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Setting up a healthy desktop/workspace


Game system: DC Heroes Role-Playing Game

Context

This is an article about how I set up a computer workspace to minimise health issues. Like back pains, eye strain, bad digestion, fatigue, stuff like that.

That’s not normally what we do on writeups.org. At all. Writeups.org is about profiles for fictional characters.

But I have a personal thing about accessibility and basic ergonomics.

My angle :

  1. I have a severe chronic exhaustion problem, and a chronic pain problem. If I work in bad conditions, I’m screwed. Well, more screwed. So I have to think about basic ergonomics and be detail-oriented.
  2. I have 70-80 hours workweeks (not by choice, because such hours are stupid). 98% of it is on my workstation. So the workstation has to be good.
  3. Do you have friends that spend hours researching the pros and cons of every dang thing they buy, even if it’s $50 ? I’m one of those.
  4. I’m old and wise.

The necessary gear is cheap, with one exception. My personal equipment is more expensive because I plan a lot and I can save, but the advice can be followed with cheaper gear.


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Notes

The photos (below) aren’t crystal-clear because my hands shake.

The article is a bit long since I’m covering a lot of stuff. Heh, just keep it bookmarked. It’s separated in clear chapters.

This is not a medical article. Medical stuff is for doctors, not the Internet ! It’s just an example of how I set up my stuff.

If a specific aspect intrigues you, use it as a springboard to search for proper medical and ergonomics articles.

It’s also not about aesthetics. I’m not into decoration. And I don’t like having useless things. Plus, my budget is constrained and I’d rather save and spend on high-quality hardware that’ll last a long, long time.

There’ll likely be updates to this article. Writing it gave me further ideas, and since I still hadn’t decided what to do with a Christmas cash gift…


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The desktop

It’s a stout, 1.5m/59″-long wooden plank on cheap adjustable trestles. I hope you’re impressed by this debauchery of mad tech.

One notable characteristic is that it’s higher than most office desks. It comes just under my navel. I’m about 5’11″/1.79m, so it’s about 1.25m/50″ high. This means that I can, at any point, switch from working while standing to working while seating.

Humans aren’t built to sit for long. This used to be an obscure talking point from patchouli-scented hippie weirdos. But it has since percolated into the mainstream.

With this setup, I can work about ⅓ of the time standing and ⅔ sitting, depending upon health. This eliminates the bulk of issues with staying immobile in a harmful position for too long.

(An equivalent adjustable height desk  would be $350-ish, apparently. But here I’m using a different approach where I adjust the chair, not the desk. The trestles are adjustable simply because I need them to go unusually high.)

Standing posture

The about-navel height was picked for a reason. It’s because when I stand at my desk and put my hands on the keyboard, my arms and shoulders are at rest. There’s no tension in my muscles, sinews or joints. With my body proportions, it’s where my hands naturally fall.

Of course, if you’re a Netherlandic lingerie supermodel with gams up to there, or an aged Japanese salaryman with short legs, the “natural” height of the desktop and keyboard won’t be like mine.

(Most trestles don’t go that high. So if you like my approach, be sure to check what the type of trestles you want can go high enough. And can be set to fairly close to your target height. Especially if you’re 6′ or more !)

Healthy desktop/workspace personal setup chair shot

Click on the image for a larger version.

Dusting (1)

This is a computer workstation. It has a computer. The computer needs to be cleaned.

I used to use dry compressed air cans for that. But I eventually bought an electric duster . The expense evens out within a few years. Or even faster if you have furry pets.

(Plus, few people clean their PC tower often enough. Dust always accrues faster than you think.)

Furthermore the electric duster can be used to dust off the desktop, keyboard, etc. within seconds. Remove lighter objects, blow dust off, vacuum floor, put objects back, DONE.

Dusting (2)

This means not having too much clutter on the desktop.

Personally I’m more of a messy desktop sort of person. But that means trapping dust. The vast majority of house dust is dead skin cells. If I’m spending my days on my workstation, guess where the vast majority of dust accumulates ? Yeah.

So I just sat down and got rid of everything I could. My usual old envelopes covered with cryptic RPG notes were replaced by .rtf files and a dry-erasable lapboard . The lapboard is nice since you can only write so much on it, so it prevents short-term to-do lists from becoming interminable.

Seldom-used stuff was either thrown away or shoved into closed furniture. Practically all my furniture is closed, because I sure AF don’t have time to dust bookshelves.

File cabinet

In the same spirit, my PC tower is raised well off the floor. It’s on a cheap file cabinet  where I keep decades of administrative crap and a few office supplies. Said supplies are in a drawer, so they don’t clutter the desktop.

The router is also atop the file cabinet, to keep it away from the floor dust.

(If I lacked the space for a file cabinet I suppose I’d use under-desk hanging storage solutions . But I’m not sure how convenient that is in practice. Especially since my PC tower is almost 13kg for the case alone.)

Cable management

As you can see in the photo, I’m also using the trestles to keep the cables and power strips off the floor. This dramatically facilitates cleaning compared to having a spaghetti mess. It doesn’t trap dust. Stuff on the floor = bad. Stuff on the floor = boo !

This also ensures you have room to plug stuff onto power strips with surge protectors . Each costs $12-ish and prevents your hardware from frying from power fluctuations. Mine are held by simple plastic zip ties – those things .

There still is a mess of cables under my desk. But it’s suspended, so one quick blower pass dusts it off.

Healthy desktop/workspace personal setup chair shot

Click on the image for a larger version.


The chair

That’s the one bit where you can’t dodge a ouchy expense.

Depending upon where you live, even finding one could be a pain in the posterior. Fittingly. I had to take a high speed-train for a few hours just to get to a shop where I could *try* that chair.

There are many types of chairs marketed as being “ergonomic”. The most convincing one — IME — is mostly associated with Northern Europe. It is called a saddle chair design.

With this design you’re not quite sitting. It’s more like riding a robot pony.

Ride the robot pony

When you first try one it’s not as comfortable as a standard office chair. That’s the point ! Your thighs and especially your knees are lower, and you need a slight effort to stay in position. That soon disappears as you get used to it and build some muscle.

But the chair is essentially forcing you to adopt a better, less scrunched posture. This facilitates breathing and digesting. Your weight is also supported more by your muscles, and less by your spine and bones.

Ladies adapt faster, as they usually have broader hips and no testicles. The bepenised, OTOH, should consider underwear with support. Free-balling with a saddle chair ain’t a good idea. Trust me on that.

As I alluded, trying before you buy is important, especially if you’re big. The tricky part is to gain a sense of how you’ll adjust over time. If a chair is comfortable right away, it’s not a good sign.

And these things are expensive and large and heavy, so you can’t just order one at random and hope for the best.

In my case, HÅG

The model you can see here is a HÅG Capisco. It has an extended gas lift and a foot rest, since my desktop is unusually high.

(Since I knew I needed that sort of chair, which is height-adjustable, I knew I wouldn’t need an adjustable desk. See the trick now ? You can consider that while the chair is expensive, it allows you to save a bundle in adjustable desk costs.)

The gas lift is so I can adjust to find the exact height. Same procedure as before – find a height where the hands naturally rest on the keyboard, without tension in the arms and shoulders. The lift is extended since I need the chair to go high.

I hadn’t gotten the foot rest at first, but that was a mistake. The feet do need to rest on something, and my desk and chair are too high for that to be the floor. However, just keep in mind the #1 footrest rule – it’s never facing the way you want it to.

Note the chair’s curved back and the elbow rests. When I lean back this makes me stretch my spine and dorsal muscles a bit. And the weight of my arms and shoulders is supported. You can also sit backward for a while to unwind if you have a bad back and/or a heavy bust.

I picked the Capisco since, many years ago, it was an “intermediate” model. It doesn’t force a hardcore posture which I wouldn’t have the energy to maintain. But it still removes most health issues associated with a prolonged sitting-in-a-normal-chair posture.

It’s also a tough-enough-to-last-for-decades model. Unless you do wheeled office chair races or some crap.

My chair is on a tough plastic mat . Otherwise it’d murder any sort of floor, with the possible exception of vibranium .


The central wooden cube

It’s the one under the monitor. Atop is a basic wooden plank, to support my stupid monitor’s huge footprint.

Healthy desktop/workspace personal setup chair shot

Click on the image for a larger version.

I could use a VESA arm mount  instead. In fact, I’d recommend doing so. I’m not using one because I didn’t feel like tinkering with my huge, heavy monitor and heh, wooden cubes  are cheap.

(If I did want a reliable VESA mounting arm, my nearly-25-lbs monster monitor would require an Ergotron HX . Which is $250-ish. I’ve started saving for that, but that’s… a lot. For lighter monitors, things get *far* less expensive.)

The core idea is to lift the monitor up, up, up. Whether I’m standing or sitting, my eyes align with (roughly) a line separating the upper third of the screen from the lower two thirds. Which means that my neck and back remain in a healthy, vertical position.

In my case, the bottom edge of the screen is 45cm (about 18″) above the desk. And I’ve come to suspect it’s too low since a lot of the time I’m looking at the bottom third of my screen. Since It’s where I’m entering text.

Having your monitor in a lower position than that means that you spend your entire work time hunched over. C’mon, that’s blatantly stupid.

An arm’s length relationship

So, that was the vertical alignment. Now let’s consider the horizontal alignment.

The distance between the monitor and your face can be assessed by making a fist, and extending your arm forward. That should be about right for most. If you’re particularly large or tiny, consider a distance of 50cm/20″ instead and see what works best.

This distance is also the max one that your reading/work glasses are assuming, if you’re wearing some.

Since you just have to push or pull the wooden cube (or VESA mount), you can experiment with what feels most comfortable and results in the lowest eye strain.

The distance is gauged (whether sitting or standing) with the belly touching the desktop plank. If the chair is further away from the desktop, you likely have to reach further with your arms, creating stress. Though of course the specifics depend on your body proportions.


The monitor

Okay, so I’m personally using a monster . I love it and saved for years to afford it. But you, uh, probably don’t need that. Unless you’re a gaming enthusiast, do a lot of video work, or the like.

Buying a monitor is confusing, and the products change all the time. But it’s also the most important bit of your computer, ergonomically. A proper monitor can avoid many issues with eye strain, eyesight degradation, migraines, etc..

The good news is that, from the mid-2010s onward, monitors have become pretty good. So it doesn’t take extensive research to pick a model that’s not horrible. Just stay away from the cheapest stuff, if your finances allow for that. The cheapest stuff wants to hurt you.

The important numbers

The two important bits when it comes to protecting your eyes are the refresh rate (in Hz) and having some sort of anti-flickering technology.

The anti-flicker from the major brands (Asus, BenQ, LG, Acer, Samsung…) should suffice. Just check that it’s listed among the features.

The refresh rate is basically the same idea. To avoid an image with flickering/strobing effects that strain your eyes and brain. However, the sensitivity to slower refreshes quite *varies* from person to person. Some rough ideas :

  • Don’t go under 60Hz. If you have an old, cheap monitor that might be the case.
  • For most people, 100Hz likely is the upper soft cap even when gaming. Things move smoothly, and your eyes and brain aren’t attempting to compensate for a slight stroboscopic artefact.
  • Young people with sharp reflexes and who like faster, competitive games may derive benefits from going higher. Older people… less so. And keep in mind that most graphic cards can’t go *that* high when dealing with modern resolutions and graphics.

Luminosity and blue light

Play with the luminosity of your screen – individual sensitivity varies a fair bit. Maybe your eyes like flashy colours, or maybe they need something more subdued to rest.

If you work late, do use a reduced blue light setting. On Windows 10 it’s in Settings/Display/Night mode. I set it for about one hour before my bedtime.

The research on blue light is… confusing, as of 2019. It now seems that exposure to blue light during the day matters little, since what you get from daylight through the window is thousands of times brighter. It might even, conceivably, make it easier not to develop myopia during childhood.

The real risk is apparently more about throwing your biological clock out of synch. Since diminishing blue light levels are used as the main clue that your body should prepare for sleep. Hence the idea of toning down the blue light emitted by your monitor when the light is dimming outside.

If your eyes are unusually sensitive to blue light, major brands tend to have a blue light dimmer option in their menu. Check that it’s in the features list. But with “night mode” now being standard on Windows, having blue-light filtering in the hardware isn’t useful anymore for most folks.

(If you research blue light, make sure to read articles that are recent, and written by physicians or researchers. Not marketers or journalists).

Other considerations

Past those considerations, it really depends on what you do with your monitor. Especially in demanding cases such as gaming or images/video work.

This is the point where you start considering colour space rendering, anti-screen-tearing tech, resolution, screen format, screen size, panel type, the exact connectors, yadda yadda. Researching those becomes necessary.


Mice and keyboard

We previously discussed having the hands rest naturally on the keyboard, without tension.

Another aspect is that the keyboard should be kept flat, without using the little lifting legs in the back. These force your wrists to keep your hands slightly rearing up at all times. Which is bad.

Most people (depending on hand size) will also benefit from a hands rest right in front of their keyboard. It lets the back of the palms rest on a surface without strain.

High-end keyboards usually come with one nowadays. Otherwise, it’s about $12 or so. Here are examples from my usual brand .

Mouse elevation

You’ll note in the photo that I’ve used two large books to raise my mouse above my keyboard. Same thing as before – I sought a height and distance where my hand would rest naturally on the rodent, without tension.

My mouse is further from my body than my keyboard, so I raise it to lower the distance.

I’m also using a basic, $9-ish gel wrist rest . In my case, it actually supports the front of my forearm, behind the wrist. That’s what works for me to have the lowest tension in my arm and shoulder.

I used to have carpal pains, but no actual damage. Simply raising the mouse and having a small gel pad for support made it go away.

Carpal tunnel damage ain’t no joke. There’s plenty of people who went through lengthy crunch time on mouse and keyboard. And have thus inflicted serious, painful damage that now handicaps them.

That’s one of the things I’m hoping to spare someone, somewhere with this article.

Minor keyboard stuff

I’m using a Corsair K95B keyboard . It’s something expensive that most people won’t need. But I’m typing apace all the dang day, I need media controls for my music, I need programmable macro keys for repetitive markup code strings, I need backlit keys, I *like* the feeling and noise of Cherry Brown mechanical keys, I wanted something tough that’ll last for 10+ years, etc..

But I don’t think there’s much keyboard advice that would help everybody.

For instance I swear by mechanical keyboards, as do most people who type an awful lot. But this preference isn’t universal. And the typing noise is a problem in many spaces, though I think there are now quieter key switch models.

Minor mouse stuff

I’m using a Mionix NAOS 7000 . The brand is obscure, but it’s high-end stuff and they’re unusually broad. If you are right-handed and have large hands, I’d recommend it.

“Does it fit my hand” and “is it easy to clean” are the two important questions. Other questions (polling rate, wired or wireless, side buttons, on-the-fly resolution switch, etc.) are normally the province of PC video gaming enthusiasts.

However, I’d also suggest using a mouse mat. Say, your basic $12-ish Steelseries mat . It costs little, it’s easy to clean (warm-ish water and shampoo), and it makes your mouse much smoother and precise to use.

You could also look at an article with pictures/videos that explain the difference between a palm grip and a claw grip for mice. If you’ve never thought about it before, it could spark ideas.

There are alternative peripherals such as vertical mice, but I know nothing about these.


Those were the big six

A simple seating/standing desktop, dust management, a saddle chair, a monitor set at the proper height and distance, a stable image with an appropriate luminosity, a proper height/distance for your mice.

Once you’ve covered that, you have removed the common sources of physical stress.

It’s not going to turn your life into an Instagram fantasy and make you a sexy beast with hundreds of thousands of followers and a hot pink stretch limousine. But it’ll prevent small damage from accruing over time.

And you might be able to use some of this (like wrist rests and a cheap wooden cube) in your workplace.

As long as I’m here I’ll talk a bit about some gear I use. It’s less important, but if you’re looking for workspace ideas…


Small comforts

The light therapy lamp (the white thingie)

This sort of supply is another thing that people used to laugh about and call you a stupid deluded hippie pinko. It’s now far more mainstream which, importantly, means radically lower prices than during the 2000s (never mind the 1990s).

Basically, it shines daylight at you. This has two applications :

  • It makes it real clear for your body that it’s now the day and it should wake up. If you are groggy in the morning, it’ll likely help. But do not use this as a crutch but if your sleep is bad. See a doctor first. Ditto if your eyes are fragile.
  • If you live in the far North/far South it helps with days that are too short. But you know that already.
  • *Some* people like having this on in the morning when the days are short and/or the daylight is dim and grey because the weather is shite. Studies so far show but modest gains for most people, but you might be among those who do benefit from it.

Desktop light therapy lamps  are usually $35-ish. Which is nice, because if you need a lamp on your desktop, getting this instead and testing whether it makes a difference for you remains cheap.

The digital audio converter (DAC)

If you listen to your computer a lot, a DAC could be considered. If you always listen to music you love, if you’re on the phone a lot, if you do a bit of sound editing, etc..

It’s simply a piece of electronics that’ll do a better job at processing sound that your motherboard will. Nowadays it comes in two main formats :

  • High-end-but-not-audiophile headphones (such as my Logitech G Pro X ) may come with a small one.
  • USB DACs . Solid entry models range from $50-ish to $120-ish.

If you don’t care about precise, rich sound – don’t bother.

But if music is important to you, you use high-quality sound encoding, and your hearing is okay or better, it can be considered.

My DAC is a very old Audiophonics U-Sabre. I’m just finishing saving for SMSL Sanskrit 10th  – very sharp sound for $95 or so, plus a $10-ish 5V 2A to micro-USB power adapter. My ancient U-Sabre was still doing fine until I recently noted it couldn’t handle ASIO drivers.

Speakers

My speakers and subwoofers are an ancient Klipsch set, from the 1990s. A friend gave them to me when moving, so it’s more a sentimental thing than a technical choice.

But you can get perfectly fine desktop kit for $100 or less – a Bose Companion  would be my usual suggestion.  Edifier  also has nice bang-for-your-buck gear, but it’s closer to $200.

As I see it, sinking more than $200 into PC speakers only makes sense if you can’t wear a headset. Or if you have some sort of special music room.

The gaming mini-keyboards and the headsets

They’re not quite visible in the photo. But with my bad hands I eventually acquired two — a Razer Tartarus and a Logitech G13. There’s a separate article about these niche, specialised peripherals.

The aforementioned Logitech headset has a microphone. I use it with programmed voice commands to compensate for damaged hands. There’s also a separate article about that.

The *other* headset is a Beyerdynamic DT990 Pro .

It’s typical of a generation of headset for music lovers that emerged during the 2010s. Previously, you had to pay $250+ for this sound quality, which is too much. But now the good brands (Beyerdynamic, AKG, Sennheiser…) have equivalent hardware for maybe $125.

Still, this sort of gear makes IMO little sense without a DAC, and lossless or high-quality music files.

You can go with more expensive equipment. But IMO it’s only justifiable if you have a great sense of hearing (which is uncommon past age 35 or so) and/or are a professional.

Both my headsets rest on a cheap headset hanger . Very simple doohickey that helps unclutter your desk and keeps the headsets cleaner. Since they don’t rest on your dirty desktop.

The NASes (black boxes with green diodes)

These are two four-bay Synology Network Area Storage units .

This is specialised equipment to store a whole lot of data in a secure manner. My 2010 one has 15 raw TB and my 2020 one has 50 raw TB. The 2010 one will be retired or upgraded in 2030.

This sort of tech mostly makes sense if you have :

  1. Terabytes of important data.
  2. That must be available at all times.
  3. And must survive a catastrophic hard drive failure.

But it’s also used if there are multiple computers using the same data (say, a shared media library) on the same local network.

So, most people don’t need that at all.

On the other hand, a cheap external hard drive  with automated Windows backups is a great investment. As is an USB key with a Windows system recovery volume.

Remember, hard drives *will* die. Alone. In the rain.

The computer tower

It’s a Thermaltake Suppressor . It has strong noise isolation, was set up with an aggressive airflow using extra ventilators, and isn’t festooned with RGB crap and transparent panels.

But since the mid-2010s, it has become markedly more difficult to pick a crap PC case. The average quality has risen a lot. As long as you don’t go for the cheapest stuff and read some reviews, you should be good.

Drives

A small reminder just in case. Also since the mid 2010s we have cheap, reliable, fast solid-state drives. Say, Crucial SSDs .

Having Windows and your main data on such a drive will make your computer markedly faster than on a traditional hard drive. Without tinkering with the CPU and other techie stuff. Or at least it does until Windows starts using ressources on other disks for its booting sequence. :-/

NVME M.2  gumstick drives may surpass those in time. But it’s not the case yet as of this writing, and they only fit on modern motherboards.

By Sébastien Andrivet.

Article completed on the 9th of February, 2020.

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