6 Painful Mistakes I Used to Make Working Remotely
Photo by Lara Far on Unsplash

6 Painful Mistakes I Used to Make Working Remotely

“How are you handling quarantine?”

Me: “Just fine, thanks. Business as usual.”

This question hovers on everyone’s lips–the beginning to most phone calls or video chats. It’s often followed up with:

“Are you also going crazy, spending every day at home on your computer?”

Still no. My computer and I have a very close relationship. One that–I’m happy to report–the current situation hasn’t damaged it one bit. However, as with all relationships, the key to its health and longevity lies in understanding the potential points of friction and establishing practices to mitigate them.

I used to have tons of unhealthy working habits. Some lead to my developing some chronic back pain that I’m still in the process of reversing. I haven’t gotten rid of all the bad habits yet, but I’m proud to report that I’ve made progress.

For those unaccustomed to working at home, many problems arise from the various ways their home environment and routine differ from their working ones. The trick is to figure out ways to mitigate the downsides of these differences and take advantage of the opportunities they present.

Mistake #1: Keeping Your Laptop on Your Desk

The Fix: Elevate your laptop to eye level. Get an external keyboard.

Laptops were designed to keep chiropractors in business.

Have you ever tried to hold up a broom by its end, upside down? As long as it’s perfectly straight, it’s easy to hold. As soon as it slants even a little bit it gets much harder (the torque is proportional to the length of the lever arm, for those who remember their high school physics).

This is what happens when you tilt your head forward to stare at your laptop, tablet, or phone. A typical head weighs 10-12 pounds. When you lean it forward even 15˚, the effective weight felt by your muscles more than doubles, bringing it closer to 27lb. At 45˚ this increases to almost 50lb. It’s no wonder why back and neck pain is so prevalent these days.

Photo Courtesy Of Kenneth Hansraj, M.D

A recent study found that 67.9% of iPad / tablet users reported experiencing neck and shoulder pain–caused by slouching or bending to view their screens (interestingly, symptoms were twice as prevalent in female participants).1https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6016313/.

For most people, working from home means working from your laptop. Whether your job entailed sitting at a fancy monitor, working on the trading floor, or teaching a room full of kids, you are now likely spending all day every day at your home computer. And your body is starting to hate you for it.

The solution to laptop-induced neck and back pain is simple: get an external keyboard, and elevate your screen. Click To Tweet

There are all sorts of fancy laptop stands out there if you want to spend a few bucks. For myself, I’m partial to my friend, the Cardboard Box. I’ve got one for when I’m sitting at my desk and another for standing. I’m not always perfect about using them, but when I do, my body thanks me.

Mistake #2: Forgetting to Move

The Fix: Take a short movement break every 30 minutes.

New York and San Francisco are the most active cities in the country, according to data published by Fitbit a while back. Or at least they were. As soon as quarantine hit in March, activity levels dropped almost 20% across the board. Lacking a commute, lunch breaks, and after-work activities, most people’s routines no longer include built-in daily movement. But we can make a conscious decision to put it back–using well-designed habits.

There’s a famous productivity method knows as “The Pomodoro Technique,” developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s. It involves segmenting your work into bursts of 25 minutes, followed by a short break (3-5 minutes), then after a few of these sets taking a more extended break (15-30 minutes)2https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pomodoro_Technique.

This method is a useful tool from a productivity perspective. Still, the way to really make it shine is to take advantage of that break: rather than checking Instagram, use the handful of minutes to move your body. I like to do a two-part movement sequence, working on both strength and mobility. The first part could be jumping jacks, limb rotations, or even a quick bout of interpretive dance (anyone with a live video feed of my apartment would be in for a show). The second should be some form of bodyweight exercise aimed at energizing rather than exhausting. I like to do pushups, pull-ups, or squats, and do one quick set of 60% my maximum number, alternating the exercise every few breaks. This is enough to see some strength gains but not enough to really drain my energy.

An excellent series of quick exercises to counteract a head-forward posture can be found here. I do these every morning and scattered throughout the day, with a measurable impact on my posture (I’ve got the before and after photos to prove it).

Mistake #3: Never Changing Positions

The Fix: Get up off your chair and shift between stretching positions.

Sitting while working is so 20th century.

One of the great aspects of working from home is that there’s no need to keep up appearances. Nobody can randomly pop by your cubicle. So why stay glued to your chair all day?

Standing desks have been gaining in popularity of late, but that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. For those with the space, the will, and the money, treadmill desks can be marvelous. But there are plenty of excellent, weirder options! And the advantage of working from home is that there is nobody around to give you strange looks.

These are some of my recent favorite positions to work in:

  • Deep squatting on my chair. This is great for hip mobility and helps to keep a constant light level of muscle activity and blood pumping. A recent study of the Hadza of Tanzania showed that this is almost exclusively how they spend their sitting time.
  • Bad Split Training – I don’t really know what to call this stance, but it involves spending several minutes at a time standing at my desk with my legs spread out to either side as far as they go (in my case not very far). I keep thinking that this will lead to visible progress in my flexibility, but so far I’ve had little luck.
  • Ugly Pigeon Pose – I go back and forth between my desk and my yoga mat. On the mat, my go-to position is a poor approximation of Pigeon Pose, sometimes throwing in some forward straddling or folding.

I hope that if I keep these up for the next few months I might finally achieve a level of hip flexibility that could be deemed only mildly embarrassing.

Hadza participants in resting postures. Image courtesy of David A. Raichlen.

Mistake #4: Forgetting to Hydrate

The Fix: Get a teapot and keep that cup full.

Take advantage of kitchen proximity! Turn those water-cooler breaks into tea breaks.

I’ve had many days where I sit down at my computer in the morning, and by the time evening comes around I realize that I haven’t consumed any liquids beyond my morning lemon-water + coffee. To combat this, I’ve tried to build up the habit of constant tea-sipping. Rather than buying tea bags, I’ve had fun collecting loose-leaf teas and experimenting with different combinations. I recently purchased this stove-safe glass infuser teapot, which I am really enjoying.

In addition to keeping up hydration levels and staving off the urge to snack, this is a great way to get a constant dosage of healthy vitamins, minerals, polyphenols, and other healthy compounds. Green tea has tons of health benefits, and most other dried herbs have their own healthy properties. One of my favorite blends is a mixture of green tea, tulsi (holy basil), nettle, ginger, and chamomile.

Mistake #5: Straining Your Eyes

The Fix: Periodically look out the window. Get a blue-blocking app.

Staring at a computer screen all day can be hard on the eyes. The constant close-up focus has been shown to strain the extraocular and ciliary muscles, leading to eye fatigue, irritation, dry eyes, and headaches.3https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17140457/4https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6937872/

These two healthy habits can help alleviate this stress and keep your eyes feeling happy with you:

  1. Work in front of a window. Any time you need to either listen to something or to just stop and think, do it while looking out the window and focusing on an object in the distance.
  2. Incorporate a session of yogic eye exercises into your daily routine. These often consist of palming, blinking, sideways viewing, front and sideways viewing, rotational viewing, up and down viewing, preliminary nose tip gazing, and near and distant viewing. There have been several studies showing that performing these for 30-60 minutes during the day can lead to an almost 65% reduction in eye fatigue symptoms.5https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6937872/6https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4932063/. That may sound like a lot. Still, many of these can be incorporated into the rest of your movement practice.

It can also help to use an app like flux to cut some of the blue light from your screen. Blue light stresses the eyes more.

Mistake #6: Too Much Takeout

The Fix: Use that kitchen!

You no longer have the excuses of “grabbing lunch with a coworker” or “needing to stretch your legs” to justify getting takeout. Home cooking is generally healthier, always cheaper, and gives you a much-needed break during the day. Even if you have little to no experience in the kitchen, what better time to learn than quarantine? (Note: I will freely accept any blame placed upon you by those poor guinea pigs you are quarantined with)

For those of you who find the process of preparing an entire meal by yourself especially daunting, or simply don’t have the time for anything fancy, you could always try a service like Blue Apron. They design meals and deliver the exact proportions of all necessary ingredients, along with simple instructions for their preparation. It’s not much cheaper than takeout, but it might work to bridge the gap.

Cooking every single meal can be challenging. Still, if you make large batches at a time, it lets you alternate cooking and eating leftovers. It also helps to have supplies on hand for meals that require minimal prep-time. My top 2 meals from this category are homemade yogurt + mix-ins, and a bowl of sardines + avocado + tomatoes, sometimes with some homemade mayo or salsa thrown in.

Final Words

These are really just the tip of the iceberg. Everyone has a unique home setup with its own opportunities. For anyone who has been having difficulty adjusting to home life, I suggest you spend some time analyzing your current situation and figuring out all of the ways you can take advantage of it!

Food for thought: pants sales are currently down by 13%, but pajama sales are up by a whopping 143%.

Have you come up with a fun way to take advantage of working from home? Share it in the comments!