Have you thought much about how you type? If not, chances are you currently have a few bad habits that could lead to repetitive strain injuries (RSI) or discomfort over time.
In this article, we’re going to go over some of the best practises when it comes to typing posture and workstation set up.
We’re also going to look at some behavioural changes you can make to minimise the risk of wrist or finger discomfort.
Let’s start with your physical workspace set up.
Keyboard position and ergonomic workspace set up
The following diagram illustrates some of the key elements of an ergonomic workspace set up:
- Keyboard just below elbow height. Your forearms should be roughly parallel to the floor. Your elbow angle should be approximately 90 – 110 degrees. This allows your forearms and shoulders to relax.
You may need to raise your chair height and even sit on extra pillows to get your keyboard where it needs to be.
- Wrists straight. Your wrists should not be bent upwards or sideways. Instead, they should be in a “neutral” position, where the muscles are as relaxed as possible.
- Shoulders relaxed
- Avoid resting your wrists on the keyboard or table. This puts pressure on the tendons and can constrict blood supply.
- Top of the monitor around eye height. This prevents you assuming a hunchback position or craning your neck to see the screen. Therefore, there is less strain on your neck and back.
- Monitor around an arm’s length away
- Back and neck straight
- Feet planted flat on the ground
As you can see, your wrists should be in a straight, neutral position. Many keyboards come with stands you can pop out to create some positive tilt. This is usually a bad idea, because it causes your wrists to flex upwards or “extend” to use the keyboard. See my guide on ergonomic keyboards for more information on the issue with wrist extension.
Your back should be pressed up against your chair to take load away from your back. To help with this, you can use the “sit, slide and lean” rule I found in this youtube video.
When getting into your chair, this rule suggest you think to yourself:
- First, I sit down
- Second, I slide my butt backwards until it meets the back of the chair; and
- Third, I lean back a little, so that the chair is comfortably tilted back between 10 – 20 degrees off vertical
Although these guidelines may at first feel unnatural, they will ultimately help prevent physical issues down the line or avoid aggravating whatever discomfort you’re currently feeling.
Wrist rests: Good idea?
The use of wrist rests is a controversial topic. Some argue these decrease strain on the forearms. Others feel they put additional contact pressure on the tendons of your wrist, which can restrict blood flow.
Generally, many ergonomists recommend a palm rest over a wrist rest. This can be achieved by pushing your wrist rest up against your keyboard.
You should also only rest your palm when not typing.
When typing, your hands should ideally be hovering slightly over the keys. Not going to lie, I’m guilty of breaking this rule too often myself, but it’s worth being aware of.
Behavioural Changes: Breaks and Typing Style
In terms of typing behaviours, there’s a few good practices to follow. Let’s step through them.
Take regular breaks
Taking regular breaks from the computer is one of THE most important things you can do for your health and comfort.
If you do nothing else, do this one! Fortunately, it’s a “low hanging fruit” change that, with the right system, is relatively easy to incorporate into your day.
Initially, I found this one hard to implement. As an IT dude, I often get so focused on solving a technical problem that the need to get up and stretch is easy to ignore.
What I found helpful was using a scheduled timer software, and trying to organise my work into “units” of 25 minutes with a short break in between. This is also known as the “pomodoro” technique.
The timing software I use currently is a free online tool: https://tomato-timer.com/. I like it because it’s free, super simple to use and doesn’t require installing anything.
Press keys lightly
Try to press your keyboard keys as lightly as needed for them to register. Where possible, you want to avoid “bottoming out” each key press.
If it’s not too weird of an image, try to imagine you’re “gently fondling” your keyboard, not trying to attack it with all you’ve got.
That’s right. Get sensual with your keyboard.
Minimise unnecessary finger movement
Review proper touch typing technique to make sure you’re using the most efficient finger movements. Here’s a good online tool I found for practicing this: https://www.typingclub.com/.
If your keyboard supports remapping keys or key macros, look for any frequently used key combination you use and see if you can make it simpler or more comfortable. In my case, I added a mapping to simplify ‘Alt + Tab’ on my Kinesis Advantage2.
If you’re repeatedly having to enter a password for some software, is there a setting that can change this? For example, as a programmer, I often have to push code to a remote server. There is the option to set up “SSH keys” to authenticate with this server, which saves me from having to type my password in each time.
Similarly, you may have the option to cache the password for a certain amount of time, or reduce the frequency that you’re prompted for it.
Keyboard layouts: QWERTY vs DVORAK
This deserves a whole post on it’s own (which I plan to make at some point soon).
Keyboard layouts are the way keys are arranged on the board, or “what letter shows up on the screen when you press each button”.
While the layout is denoted by the labels on your keyboard’s keycaps, you can usually reconfigure the layout through a software setting on your computer.
Deciding to use a certain non-standard layout requires learning a new way to type. It is therefore an acquirable skill that entails a significant investment of time.
The default layout of almost every keyboard out there is the QWERTY layout. This is the one everyone is familiar with, named after the first sequence of characters above the home row (“qwerty…”).
Perversely, this layout is terrible from an ergonomic standpoint. It requires far more finger movement and awkward contortions than the other options we’ll look at.
Why is this? The layout was not designed to group frequently used keys together, or with ergonomics in mind. Instead, it came from the era of typewriters, when pressing neighbouring keys would often lead to jams.
One origin story is the QWERTY layout was designed to avoid these jams. Whatever the case, it is clearly not designed to minimise finger movement.
In fact, the only vowel on the home row is ‘a’, and any other vowel requires the fingers moving off the home row. Given most English words involve vowels, this introduces a lot of additional finger movement.
The Dvorak layout is an alternative keyboard layout designed to be more ergonomic, faster and reduce unnecessary finger movement.
In the Dvorak layout, the most commonly used keys are the most accessible, and the least commonly used are further away.
For example, 70% of keystrokes in this layout are done on the home row, which is the middle row your fingers rest on naturally. Only 22% of keystrokes are done on the top row, and only 8% on the bottom row.
By comparison, in the standard QWERTY layout, about 52% of keystrokes are done on the top row and 16% are on the bottom row. This translates directly into a lot more finger motion when typing.
The Dvorak layout also encourages you to alternate hands as you type each letter, which better distributes the load and reduces fatigue.
It does this by placing vowels and most used symbol characters on the left, and most used consonants on the right.
If this keyboard layout is clearly more ergonomic (not to mention efficient), why does the world still use QWERTY as the standard?
In my opinion, it’s a quite fascinating case study in how bad ideas can triumph given enough inertia. Because QWERTY has become so established, and been generally usable for most, Dvorak has not been compelling enough to dislodge QWERTY as the de facto standard.
It’s a case of QWERTY being “good enough” for most people. For people suffering from RSI issues or hand strain, however, this is not a great state of affairs.
Check out this video for some more discussion on this topic.
Keyboard Layout: What to Choose?
If you’re currently suffering from RSI symptoms or wrist / finger discomfort, it may be worth seriously considering switching to an alternative layout to QWERTY.
From an ergonomics point of view, Dvorak is superior and worth looking into. There are also a variety of other interesting options, proper discussion of which is out of scope for this article.
Possibly the most popular other option is the Colemak layout. This one is gaining a lot of fans around the world and tries to capture many of the benefits of the Dvorak keyboard with less of a learning curve for people used to QWERTY. You can find more info on this here.
However, be aware that switching to something like Dvorak or Colemak will involve a significant “pain period” where you struggle to rewire your muscle memory to a new layout.
Therefore, realistically, you’ll need to pick an appropriate time to make the transition (i.e. you don’t want to be doing this before any major work deadlines).
You might start practising with an online tool in your free time, then make the switch “cold turkey” during the holidays or a slower period at work.
Also be aware that once you move to an alternative layout, your ability to use a QWERTY layout will degenerate. So, if you need to use other peoples’ keyboards as part of your job or lifestyle, this option may not be practical.
Hopefully this article has given you a clearer picture of proper typing posture and how to set up your work environment for maximum comfort.
We’ve also gone over important behavioural changes you can make to reduce typing fatigue and ensure you’re working sustainably.
Thanks for reading and I hope you got something from this article.