Since moving offices at work, I’ve noticed I’ve been having more pains in my wrists than normal. By coincidence, I’ve also met several people over the last few months that have been debilitated through RSI. I realise that the latter might have made me more conscious of the former but anyway, it’s made me start thinking about how much my life would change if I couldn’t spend all day in front of a computer and forced me to take action to stop (or at least lessen the changes) of that happening. And that’s probably a very good thing.
I’ve started paying more attention to posture and making sure I hold my hands correctly over my keyboard. I’ve also installed a little open-source program that I read about on the RSI page of Wikipedia called Workrave. It is reminds you to take breaks regularly and give yourself a daily limit as to how much time you should spend on your computer. It also, rather nicely, gives you muscles stretching and strengthening exercises to do during your longer breaks to relieve eye strain as well as your wrist/arm/shoulder muscles. And it’s got a cute sheep for a logo.
I was very impressed when I first installed it (indeed, I’m still impressed now). It seems that a lot of thought has been put into it and the design has been well executed. It measures activity on a computer rather than focusing on time so is very flexible and I don’t have to stop and start the timer whenever I leave the computer: eg, every 5 minutes of typing/clicking, I like to have a “microbreak” for 30 seconds but if during those 5 minutes, I take a natural break for 30 seconds (eg, to talk on the phone) then it classes that as a microbreak and starts the 5 minute timer again. There are also “rest breaks” (which I take for five minutes every hour) which work in the same way: the emphasis isn’t necessarily on having a break from work but having a break from computer activity. If I’m writing a document, I usually spend the 30 second breaks thinking about what to write next and I usually spend half of the longer breaks doing exercises and then sorting out paperwork or updating my to-do list. So in many ways, it aids my work flow throughout the day as I spend more time planning and organising myself than I have done previously. (I’m not saying I was bad in the past but now, with a couple of minutes away from the computer, I’m organising myself actively rather than just reactively when things were getting out of easy control).
It’s available for both Windows and Linux – I use the Windows version at work and it looks very pretty (a XP theme using GTK I think). I have a single, small countdown window for the three timers (time til next microbreak, rest break and daily limit), which hides until required in the systray. There is also an optional task bar thingy that cycles through the different timers. When I am 30 seconds away from any break, a window pops up on top of my other windows to say I need to take a break soon: if I stop working then, the break kicks in 5 seconds of so later (and takes into account that I’ve already stopped working for 5 seconds). If I keep typing throughout the whole of the warning period, it realises that I am clearly in the middle of something and automatically postpones the break, warning me again in a minute or two’s time. When I do accept the break, there are buttons to let me instantly change a microbreak into a full rest break or lock my computer during a rest break – which is important since, when you’re on a break, it forces you to stop working by, well, stopping you being able to use the computer. I’ve got it set up to run through a couple of exercises automatically when I have a five minute rest break: the exercises are 3d models with a timer, telling you when to change between the different moves. This timer is an example of how well the program has been executed: if I have to change positions every ten seconds to stretch different muscles, then I don’t want to have to be counting to ten while I do it so the “animation” on the screen with the timer counts it for me. It’s such a simple and obvious idea but a lot of programs don’t implement this type of thing because the programmers just haven’t thought of it.
As I mentioned before, it’s very flexible and you can change all the settings to suit your own needs. The default settings have microbreaks every three minutes and have a three hour cap on the working day: I found this was too frequent for microbreaks so trial-and-errored it to find something to fit me. Similarly, I don’t want to be allowed to postpone a break more than three times before I’m forced to take it. This is the only bad thing about the software: it doesn’t have a will-power/obedience plug-in and I frequently find myself postponing or skipping breaks because I don’t feel I’m mentally ready, even though physically I might need one. I get annoyed because I feel I should be the judge about when I should take a break but the wrist pain clearly shows I’m not very good at it. I suspect this little piece of software will teach me something about myself and how I work, as well as enabling me to keep working.
One final thing about it before I take a rest break and practising focusing on things in the foreground then a long way away, the statistics that it tracks are very interesting. It tells me day-by-day how many breaks I took, how many I skipped, how long I spent working, how much typing I did and how far I moved my mouse (I was shocked to discover if I’m having a mouse-focused day I move it over 600m in total!). I found these fascinating and, if my wrist pains get any worse, they will be useful for spotting whether I’m worse after a mouse or keyboard focused day. Also, another nice touch: when browing “previous” and “next” days, it only moved between days when the computer/Workrave was used and skipped days of no-activity. Again, a simple idea but so often it wouldn’t be thought of.
If you use a computer throughout the day at work, I would certainly recommend that you give it a try. RSI/wrist pain’s one of those things that you don’t really think about until it becomes a problem but perhaps if these sort of programs were used as standard in the workplace, the amount of people suffering from such injuries would be reduced. It’s free: it’s worth a shot.