Why Environment Matters

You might be superbly alert and focused, fired up to keep working on a lucrative job, but if you’re tormented by aching and stiffness in your neck and shoulders, wrists, and back, or by sore eyes and a headache, you won’t be getting the benefit from that good start. Even if you tough it out, your attention is going to be eroded by that discomfort, and it’s going to keep getting worse. Enduring it just means trading your health for money, which is not sustainable in the long term. Musculoskeletal problems such as back pain cause more lost work days than any other physical cause, and a lot of that comes from working in bad conditions.

If you’re working for salary, you end up using sick days, but if you’re a freelancer, days when you can’t work are a serious financial hit. You might never get to the stage of spending days in bed suffering from your aches and pains, but reduced productivity costs you money every working hour, and knocking off work early directly sacrifices what could have been productive hours.

Bean Counting

I’m talking about financial losses here because buying a better working environment costs money, and your internal or external bean counter is likely to be saying “why pay $50 for an ergonomic keyboard when I can get something for $10 that does the job?”. That kind of argument needs to be countered with financial reasons, not fuzzy stuff like “it makes me feel better”. It’s no great stretch to assume that the right keyboard and mouse could make a 1% difference in your productivity. A comfortable seat could give you an average of a couple of extra hours a week. These small wins compound over time, so it’s easy to make a fiscally responsible argument for buying some nicer gear. Gamers shell out big money for gear that gives them incremental advantages, so why shouldn’t you?



The standard layout of a keyboard, with all the keys standing in straight rows like they’re on parade, just doesn’t reflect the needs of any human working with one. Aligning your fingers and hands to those rows means that your hands are turned outwards at the wrist, your elbows are pinched in too close to your body, or both. The constant strain of maintaining that alignment will show up as pain in your wrists, elbows, shoulders, or elsewhere. Ergonomic keyboards that have the two sides split into two banks with about 15 degrees between them let you keep your wrists straight, with no needless strain anywhere. Those who like to put their elbows on armrests while typing will find that everything lines up nicely. These keyboards look daft, but they work. OK, you spend a day or two being helplessly unable to type while your brain and fingers grasp the new reality, so don’t try to adjust while working for a tight deadline. I use the Microsoft® Natural® Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 (yes, apparently “Natural” is a registered trademark. WTF?®), and it fixed longstanding pains in my wrists and elbows in a few days.

Colemak key layout

Colemak Layout – Nothing to be afraid of

If you’re feeling even more adventurous, there are key layouts that make much more sense than the standard Qwerty, which was arranged to solve technical problems in mechanical typewriters. As the de facto standard, it has an enormous advantage over any alternatives, but if you take the time to learn, the other options cut down hand motion and strain. I just started learning Colemak, and it doesn’t feel as awkward as I expected, even at first. Other than having most of the letters rearranged, it maps backspace to the Caps Lock key, eliminating a major source of strain (OK, I do need to remove a lot of typos). There’s no hardware requirement, and an investment of time that could reduce strain and raise efficiency for the rest of your life seems worth doing.

Colemak is one of the things Josh Kaufman learns in his book “The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything . . . Fast!”, and it’s on his accompanying site here.


Just like with the keyboard, the angle a standard mouse directs your hand into (palm horizontal) is not the natural angle for most people. With an ergonomic mouse that lets you rotate your hand outward by about 45 degrees, you can stop the constant force it takes to twist your hand to the mouse top. In my case, that fixed pains in my elbow and forearm. Some people never adjust to them, so it might be smart to get a cheapo one to find whether the shape will agree with you before you spend money on something fancy.  


The first monitor I ever used for my translation work had a bulging screen that never failed to make glaring reflections, and green pixels the size of breadcrumbs (even in 1992, that was not “state of the art”). After about six months of using it, I needed glasses. Shortly after that, I bought a laptop with what then qualified as a good screen, and I stopped needing the glasses. Now I’m using a 42-inch 4K monitor, because “smaller pixels = less eye strain” still seems to hold true. The extra area for laying out windows is a bonus.

Regardless of what kind of monitor you have, if it’s not positioned correctly relative to the lights, windows, and your eyes/head, it will still hurt you. A screen too low will force you to look down, giving you a stiff neck and shoulders. A screen in which you can see the bright reflections of windows or lights will hurt you, no matter how many pixels it has. Check these things, and fix them. A flexible monitor arm can make it easier to get everything just right, but even propping the screen up on a couple of phone directories could sort some problems.          


Long hours working in a bad chair will hurt. Toughing it out leads to injury, but giving up leads to loss of earnings. Buy a comfortable, supportive chair already.

EMF/ Electrosmog

There’s a lot of controversy over the potential physiological effects of electrosmog, which is the mix of electromagnetic radiation from all sources, such as cellphones, WiFi, BlueTooth, electric motors, power cables in the walls, and almost any other cool thing we like having around.

Some people appear to be more sensitive than others (electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS) is a condition that makes people more vulnerable), with reported health effects including headaches, chronic fatigue, and mood problems.

Even if you’re unconvinced, the precautionary principle would suggest that it’s probably worth doing the easy minimum. Whatever the source, the intensity of radiation that reaches you from it is governed by an inverse square law, which means that if the source is twice as far away, you only get one quarter of the radiation. On that basis, it makes sense to put the body of your PC (if it’s a desktop) further away from your chair. Barriers in the way further block radiation. If your computer is a laptop, you might want to limit the amount of time it spends actually on your lap.

If you’re looking for more options, “Zapped: Why Your Cell Phone Shouldn’t Be Your Alarm Clock and 1,268 Ways to Outsmart the Hazards of Electronic Pollution” by Anne Louise Gittleman is worth a read.

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