How to Avoid Pain and RSI Using a Portable Office

Mobile Working Without Pain
Mobile Working Without Pain

Every coffee shop, train and park bench is filled with people (mostly, but not always) young, working on laptop computers or tablets.

Silently, RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) or ( ‘CANS’: Complaints of Arm, Neck and/or Shoulder) is resurfacing. This time it is not factory workers. It is knowledge workers. Home, Portable and Mobile office users. Digital nomads, teleworkers and more.

The smartphone and tablet have become the consumption device of choice, but except for quick email, notes and checking appointments, we need a laptop computer of one type or another. An ugly, but as yet little discussed side effect of using laptop computers is the damage you can be doing to your body and hands. Back, neck and wrist pain can become chronic and debilitating.

In the 70’s and 80’s millions of dollars were spend on the design of office workstations. Standards and rules were developed. Injuries were reduced, and the people rejoiced (well, not that perhaps) but injuries fell dramatically. Then came the laptop. And much of that work went out the window, with the office…

For digital nomads and mobile workers the idea of a workstation is not on the radar.

Think Again – You Have A Workstation!

Your Workstation is the place you sit down (or stand up) and work from. It may be a coffee shop, bar stool, airplane seat or hammock, but if you work there for more than 10 minutes, it is a workstation. And it needs some thought.

A recent survey in the UK found that 79% of people using mobile devices were having health problems, 10% said “nomadic Working” had created long term problems and 5% had been forced to give up their jobs.

RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) is not associated with age, it is associated with hours in front of a keyboard. ( in some areas The term ‘RSI’ has been replaced by ‘CANS’: Complaints of Arm, Neck and/or Shoulder, but RSI is best known)

It is very easy to make a mistake. Especially digital nomads who tend to be young. You are young, active and healthy, and then, suddenly, you are not.

Then it can take months or years to fix even the simplest problems, because you cannot work without aggravating the problem. Imagine not being able to type (at all) for 3 months. How is that online business looking now?

So, lets look at the solution.

The Workstation

The “Workstation” is your whole working environment. For Mobile Office users, the basics are this:

  • Avoid glare on the screen
  • Have the top of your screen at about eye level
  • Have your arms nearly horizontal to the keyboard
  • Your feet should be flat on the floor
  • Your hips should be slightly above your knees
  • You should be reasonably upright, with the chair supporting your back (or no back, forcing you to sit/stand straight)
  • You should be able to read the screen without leaning forward or back. If necessary, get reading glasses specially for the computer.

If you have nothing but a laptop, you are screwed have a problem.

One solution is to raise the screen or back of the laptop with a stand. The options here are endless, so I will not offer a suggestion. It can be a simple as a pair of socks or a glasses case.

Dozens of laptop stands are being sold, from large desk based base stations to light weight folding stands.

The best solution is a stand, keyboard and mouse. This may seem like an impossible load for a digital nomad, but it is not.

The following Article looks at a simple, light, solution for a travel workstation.

Tablets and smartphones

Protecting against iPad neck or tech neck.

the IOS Press web site has an excellent 11 page PDF with the results of a study done into problems caused by the typical low postion tablets are used in.

On its excellent page on Perfect PC Posture, the British Chiropractic Association says “Never sit at the computer for more than 40 minutes; less if possible,”

My personal approach is to use the widely recognised Pomodoro technique that requires working for 25 minutes and the taking a 5 minute break. I have tools in place to reinforce this approach.

Stand up, walk around, roll your shoulders, and head. Make your eyes focus on distant objects. Don’t just switch from work to checking Facebook. Actually make your body move for five minutes. Your body will thank you.

Take Regular Breaks!

Some excellent resources on this subject:

And and excellent  Wall Street Journal video:

Staying Focused In A Noisy Workplace – Music To Code By

Staying Focused In A Noisy WorkplaceStaying focused and productive is a problem for everyone. Digital Nomads may be working anywhere, and modern offices are shifting to open plan office layouts that many find it difficult or impossible to work in.

In a brilliant article entitled “Google got it wrong. The open-office trend is destroying the workplace.”  By Lindsey Kaufman the Washington Post shone the spotlight on this bizarre and soul destroying movement to open plan offices. If you want to work a Facebook, Google, Yahoo, eBay or many other tech. companies, you basically have no choice but to buy the best headphones you and find and try and cope. Silence is simply not an option, even with the best headphones, and earplugs are hot and uncomfortable. I am glad I have exited cubicle city!

I work from a mobile office that can be anywhere from a heavy vehicle layover or McDonalds to an airport departure lounge. Today I am in my home office but still have to cope with the sounds of passing traffic and neighbours who love to work on high performance cars at all hours of the day and night. The sound of revving engines, screaming burnouts and loud cheering does nothing for my concentration at any time, and especially not late at night.

Some people like silence, and some play music. Given a choice I would prefer total silence, but find that is impossible to achieve, so I have gone for the music option. The only music I have found that works for me has been some Enya tracks and the sound track from Blade Runner (with one track removed) but I am distracted by lyrics and need to keep the volume low.

Yesterday I heard Carl Franklin, a software developer, podcaster and musician, interviewed on the TWiT network on Windows Weekly  (Skip to 44:15) . When the talk turned to Music To Code By, I wrote the URL down, and went to visit http://mtcb.pwop.com/ and listened through the provided samples. An hour later I bought and downloaded the digital version.

This is instrumental music played between 50 & 80 BPM, a speed designed to help you focus, but not be distracting. The pieces change enough not to be boring, but not enough to demand attention. It will not put you to sleep or sooth, just let you focus and work. The first album is 3 x 25 minute segments. This fits with the Pomodoro Technique of time management, designed to let you focus for 25 minutes, and then spend five minutes exercising, moving around to come back ready to work again five minutes later.

I have set it up on a special playlist alternating the 25 minute segments of MTCB with other songs that run about 5 minutes to signal my five minute breaks.

I have used the Pomodoro Technique for some time with good success, but finding reliable timing methods was a problem. This playlist solves the problem. The music can be played louder than anything else I have tried, and so far is working well.

It is Sunday Morning, and the only distractions are the TV in the next room, passing cars and a dove cooing loudly outside the window tying to woo a mate. I am playing MTCB through speakers at a low level. With my noise rejecting headphones and more volume this music will do the trick anywhere.

I am impressed! This is now my preferred timing system for future productivity. Google Play has a competitor, but a quick listen told me the music is far more intrusive. Carl is working on a second album (two tracks are available individually already) so i have put myself on the mailing list for the next album as well.

Thank you Carl Franklin and Pwop studios.

Travelling Light for Business – Watch The Carry-on Weights

I flew Cabin luggage restrictionsout of Melbourne at 7 pm on Saturday night.

Nothing unusual there. But between arriving at the airport and boarding the plane I went through a security check, got pulled out of the line to have my backpack and bag sampled for bomb making residue, and had my carry-on bag weighed a the boarding gate by Jetstar’s new carry-on police.

The boarding gate weigh-in is because my carrier, Jetstar have just lowered the carry-on weight from 10 Kg (22 lbs) to 7 Kg (15.4 lbs) and people who exceed the 7 Kg weight are charged $50 to have their overweight bags shifted to the hold as late checked baggage.

The carry-on policeman thanked me politely but looked a little disappointed when my bag weighed it at 6 Kg. To my surprise, they did not add the small bag I carried over my shoulder to put under the seat.

I knew about the new limits, and had weighed my bags near the check-in area, and they came to 7.1 Kg, so when I saw the carry-on police ahead, I quickly shifted my Nexus 7 tablet (and case) into my pocket, taking 400 grams out of the load and putting me safely under the carry-on limit.

Others were not so lucky. I saw several people being ushered out of the queue with over-stuffed bags, headed for the $50 sin-bin of late checked luggage.

The reality is carry-on weights vary from country to country and airline to airline. Jetstar even had different rules for different routes. but now, 7 Kg combined carry-on weight is the rule. In my case, the little shoulder bag was not weighed, but that may well come. With budget airlines trying to increase profits, baggage is a money-spinner. In 2013, 20.6% of Jetstar’s revenue came from “ancillary sources” namely food, checked luggage, seat booking fees, booking fees, etc. This added up to an average of $31.60 per passenger.

Qantas reportedly comes third in the world in ancillary revenue per passenger at $US45.67, But much of that is from selling frequent flyer points to credit card providers and retailers loyalty programs.

Overall airlines extracted $US31.5 billion, or $US16 a passenger from ancillary fees in 2013. These fees are helping to get airlines back into the black.

The moral of this little story is, look carefully at what you carry, and where you carry it.

The night before I flew to Melbourne, I made a last minute switch from the HP Stream 11 laptop I am testing back to my HP Chromebook 11 because it, and its power supply were half a Kilo heavier than the Chromebook, pushing me over the 7 Kg limit. It caused problems, mainly that a selection of video and music I had saved on a Micro-SD card for the trip got left behind. I had other sources, so it was just an annoyance, but it has generated a to-do item to write a couple of travelling checklists.

I have learned a number of lessons. I am the proud owner of a hard-shell wheeled carry-on case. I bought is as a kind of walking stick last year when I had to travel while recovering from a month long issue with vertigo (dizziness & nausea when moving around) I could set the handle low, and lean on the four wheeled case as I pushed it along. It was an unusual color but a very cheap demo model, and it saved my life. Its new cousins are still costing around $300, and other similar devices are as high as $840. But now, its 2.5 Kg shell is too big a price to pay for style and convenience.

Kathmandu Lite-Haul Pack
Kathmandu Lite-Haul Pack

I flew with a 1.4 Kg (3 pound) 38 Litre Lite-haul convertible Kathmandu backpack, and discovered that 7 Kg is a totally different story to 10 Kg. Even with a less than robust back I could carry the 7 Kg bag comfortably. I did not deploy the shoulder straps once. I just carried it everywhere will only minor discomfort. I walked 14 Km in three days, 10 of them carrying the 7 Kg carry-on, and arrived home feeling fine.

I simply did not need the 2.5Kg wheely case. Next time I may carry my Nike sports bag. It weighs in at 0.74 Kg saving more than half a kilo for more important items.

200 Gram (0.44 pound) Day Pack
200 Gram (0.44 pound) Day Pack

I carry a lightweight folding backpack. it weighs 200 grams, or 0.2 Kg (0.44 pound) and folds into it’s own back pocket. It easily fits under the seat on the plane with personal items in it, but is big enough to carry 15 liters of personal stuff, shopping or warm clothing. It may not impress at a business meeting, but for a working trip it worked fine for me.

So spend some time checking that you are only travelling with what you need. Most of us add a host of might needs to the mix, and finish up fighting with too much baggage. I recommend a visit to Onebag.com for some tips on keeping it light.