How to Optimize Laptop Ergonomics When You Don’t Have a Desk

people working together in a restaurant or shared work environment

Ahhh, the laptop. It allows us so much freedom: work wherever you want, whenever you want, however you want. It does have one inherent deficiency, and that is ergonomics. The laptop is an ergonomic “no-win situation” because the keyboard and monitor are joined together. Optimizing for your neck puts your wrists in a stressed position, and optimizing for your wrists puts your neck in a stressed position. If not mindful, you can set yourself up poorly for both your wrists and your neck. The prevalence of all-in-one desktop machines back in the 70s, with connected monitors and keyboards, led to widespread complaints of musculoskeletal discomfort. So what is a modern student or flex worker to do?

Before you chain yourself to your more ergonomic, stationery desk—consider optimizing your laptop ergonomics as much as possible. There is a whole industry behind ergonomics, with a well-accepted track record of benefits. Large corporations understand the value of investing in ergonomics to avoid workplace injury, increase productivity, and boost morale. If you’re using a laptop beyond occasional web-surfing and do not have a desk to use regularly, consider these four tips to improve your laptop ergonomics:

Choose Your Spot Wisely

If you do not have an office space and need to work for an extended period of time, do not settle into a bed or couch. By choosing a kitchen or dining room table, you can at least have some hope of manipulating the ergonomics.

Optimize Monitor Positioning

Ideally, your laptop screen should be about an arm’s length away, so you can see the screen with minimal bending of your neck. You want to raise it so that your eyes are leveled at the screen, a third of the way down from the top. There are a variety of monitor stands and risers available to help with this when you have a desk or tabletop; however, if you’re on the go you can even utilize a bag or briefcase beneath your laptop.

Lap Desks, Cordless Keyboards, and Mice

To combat the attached monitor/keyboard aspect of a laptop when working for extended periods of time, a cordless keyboard and mouse are your best bets. The goal here is to keep the wrists in a neutral position with your elbows by the side of the body and bent at a 90-degree angle. If you’re in a living room space, with a couch and separate table, lap desks are a great solution for keeping the keyboard and mouse in an optimal ergonomic position while raising the laptop above the surface in front of you.

Take a Break

Even with ideal ergonomics, breaking up work sessions is highly recommended. A good rule of thumb is frequent, brief breaks—5-10 minutes every 30-45 minutes. It doesn’t even have to be a break from work entirely: you could get up and walk around when you are on a phone call. In addition to enhancing productivity and creativity, taking breaks reaps physical benefits like:

Alleviating eye strain (looking away/shifting focus)

Loosening muscles

Getting the blood flowing

Improving lymphatic circulation

One common way to remember to balance productivity with breaks is called the Pomodoro Technique. It was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 80s and popularized recently on the internet and with various apps. Each interval is a “pomodoro” (tomato in Italian) and uses a timer to infuse short 3-5 minute breaks into work sessions. Traditionally work sessions were 25 minutes long, but the intervals can be any length that works for you. You can read more on the Pomodoro Technique here.

Stretching is also an excellent use of your break time. It works right alongside ergonomic improvements to reduce muscle strain and get your blood (and lymphatic system) pumping. I recommend these three stretches, as they are larger movements focused on many of the muscles that fatigue during desk work:

Standing Child’s Pose

The Hitchhiker

Shoulderblade or Scapular Setting

If even after following these recommendations you’re feeling the effects of a laptop’s less-than-ideal ergonomics—or you’ve just been getting by with bad ergonomics for an extended period of time—Dr. Dade is happy to help. An assessment, a few chiropractic adjustment sessions, and following these ergonomic improvement tips will have you back on the road to overall wellness.


Image by Annie Spratt from Unsplash

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