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One of the drawbacks of life as a programmer, along with most other professions, is that we are required to spend most of our day sat at a desk. There have been a lot of studies indicating that this is not good for our health, and common sense tells us the same. Sitting down for hours on end leads to tension, which is not only detrimental to our health, but also to the quality of our work and our vitality. Computers have a way of drawing you in, to the point where you become so engrossed in your task that you forget about everything else, including your body. It is only at the end of the day, when you finally leave the office that you realise how stiff your shoulders are and how stressed you feel.
I have struggled with this problem to varying degrees throughout my career, and have experimented with various remedies to address the issue, from ergonomic keyboards and footrests to exercise and meditation. Most of these measures have helped me to some extent, but one simple technique which I have been using for the past few months seems to have really had an effect, so I thought I would share it with you. It is this:
Every half an hour, I get up and out of my seat.
My intuition has always told me that it is important to take regular breaks, but I have only recently realised that getting up and doing something makes those breaks more effective in relaxing and refreshing my muscles and mind.
I have tried using the Pomodoro technique in the past, and much of it didn’t suit me. I never felt any benefit from logging interruptions, and I found its method of task management too simple, however the one rule that did stick was to work in 25 minute bursts, and I have been doing this for several years. I have noticed that by working in this way I am able to maintain a better level of focus during the time when I am actually working. Only recently however have I added the rule of getting up out of my seat after every ‘pomodoro’.
So what do I do when I get up? I might go to the toilet, go and get myself a glass of water, go and look out of the window, go wash a cup, or if no one is watching just stand up and do a few stretches. The Pomodoro technique recommends taking a break of 3 to 5 minutes between each pomodoro, which is what I used to do, but a better rule I find is to just make myself get up out of my seat, even if only for a minute or so. Once I am up I often realise that I need a slightly longer break. If I stay in my seat, I no longer count that as taking a break.
I use the online pomodoro timer at tomatoi.st, which is nice and simple and also shows me how many pomodoros I have completed each day, but there are many pomodoro websites and apps to choose from. A stopwatch would work just as well.
I’m not completely sure why this technique works for me, but it does. In my mind it is a case of keeping the blood flowing, which relieves tension and refreshes the mind. If I sit for hours I notice that I lose mental sharpness and begin to struggle to make progress on problems. If we think a little about how our bodies have evolved, we are clearly not built to remain in the same position for long periods of time. Taking a walk at lunch time is another technique which I frequently use. Again, it just gets the blood flowing.
Applying this technique is probably only going to work for you if you feel there is actually a problem there that needs solving. I recently started to experience neck and shoulder pain, not for the first time, and I am certain this was related to my work. I tried an ergonomic keyboard for a few days, but if anything this only seemed to make matters worse. At the same time, I bought a footrest, which does seem to have helped me adopt a more comfortable sitting position, but it is getting up out of my seat frequently which I am sure has made the biggest difference.
There are other measures I am taking to minimize the effects of sitting for long periods.
One conclusion I have come to is that a stronger core would help me to sit correctly, therefore I am looking at how I can modify my exercise routine accordingly. I’ve tried Pilates which initially struck me as a slightly feminine form of exercise, but it does appear to be very effective at isolating the core and strengthening the stabilizing muscles between your shoulder blades. I attended a Pilates class last week and it was certainly not easy. I also get a full body massage every month.
The key message here then is to be aware of the need to keep your blood flowing if you sit at a desk all day. You may not need to get up every 30 minutes, but consider getting up more often than you currently do, particularly if you feel like you are getting nowhere with your work or you are starting to feel tense. If this is a real problem then I would recommend trying an approach similar to mine. Use a timer and make yourself get up periodically. You may be surprised at just how effective this is.