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The New Normal: Living with Screens

In the covid-19 pandemic, everyone has entered my world of working from home, online meetings, and spending most of both night and day in in front of a screen. In my career as a software architect, I worked regularly with online teams spread over every continent but Antarctica. The last decade of my career, I worked from our old farmhouse on Waschke Road most of the time. Since I’ve retired, I spend as much time writing in my home office as I did when I was gainfully employed.

I have some advice on how to be comfortable and even enjoy the online screen life. Mind you I am not a physician, ophthalmologist, or physical therapist, only an opinionated coder, but you might find some of my suggestions useful.

First, let me say that everyone is different. The saying is that “your mileage may vary” and I have found that my mileage usually varies widely. For me, when it comes to wellbeing, it works better to experiment than to find an expert’s rule and stick with it. So, this is my first suggestion: try different strategies; pay close attention to how you feel, both physically and mentally. Go with whatever makes you feel the best, but try reasonable strategies as they occur to you. Also be aware that change is constant. What worked well yesterday may not be optimal today. A tiny pain can turn into a screaming wildcat in a short time.

The most important consideration for me is my eyes. I think there is a good reason for this. We live in a three-dimensional world and our eyes are designed (or evolved, if you will) to move constantly, continually refocusing on objects at different distances, and adjusting to different colors and intensities of light. Screens are flat and most of the time they are at a fixed distance from our eyes. The intensity and color of the screen stays the roughly the same. Our bodies are simply not made for this fixed environment. We have to compensate.

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I have found that if I take care of my eyes when I am online, the rest of my body tends to take care of itself. That doesn’t mean that I intentionally ignore the recommendations of the ergonomic experts, but I find that when I take care of my eyes properly, the rest of the ergonomic rules fall in place and I can quickly adapt to changing circumstances, like a new piece of furniture or moving to a different room without looking at charts and getting out a tape measure.

Now for some bullet points:

  • Frequently look away from the screen and into the distance. It helps to be near a window with some action outside. There are apps available that remind you to look away every few minutes, but I personally can’t abide those bonking timers. The antics of the crows, seagulls, and assorted avians outside my window works much better for me. I also like a room with some visual interest—like shelves of familiar books and other memorabilia (clutter).
  • I avoid using a laptop for any length of time. Put your laptop on a stand (or a stack of books) and get an external keyboard.
  • Position your screen so that you are looking at the upper third of the display with your neck in an unstrained position and at a proper distance. That’s about two feet for most people. I have three pairs of glasses. One pair for screen distance, one pair for reading, which is closer for me than screen distance, and a pair of lineless bifocals. For me, the bifocals are a disaster for serious reading or screen work. The area of lens that is the right focus is too small and forces me into contortions. But they are great for normal life.
  • Invest in the highest resolution monitor you can afford. I find hi-res much more important than size. I like using a twenty-two-inch display and I’ve thought about getting an even larger one, but forced to choose between resolution and size, I feel better after a long day with a hi-res screen.
  • Position lighting carefully. I find having my desk perpendicular to a north facing window with the window on the left to be perfect. If I were left-handed, I’d want it to the right, so my dominant hand does not cast shadows when I am writing by hand. I seldom print anything, but I like to draft and plan on paper. Facing a window is not bad, but it places the screen in a shadow, which is not ideal. A window behind me is a disaster because glare on the screen is straining and forces body contortions.
  • Avoid too much blue in your screens. On Windows 10, you can change the color balance in the “night light” settings and turn on the night light all the time. But remember to turn it off when you are shopping online, or you’ll be surprised at colors when they arrive.
  • Give yourself opportunities to move. I use three different computers and switch between them. One on a normal desk, another set up for standing, and a third on a lap board in an easy chair. In the course of the day, I use all three. I use Dropbox to keep my working files in sync so I can switch from one computer to another without messing around with copying files or thumb drives.
  • An adjustable office chair with good lumbar support helps. You can spend thousands of dollars on a luxurious ergo chair, but I like one I bought at Ikea. I prefer chairs without arms.
  • As far as I am concerned, the best keyboards were made by IBM in the 1980s. My favorite keyboard is over thirty years old and still the best.

This covers the most important stuff. I still put in long days in my home office, but I have fewer aches and pains today than I had ten years ago.

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However, I repeat: your mileage will vary.

Copyright (c) Marvin Waschke. All rights reserved. 

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