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Portable Ergonomics

Earlier this week, I wrote about digitizing and purging the extra shit I've accumulated over the years, but the reality is that some things just can't be easily minimized—not that I'd want them to be... minimalism sounds exhausting.

Sure, I can get rid of a lot of my media, and pack away what holds meaning for me, put furniture in storage and donate the extras, but one thing that I'm struggling a bit with is downsizing my work setup.

I've written before about my neck issues, so ergonomics are particularly important to me, and I've never found laptops to be particularly good for my spine. Standing desks have helped, but I struggle to do any writing on them—they're best served for meetings, at least for me.

Ergonomically Speaking

So, I've been wrestling a bit with how to break my dependence on a traditional "desktop" setup without totally destroying my neck.

For my day job, this isn't the most complicated thing in the world. I spend a not-insignificant amount of my time in meetings, and any writing that I do I tend to draft in a notebook by hand before typing it up—which I can do from the comfort of any nicely-cushioned chair.

But I am also a freelance writer, and while I'd love to write articles in a notebook freehand, the word limits and accompanying research requirements can get in the way; freelance development has similar, obvious limitations as well.

For me, a good coding/writing desk setup consists of a few things:

1. Two Monitors

It's not that I need multiple monitors so much as a second monitor can be a helpful place to elevate data into my periphery. This can come in the form of a clock, media player, currently running build scripts, or an always-visible dashboard. It doesn't have to be there, but having something I can glance at without getting too distracted by the details is a feature I've always found to be helpful.

I can get by with a single monitor if I have to, but I'd rather not have to, if you know what I mean.

2. A Keyboard and Mouse

I love the portability of laptops, but I've always hated having to type on them in such a way that avoids my palms accidentally touching the trackpad. You've never experienced true frustration until you've inadvertently swiped the trackpad while typing on a roll, and deleting a bunch of text as a result.

So an external keyboard and mouse are a must.

3. Posture-Friendly Ergonomics

There's nothing that fucks my neck up more—and I mean fucks up, what with a bulging disc between my C3 and C4 vertebrae—than tilting my head down towards a screen. This has been the biggest challenge with work mobility in recent years.

In the past, I loved popping over to a coffee shop to do some work, if only for a change of scenery (and aroma), but I haven't really been able to do it comfortably for quite some time.

A small part of the reason why I moved into management was the toll coding has taken on my posture, which resulted in an inability to work out of a coffee shop to begin with (nobody wants to listen to me take 12 Zoom calls in a row), but I'm getting to a point where I need to figure out a coding environment that works better for my spinal health without feeling like I have to either give it up entirely or be chained to a desk for all eternity.

4. Music, Music, and More Music

Thanks to 15 years of performing music in my youth without earplugs, I have extreme tinnitus. It's not fun, but also something you get used to. That said, I haven't ever been able to tolerate working in silence—it's pretty hard to focus with a constant high-pitched squeal airing in your ear.

Music is a must.

Despite my love for it, though, I'm hardly an audiophile, so I don't need perfection so much as distraction, and nothing distracts from my neverending ringing than anything with decent bass tones.

Por-Tahh-Blay... Must Be Italian!

With all of the above in mind, I've started to experiment with some more portable setups for my personal computing work that actually meet my needs. The tools I've gathered to do so aren't perfect—nor are they the only options available—but I'm slowly getting myself to a comfortable collection.

Laptop Stand

The laptop stand should be the most obvious. If you've done any research online for good "portable" laptop stands, you'll find most people pimping out something called a Roost, which looks super fancy, but also costs a fucking fortune for what it does.

I don't need my laptop stand to crawl away, I just need it to raise my laptop to a comfortable viewing height and pack away tightly. Because my laptop is one of those useless fancy "convertible" ones, I can set the monitor angle much wider than I could on my old MacBook, so this $8 beauty from Amazon has actually fit the bell quite nicely.

It's tiny when packed up, fits tightly in a backpack, and raises my monitor up to a comfortable (and ergonomic) height, allowing me to look straight at it instead of down.

External Monitor

I love the idea of portable external monitors, but my wallet doesn't. They are stupid expensive, and take up way too much room for not enough utility, so I decided to take advantage of the extra screen I already have laying around in the form of a Samsung Galaxy Tab S8.

While the Galaxy Tabs have "Second Screen" built in, allowing you to wireless cast to it from any modern Windows computer, I've found that it isn't the best solution (the aspect ratio weirdly doesn't match the display size, and I hate having to actually be on wifi for it to work).

So after some searching, I landed on using a free-for-non-commercial-use tool called spacedesk that allowed me to use any Android device (and iOS if you're so inclined) as an external monitor via USB.

The software isn't the most polished, by any means, but it checked off the two boxes that I cared about:

  1. USB support
  2. No subscription

It didn't even have to be free, I just refuse to pay a yearly subscription everything. I'm happy to use something until it doesn't work, and then purchase an upgrade, but I am incapable of justifying an ongoing cost for such straightforward functionality.

The second thing I needed for my "monitor" is an ergonomic stand. I actually picked up the one I'm using something like a decade ago for reasons I can't remember, but it allows me to set the tablet on it vertically and raises it to eye-height.

Perfect.

Keyboard and Mouse

Most mice are, by definition, portable, considering they are around the size of an apple, but finding a decent portable keyboard has been the bane of my existence.

When I was in Apple land, I was perfectly satisfied with the little Apple Keyboards—wired or wireless, dealer's choice—but since moving back to a PC world the cost and/or form factor of the portable keyboards have left little to be desired.

That said, when I bought my foldable phone, I had these grand ideas of using the still-too-small screen as a little writing device on the go and bought this weird Logitech bluetooth keyboard that supported three devices and has a slot to rest a tablet or phone.

It's not the best keyboard (the keys are way too soft and plasticky feeling) but it gets the job done, and I actually like the utility of being able to switch devices if I need to and the bonus phone stand.

Like I said, it's not perfect, but I think it will serve me well enough for the foreseeable future.

Headphones

At home, music means some good computer speakers or even a hand-me-down Sonos tucked in the corner, but on the road it's traditionally meant a pair of decent earbuds.

While I like the earbuds for their portability, the resulting headaches and earwax buildup due to prolonged usage has started to wear on me, so I've been experimenting with over-ear headphones. The sound is much better, but they do present a comparative "space" problem that I'm working through.

My headphones of choice at the moment are the extremely affordable Skullcandy Venue over-ear headphones that I picked up many years ago and haven't really used much since the days of COVID. They're not great for audio calls, but the sound is just right for music—I've found that the case they come in doubles well as a cable holder, which has made a bit more room in the 'ole bag.

Taking a Test Drive

At this point, I've spent the better part of the last two weeks on this setup. I'm still learning to respect my body by maintaining a healthy posture and taking breaks—old habits die hard—but otherwise it has been a surprisingly effective experiment. While I don't have anything that I'm burning to change, I am looking for other opportunities to tighten things up.

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This is post 010 of #100DaysToOffload