work from a tiny cramped desk either.
So, what’s the sweet spot in terms of desk size?
An ergonomic computer desk measuring 42-inches long x 30-inches deep and 27-inches in height will give you enough space for your computer, keyboard, mouse, pens, notepads, etc.
You can get bigger desks, but there’s a diminishing return on desk size past a certain limit. Plus, you’ll need a huge office to accommodate just your desk.
Standing desks vs regular desks
The idea of standing up while working might not appeal to you, but there are a lot of ergonomic benefits especially that you can’t hunch over when working. You also remain more alert because you can’t slouch in your chair. You also burn more calories because your entire body is engaged when you’re standing upright.
An ideal solution is an adjustable desk that allows you to move it to a standing position when it suits you, and back down to a seated position when you need a break. This idea really appeals to me because I have a minor lower back injury thanks to motorbike crash when I was 20, so being stuck in one position for too long plays havoc with my lower back.
The only real downside to a height-adjustable desk is that they cost more, usually a lot more. One of the hidden bonuses is that you can store your chair underneath the desk at the end of each day, reducing the amount of square footage you need for your office space.
Standing desk risers offer a neat and affordable solution. These powered “mini desks” sit on top of your current desk, holding your keyboard, mouse and display(s). Then at the touch of a button the entire unit rises up, putting you in a standing position. Neat!
oh, here’s an amazing comic on Zen Pencils about King’s desk story.
4. You need lots of light
Try to avoid setting up your home office in an area that doesn’t get much natural sunlight. I get that this isn’t always possible, but do try to position your desk and computer in a room that gets at least some natural light.
Obviously you don’t want the sun glaring on your computer screen, so what you should aim for is ambient light. Yes, you can use desk lamps and overhead lighting to provide enough light for you to work in, but the risk here is that you’ll wind up working around shadows on your screen or desk.
What you’re aiming for is that your entire work area is evenly lit, so you can see what you’re working on. I’m being a bit of a hypocrite here because I learned to touch-type when playing marathon sessions of Quake 2 online, starting at 5pm and finishing at 3am. I was lucky that my eyesight never suffered as a result. Very lucky. I’m 45 now and will probably need glasses before I’m 50, which I’m fine with.
My own desk is set up at a 90-degree angle to an outside window, so that I can control the amount of light entering the room with curtains and a roller blind. This is ideal for me because I never have to deal with glare, or a lack of natural light.
How much light is the “right” amount?
That depends a little on your personal preferences. Your goal should be to improve your home office lighting in a way that you can work an entire day without getting headaches or finding that you can no longer focus on the screen. I’ve found that LED bulbs work best for the overhead light in my home office because the light they give off is “softer”, so there’s a very little glare on my screen as a result. I never feel like it’s sucking my life out through my eyeballs in the way some ultra-bright fluorescent bulbs can do.
5. An ergonomic computer setup
This isn’t nearly as complicated as people make it out to be, but let’s break it down into individual components, starting with your computer display.
If you only use a single screen then it should be directly in front of you on your desk. From an upright sitting position the top of the outer bezel of your monitor should be just below eye level.
You shouldn’t have to tilt your neck up or down to view what’s on the screen – it should adjusted so that you’re only moving your eyes to read what’s on your screen, not your entire head.
I prefer dual monitor setups from a productivity point of view, but I think a dual screen setup is a good idea from an ergonomics point of view too. The reason why is you can have additional pages of information available to you at a glance, without having to take your eyes off the screen or away from your keyboard. Some people worry that using dual monitors could cause neck pain, but I’ve never found that to be the case. In fact, quite the opposite.
Something I’ve found really useful for long work sessions is the ‘Night Light’ features in Windows 10. This reduces the brightness of your computer screen, and has eliminated the eye fatigue that used to plague me after a few hours of screen time.
Keyboard and mouse layout
Now, this is a tough one because everyone has their own little quirks. You see, the proper position for your keyboard is to be centred with your screen.
But that doesn’t work if you have dual screens. It also doesn’t work if you’re like me where I have dual screens and my typing preference is to have my keyboard just off-centre. I have no idea why I do that, but probably because I don’t need the numeric keypad more than maybe once or twice a week. Actually, just looking at my keyboard right now, I don’t need my numeric keypad at all. Weird that I’ve only noticed that now.
Anyways, your keyboard should be positioned approximately 4- 5 inches from the edge of your desk. Your hands or wrist are never meant to touch the desk in front of your keyboard, but 99% of people I see typing in offices type in that position for at least some part of their day.
That doesn’t make it an okay thing to do, so consider getting a wrist support to at least mitigate the effects of that bad habit – one of the gel-filled types is ideal.
They work for me because I’ve developed a bad habit where I tend to lean on the heel of the palm on my right hand when reading stuff online. So using a wrist rest for my mouse makes send for me because although it doesn’t stop my bad habit, it does take the pressure off my wrist when I get lost in whatever I’m doing. I’m also thinking of getting a wrist support for typing because I plan on getting three novels out per year for the next few years. That means a lot of wear and tear on me, my keyboard and my wrists.
Your mouse should be within easy reach, and directly beside your keyboard. You shouldn’t have to reach or stretch to use your mouse.
To be fair most people have their mouse right beside their keyboard because it makes most sense to have it there. It’s also good idea to arrange your mouse so that your wrist isn’t at an awkward angle when using it – your wrist should be in a straight line to your elbow.
When using the mouse your middle finger of that hand should be positioned directly between the mouse buttons, hovering just over the scroll wheel if you have one. Again, while that’s the “official advice”, I find my hand is most comfortable with my index and middle fingers resting on a button each. Graphic designers probably have a different experience though because they spend more of their day using a mouse than I do.
6. Deal with noise pollution
Ahh, you never considered noise to be a factor in the ergonomics of your home office, did you? This is despite the fact that noise can not only reduce your productivity to almost zero, but also lead to hearing problems.
If you don’t already work from home you’ll be amazed at just how much noise the average household generates. The neighbour’s dog barking, the washing machine downstairs, or even just your kids or partner talking on their phone is enough to have your nerves on edge all day long.
Your productivity suffers because you get distracted every few minutes. Did you know that it takes the average person 15 minutes to “recover” from being interrupted. It takes even longer if you were involved in any kind of “deep work” that requires 100% of your concentration. (I just got interrupted writing this because my partner was wondering if I was hungry. Arghhhh!)
There are two different issues to consider here:
1. Intermittent noise
2. Continuous noise
Intermittent noise will happen now and again. Examples are cars driving by your house, a plane flying overhead, your HVAC system kicking in, or somebody knocking on your front door. These are distractions you could do without, but you can learn to filter them out in some cases, and just ignore them in others.
Continuous noise can and will make your working day an absolute misery. So whatever the source is, you have to eliminate it or reduce it to a level you can tolerate or ignore. Even if you’re wearing headphones you’ll still be aware that the noise is there in the background, so you won’t be able to concentrate properly.
So, how do you go about dealing with noise pollution?
By soundproofing your office. Here’s a great article on how to soundproof your home office.
Remember the goal of ergonomics is to create an environment that’s comfortable for you to work in, and controlling noise pollution is a key part of that process.
7. Take regular breaks
I’m a big fan of blocking out your time each day to get stuff done, and I work in “sprints” as part of that. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, then take a few minutes to read my blog post on cutting down on distractions and getting more work done in the same amount of hours.
What I’m also a fan of is taking regular breaks away from my desk, and I do this at least once every two hours. That might be a quick toilet break, or to pop down and make myself a coffee, but it’s enough to recharge my batteries a little.
There’s a really dangerous habit you can fall into when working from home, and it’s that you forget to take regular, proper breaks because you’re too busy or too focused on what you’re doing. I’m really guilty of not taking full lunch breaks during the day and always because I’m eager to get back to what I’m working on.
Do yourself a massive favour by never developing a bad habit you’ll have to later break, and this includes taking breaks.
What I’ve started doing is taking a break but forcing myself to sit down and read a few pages of a book while I do that. I used to watch TV or YouTube instead, but found that I’d lose an hour of my day without realizing it.
Okay…two hours…and I always felt really guilty afterwards.
So my answer was to break that habit by reading instead. That’s part of an overall goal to read at least 50 books each year, which includes weaning myself off social media, with the end goal of deleting my Facebook account. Yes, really.