If you are doing a research degree, or working on a publication, or just have a job that involves multiple hours at the computer, then you should spend a little bit of time checking that your writing set up works for you.
A ‘good’ set up is one that works for you. It enables you to be working at your desk for 30-90 minutes without creating extra discomfort. Places that might feel sore or tight include your lower back, hips, neck and shoulders, but also wrists, knees, or ankles. Anyone sitting for 8 hours at a stretch will end up feeling creaky and uncomfortable–we aren’t creating pod people, we just want you to be able to concentrate for a typical ‘time box’ block.
Obviously, if you have a pre-existing injury, existing repetitive strain, or another reason to have been given individual advice on how you, personally, should sit–that’s how you should sit! This is generic advice for the many people who never needed to think about their desk set up until they started a research degree, and then start to feel lots of discomfort. If you can hop onto it before you get beyond niggles, awesome, but it’s also never too late to tweak your work set up to be more supportive.
At work, you may have a fancy office chair, a sit-stand desk, a computer monitor on risers. You may even have had special workplace adjustments provided, with a qualified occupational therapist advising on the set up. But if your writing days tend to happen at home, or you are moving to working from home more frequently, or need to work from home more to avoid the pandemic, then you may not have spent as much time on your home set up. However, with a tiny bit of planning, you can make your home set up better than your work set up, even without extra equipment!
How can this be?
Well, there is no one ideal posture that you should take and maintain for the full working day. Instead, the best posture is actually a series of different positions. At home, you already have a range of furniture and spaces available to you, so it’s easier to switch it up. Changing how you sit every so often, even if it’s just moving chairs every few hours, can make a huge different to your comfort and mobility. Move from the desk to the sofa and back again, or out to the balcony. Stand at the breakfast bar, or use that treadmill or stationary bike in the living room.
A lot of posture advice is so focussed on where your knees are that it isn’t clear that you should only be in that position for short while. I recently did an OH&S ergonomics training that suggested I should sit for 20 minutes, stand for 8 and move for 2 minutes in each half hour–if I tried to do that, I would feel like I was being interrupted all the time. But definitely switching up your posture more often than you think is likely to be positive.
Plus, your home is probably already set up with furniture that suits you. If you are tall, short or wide, you’ll know that even with adjustments, most office furniture doesn’t really support your body. For example, I have very short legs, and there is no way my feet can fully reach the floor even with lots of adjustments. At home, I own furniture I like, which I chose because I find it comfortable. I also have easy access to cushions, pillows, footstools, and floor rugs that I can use to adapt the furniture even more closely to the shape I am. You may also have bolsters, meditation cushions, a Pilates ball, a reclining chair, wheat bags or hot water bottles, or anything else that makes your position more sustainable.
You may also have plenty of items that can be repurposed to help you work more comfortably. Books under your laptop to make it the right hight is a classic for a reason. You might have stools, milk crates, music stands, book cases, breakfast trays, yoga blocks, an old baby changing table, or garden furniture that you can rope into your extended set up.
What’s more, you are (generally) more free from needing to ‘look professional’ when writing at home. In the office, you might be wearing a suit or heels, which constrain your movement a lot. But even smart casual clothes make it hard to do much more than sit, stand or walk, and there are some professional norms you should probably adhere too (especially if you work in a crowded open plan area). At home, you can try sitting with your legs propped up, cross legged, squatting, kneeling, or lying flat on your back.
You can also add in postures and stretches that are undignified and difficult to do in a suit or heels in the office; but easy to achieve at home in comfy clothes. This means you can match tasks to spaces. For example, you might like to read standing up in the kitchen or sitting on a sofa. When I’m editing, I often work long days to maintain continuity, so I set myself up on the guest bed and shift into ever more extreme postures to keep my body from seizing up, as I describe at length in this post. Some people like to add a dance break into their pomorodo schedule, or to take the dog outside, or run around with their kids until your timer goes off.
Finally, you can extend the edges of your home to include your surrounding areas. You might like to write your first drafts by dictating into your phone while on a walk. You might like to take a yoga mat and a breakfast tray out to a park and sit under a tree with your laptop. Some people like to listen back to their draft while driving. When it was possible, I might spend a couple of hours in a local library or cafe to break up the day.
Not only do these extend the number of positions you are likely to be, adding more variety for your body, but they involve getting up and moving around. Incorporating regular movement is a brilliant way to reduce the discomfort that sitting in one position causes you. Lots of hips and lower back discomfort magically melts away if you do some extended excercise, but even just adding a few more steps or moves into your day turns the dial in a good direction.
You may notice that I’m using the word ‘discomfort’ here. That’s for a few reasons. One, lots of posture advice is scary, and makes you worry that the wrong posture will cause chronic pain and injuries. It’s more useful to think about good posture as being a position that works for you, and discomfort being a signal to switch things up. If you sit at a desk too long, you will definitely feel uncomfortable, but the solution is usually to get up stretch, and move. This is not what you should be doing if you are in pain—injuries and illnesses usually need treatment not a dance break.
Secondly, paying attention to your discomfort means that you might end up in a posture that is nothing like the official ergonomic postures recommended at work. Those diagrams of how you should sit are external and average cues. People’s joints and limb proportions might mean that they aren’t in anatomical neutral when they look like the diagram. Pay more attention to your internal cues and find shapes that are right for you.
Thirdly, comfort is great! You want to be as comfortable as possible in your body. There is no value in discomfort! You will be grappling with big, difficult, thorny topics in your research, you need as much brainpower as possible for your complex methods, theories, technology and analysis. It’s hard enough to motivate yourself to sit down in front of your thesis day after day and write more words. Don’t let the chair be the thing you are dreading.
What other ways of positioning your body when you are writing work well for you? Join the conversation over on @ResearchInsider