An Ergonomic Home Office On The Cheap

photo credit: -luz-

I’m not an occupational therapist, but I play one on this blog. Actually, my previous employer was fanatical about proper ergonomics so I can definitely pass the lessons on to you. Plus, now you’ll have a reason to run out and share your new found learning with that special someone you’ve been stalking on Facebook.

By the way, this guide is mainly geared towards laptop users but desktop users should still find the tips useful.

Tip #1) Ditch your laptop keyboard!

Your laptop keyboard would be perfect if you had the bone structure of a three-year-old, but for general purposes it’s less than ideal. For starters, the crammed key layout forces you to contort your hands into an unnatural typing position. Also, there’s a good chance that you are resting your palms on your laptop which is a great way to make your fingers numb and tingly.

Instead head over to eBay, Craigslist, or find bargains in your sleep and get an external keyboard on the cheap. I bought Microsoft’s Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 on eBay for $20; it’s bulky and ugly and funky yet it places your hands and wrists in a natural typing position and has a ton of shortcut keys to satisfy the lazy arse in all of us.

Tip #2) Get a wireless mouse!

Actually I have no idea why my previous employer was so adamant about using a wireless mouse, but I will say that you no longer struggle with a retched chord and a wireless mouse usually ends up in an easy-to-reach spot. I nabbed a Logitech V200 wireless mouse for $20 after mail-in-rebate on Slickdeals but I know you can do better.

Tip #3) Raise your laptop screen!

From what I remember, your eyes should be level with the first line of text on your laptop screen for the most comfortable viewing angle because 1) it places important information in the area where your eyes naturally tend to rest and 2) it helps keeps your neck and back straight.

There are plenty of ways to raise your laptop screen to a comfortable viewing angle and it all depends on how much you’re willing to spend:

If you have money to spare, then consider buying an external monitor because it will make your computing experience so much better. First, you can easily find an affordable external monitor that offers more real estate than your laptop screen. Second, an external monitor is usually easier to adjust and position. Last but not least, an external monitor can be used in conjunction with your laptop screen for twice the viewing fun.

Tip #4) Learn to mouse with your left hand!

I know it sounds strange but placing your mouse to the left of your keyboard actually puts everything within easy reach, especially if you have a keyboard with a built-in 10-key pad. Also, learning to mouse with your left hand will come in handy whenever you want to give your right hand a break or you’re trying to impress that special someone with some mad mousing skills.

If mousing with your left hand isn’t an option, then you may want to look into a compact keyboard like the Apple Wireless Keyboard which omits the 10-key altogether.

Tip #5) Use an adjustable office chair!

I know this sounds expensive but a decent adjustable office chair is priceless. If you’re worried about spending money, then look for a used chair on Craigslist, eBay, or Freecycle. Of course, you should attempt to try before you buy just to make sure that you feel comfortable when sitting in the chair. Also, be sure to get an office chair that allows you to adjust the chair height AND has a set of adjustable arm rests AND provides decent lower back support. You’ll see why these items are important when we…

Put all the pieces in place!

So here comes the fun part, putting all the pieces in place to create an ergolicious home office.

First and foremost, you want your keyboard to be as close to the top of your knees as possible. In the photo below, you can see that the top of my keyboard is approximately level to the top of my “thumbs up”; refer to the photo if this sounds a bit nutty.

Second, adjust your chair’s armrests so they’re level with the top of your work surface or keyboard. Ultimately, you want your armrests to support your forearms while allowing your hands and wrists to hover slightly above your keyboard while typing. Also, try to keep your wrists from resting on your keyboard or desk. By the way, the same criteria applies when using your mouse.

The combination of a low keyboard position and work-surface-level armrests should allow your arms and shoulders to rest as naturally as possible while typing (i.e. typing without your shoulders being pushed up).

If you don’t have an adjustable chair, then one option is to bring your work surface down a few inches by trimming down your desk’s legs. If that sounds a bit crazy, then you can try raising your seat by using a thick chair cushion or throwing your chair up on some books (or cinder blocks if that’s how you roll). Ultimately, you want your arms and shoulders to rest as naturally as possible while typing.

The last thing you’ll want to do is adjust your screen height and distance. As I mentioned before, the height of your laptop screen or external monitor should place the top line of text at or slightly below eye level. Also, your monitor should be within an arms length to prevent squinting and hunching/leaning forward in your seat.

Additional tips for staying safe and healthy…

  • A good rule of thumb is to take 30 second stretch breaks every 30 minutes of continuous computing.
  • While you’re stretching, focus your eyes on objects that are at different distances from your eyes than your monitor, this helps give your eyes a break from staring at your screen.
  • Be aware of any hunching or leaning forward in your seat and try to maintain a good posture as much as possible.
  • Get up and walk around at least two to three times a day to give your butt and back a rest, your arse will thank you for it!

If you see anything I missed or want to contribute your own home office ergo tips, then leave a message in the comments and contribute to the discussion!

The Closet Entrepreneur

Post Scriptum: If you want to be uber-ergonomic, then make sure your feet are resting flat on the floor, your thighs are parallel with the ground, and make sure you can fit your fist between the front of your chair and the back of your calf (this may not be possible with all office chairs).

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  1. Dan

    Most of it’s very good info, but… two things….

    One term which is terrible is ‘wrist rest’.
    The wrists should never touch anything, rest the fleshy part of the palm on a foam or gel pad.

    The other is to get a foot rest, preferably one that moves.
    Humanscale footrest (feel free to remove the link, if you want, just wanted to show the example).
    There are some good reasons for this, one, it elevates the legs, releaving pressure on the back of the thighs and increasing circulation. Two, it pushes the lower back further into the chair (just try sitting in a chair with the feet flat, then raise the feet to the toes, do it several times), you’ll get better use of the lumbar support. Three, the motion is going to increase circulation as well.

    Otherwise, good info!

  2. Jackson E

    I am an ergonomic fanatic…I just got a whale mouse and foot rest at and its made my workday much easier. My Aeron aligns my back, my footrest increases circulation and suddenly I am no longer fatigued at 3:30 om everyday. Ultimatebackstore is a great website too; free shipping and tons of ergonomic products. I know they are having a sale too? I just Googled coupons for them…

  3. TOMAS

    @Dan – You’re completely right on that one, the wrists shouldn’t be touching anything – good catch! Also, good call on the footrest.

    @Jackson E – One day I’ll have to try out an Aeron, I keep hearing great things about them but bootstrapping means no Aeron for me for a while. Also, thanks for the link!

  4. len

    1) most people use glasses or contacts. Having glasses that focus on the screen keeps people from tilting their head back.
    2) rollerball mouse – better than a standard mouse – less carpel tunnel.
    3) If you use a laptop raise it up aout 4 to 6 inches and get a second screen.

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