Ergonomics, the secret to pain-free work for business travelers

As I mentioned in my last article, I’ve recently started traveling full time, which means I’m beginning to join Coleman in having first-hand knowledge of the challenges business travelers face. It’s been an enlightening experience. It’s also been a literal pain in the neck.

I’ve spent much of the last week staring at a laptop, going through documentation and trying to get up to speed. The ergonomics of this situation have been, well, not great.

When I first got to the client site, I had to carve out three square feet of space on an unused desk that was covered in discarded monitor stands and an ancient Lenovo tower in order to do my work. There were also filing cabinets being stored under the desk, meaning I had nowhere to put my knees.

Talking with Coleman, my coworkers and other friends who travel, it seems that this challenge is painfully common: because of the transient nature of the job, everyone uses laptops all the time, and while we may have lovely standing desks and ergonomic workstations at home, it’s incredibly rare for a client to provide such things — on the road, we’re usually limited to whatever we can fit on our backs.

Thankfully, I was prepared for this: because I used to do most of my work from coffee shops, I’d already thought deeply about this problem and put together a highly ergonomic, highly portable work setup, and bringing it on the road was as simple as putting it in my bag. But before I share that setup with you, let’s talk about why ergonomics are important in the first place.1If you just want gear recommendations, you can skip to “My recommended setup.”

Ergonomics, and why they matter

Ergonomics2From the Greek: Ergon – work; Nomos – natural law. is the study of the best way to work, defined as the most efficient in both the short and long term. That is, it tries to answer the following two questions:

  1. What physical ways of working produce the best results today, or in any given bout of work?
  2. What physical ways of working allow you to continue to produce the best results day after day, week after week, over the course of many years?

As busy professionals and business travelers, a lot of our lives are consumed by our work, but while we we’re willing to spend hours upon hours optimizing things like supply chains and software development practices to generate single digit efficiency improvements for our clients, we put a relatively miniscule amount of thought into optimizing the way we ourselves do our knowledge work.

Business travelers especially manage to crunch themselves into all sorts of borrowed, suboptimal workstations, and while I’m not at all suggesting that everyone should suddenly demand that their client provide perfectly ergonomic sit-stand workstations for anyone that spends more than an hour working there, I do want to talk about a few small things that almost anyone can do, anywhere, that can produce big long-term gains.

If we were all to spend just a little more of time and effort on fixing this situation, we’d see less low back pain, fewer permanently rounded “computer guy” necks and upper backs (which can cause everything from headaches to dysfunctional shoulders to herniated vertebrae), and just as important, we’d be happier and more productive on a daily basis, almost as soon as we implemented the most minor of changes.

So, how do we do that? , For most people, the biggest gains we can realize come from improving the way that we interact with our computers. When you spend more than half the day interacting with a computer, doing so in a way that allows you to maintain focus without feeling pain and to continue interacting with a computer productively for the rest of your career is, well, pretty fucking important.

Steve Jobs famously called computers “A bicycle for the mind”, and as knowledge workers (whose knowledge has been deemed valuable enough to fly it across the country!), losing the ability to go at bicycle speed and having to walk again is deeply crippling.

The problem with laptops

Because we travel and need to have the ability to do work from anywhere, the computers that most of us interact with are laptops.

Laptops are impressive feats of engineering, but they are, almost by definition, terrible for ergonomics. According to Cornell University’s Ergonomic Guidelines for Computer Workstations, your keyboard and mouse should sit slightly below the level of the elbow (sitting or standing), and the eyes should be positioned roughly 2-3 inches below the top of the screen.

With laptops, this is functionally impossible. The keyboard is connected to the screen, and so by design, if the screen is at the right level, the keyboard will be too high, and if the keyboard at the right level, the monitor will be too low. If the laptop is actually in your lap, you’re also pretty much guaranteed to have to hunch over it to see what you’re doing.

Traditional desktop computer workstations are less prone to these problems because the keyboard and the screen are separate and can be positioned separately. Most permanent ergonomic setups based on a laptop replicate the patterns of a traditional desktop workstation, either treating the laptop like a desktop tower and having a separate keyboard and screen, or at the very least having a separate screen and using the laptop itself as the computer and keyboard.

For travelers, this approach just doesn’t work. Throwing a second monitor in your carry-on is a non-starter, and even if you can requisition one from a client, that only works when you’re at the office — not at the airport, or in the air, or at a hotel room, or back home.

My recommended setup

The answer to the problem above is to invert that relationship: to treat the laptop itself as the screen by propping the laptop up at a sufficient height on a stand of some kind, and to attach a separate keyboard and mouse. Monitors are monstrous, but keyboards and mice are small, and only getting smaller.

With that in mind, my setup contains just a bluetooth keyboard, a bluetooth mouse, and a computer stand. Specifically, I use:

The Roost is the best stand I’ve found for two reasons: it’s the only one that I’ve ever found that gets the screen even close to the right height for my (admittedly tall) 6’2″ frame, and it folds up into an incredibly small and light package. Those mStand Rain stands that litter startup offices are lovely, but they’re also 3 pound hunks of solid aluminum that can’t fold at all. Most other stands that get my laptop to the right height are equivalently bulky or heavy. Most of the other light options, meanwhile, are hinge-style and therefore stand no chance of getting the laptop high enough. Roosts aren’t cheap, but they work and are rock solid — which I also find important for a tool that I’m entrusting with a $1000+ machine.

The stand is really the only thing that I feel strongly about in this setup, though. Portable mice and keyboards are (to me, anyway) mostly interchangeable. Anything with proper mechanical keys or ergonomic function is going to be too bulky for travel, so go with whatever you prefer. I like Logitech keyboards because they mirror my Macbook keyboard layout, which makes touch typing easier, and I like Apple mice because my employer will give them to me for free. Any similarly shaped or sized keyboard and mouse will do (avoid “mini-mice” unless you want your hand to constantly hurt). There are a number of folding keyboards, but I don’t see the point — folding a keyboard up doesn’t make it smaller, it just changes the dimensions.

The beauty of this setup (aside from the fact that it was less than $200) is that it takes about 30 seconds to set up and folds down so small that I can always fit it into my backpack, which lets me bring it with me everywhere and set it up quickly, which is ultimately the key — a two thousand dollar sit-stand rig won’t do anything for your productivity or health if you don’t use it.

We pretty much never talk solutions that require a purchase around here — almost all of the hard health and productivity problems of traveling for work are solved with critical thinking and intentional action, and anything you buy is a tool that helps you perform that action, not the solution in and of itself. But there are some exceptions, and this is one of them. Two hundred dollars worth of plastic and wires can and will make a huge difference in how you feel while you work, now and in ten years. So, in this rare occasion, I strongly recommend you pick up this gear, and get it into your laptop bag as soon as possible. . Even if it doesn’t seem like much help to present you, future you will thank you.

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