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Towards a More Ergonomic Development Setup

I just turned 45. Forty. Frickin'. Five. For the past six months or so (probably right on schedule) I've been experiencing neck, shoulder, wrist, forearm, and elbow pain. It comes and goes but on the bad days it's bad enough to keep me awake at night, so I decided rather than continue to ignore it and keep working directly on a laptop as I have for years now, I better heed my body's warnings (as well as my girlfriend's prompting) so I can keep programming for another 45 years. (Joking. If I'm still blogging about nerd stuff when I'm 90 please put me out of my and everyone else's misery.)

I already made the move to a standing desk, specifically a GeekDesk, a few years ago. At the same time I bought a Herman Miller Embody chair, which I subsequently never used, because standing desk. (I'm reeeeal smart sometimes.) Seriously though both these changes made a huge, huge difference. I no longer have back issues, I have much more energy, and I feel much more alert and engaged when I work while standing. And that Herman Miller chair is absolutely the best chair I've ever owned. It's fantastic on the rare occasion I actually sit in it.

The desk and chair are only one piece of the ergonomic puzzle, however, and the years of twisted wrists on a laptop for way too many hours a day finally started to catch up with me, so this is day one of putting the laptop in a docking station, using an external 24" monitor on a monitor stand, and using an ergonomic keyboard and mouse.

So far, so good! My wrists and arms felt better nearly immediately, and with the monitor much higher my head and neck are now looking straight out instead of me being hunched over and leaning in to see my laptop screen. It feels weird, but it's good weird and I have a feeling after a week or so when I'm totally used to it, and my aches and pains have subsided, I'll feel much better than I have in a long time.

I have two new monitors on the way and a dual-monitor stand, but for now I'm using a Lenovo Easy Reach monitor stand with a ThinkPad Ultra Dock for my ThinkPad T540p. With my GeekDesk down to a height of 40" everything is looking and feeling great.

The biggest change in the setup for me is the new keyboard and mouse, and for that I went with the Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop. Yes, the keyboard is a little weird and I think it'll take a few days for me to get back up to my full typing speed, partially because the keyboard is a lot different than what I'm used to, and partially because I (like most people, I assume) don't type 100% correctly. Who knew getting used to doing Bs with my left hand instead of my right would be such a challenge?

I've tried a lot of ergonomic keyboards over the years. I almost went with one I had and tolerated (I'll stop short of saying I liked it) a few years ago, namely the Logitech Wave Mk550, but then I remembered my two major annoyances about that setup. First, when you're used to a laptop keyboard moving to full-stroke keys feels like a TON more work, and my hands felt it. Second is the numeric keypad on the right-hand side of the keyboard. (Seriously, does anyone use those things?) Not only does that make the keyboard feel off-center to me, but it means you're reaching pretty far to get to the mouse (one of the things I LOVE about using a laptop, particularly a ThinkPad, is I don't have to move my hands to move the pointer around), and that gets annoying and hard on the elbow after a while.

The Microsoft Sculpt keyboard addresses both of these annoyances. It has very, very nice laptop-style keys that feel great under my fingers, and the numeric keypad is a completely separate piece of hardware that is currently residing in my closet where it will likely stay for eternity. This makes the mouse much closer so it's less annoying and hard on the forearm and elbow to grab the mouse. I'm still getting used to the keyboard layout but thus far I really like the feel of this keyboard.

The mouse itself is also designed to be ergonomic so it's a little bit funky; it's more of a tall ball than the flat oval-shaped mouse you may be used to. Combined with a mouse pad with a gel wrist pad it puts the hand and wrist in a much more natural, comfortable position, and there's even a nice notch for the thumb. Lefties beware, however: I don't see how you could use this mouse if you're not right-handed since the thumb notch would be on the wrong side.

Changing up all my equipment is a bit jarring but I'll get used to it quickly enough and my body will thank me for it. I'll be curious to see how I'm typing and feeling at the end of the first week with all this, and how things will change again when I get the dual monitor setup going. I'm also debating whether or not I'll need a keyboard tray mounted under the desk since I can adjust the height of the desk itself. Time will tell on that.

If anyone has any ergonomic tips as I move into my new setup I'd love to hear them!

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