August 16, 2011

Full-time Geeks Shouldn't Ignore Physical Impact

Just about every year, I buy myself a gift - a boring one, but one that I end up using practically every day, which I can't imagine not having. Practically every twelve months, I get a pair of elastic wrist supports from Core Products International, and wear them off and on throughout the day when I'm logging serious hours in front of my laptop. Knowing how many hours of my awake time I spend in front of the computer either while at home or at work, it's common sense to expect that my body complains from time to time - through numbness, strains or simple fatigue. Not interested in falling victim to carpal tunnel syndrome, I made a decision before graduating college that I'd trade fashion for comfort and make sure I brought reinforcements.

My sophomore and junior years at Cal (UC Berkeley), I followed the day's classes with writing news and feature stories for the school newspaper, and after a short break for dinner, I came back and converted the print stories for the paper's online site, often working well past midnight, before starting the routine over the next day. Hearing the popping of my wrists and strain even back then told me I should do something about it. My mom, a geek before me, who actually sold her own self-started Web business when I was in college, guided me toward the wrist straps I wear today. While it may look like I am about to add on some silly looking shoes and go bowling, the difference in how I feel when I wear the supports versus when I don't is remarkable.

In the last dozen or so years since college and working in a variety of offices, either at home, at headquarters or on client sites, I've been impacted by other bad behaviors. I learned to purchase a footstool for the main office to gain leg support and avoid fidgeting, didn't mind putting on unattractive glasses for eyestrain, and when one shoulder would start hurting more than another, I even started carrying my laptop bag with one arm and sleeping on one side, for weeks, until fatigue subsided. So even if you feel like Superman, the truth is your code might last longer than you do.

There's no question I'm among the worst offenders of trying to always be on. I famously mock sleep, and hate being disconnected - even in the rare times when vacation comes up. The Olympic motto of "Faster, Higher, Stronger" may now mean "Surf longer, Share more, Connect always"… but nobody's handing out medals. Being a dad of three kids means I do disconnect and wrestle or play catch with each as best as I can, but there are still too many hours of them in the background and the laptop or tablet or mobile phone in the foreground. So priorities occasionally need adjustment.

Big companies, especially the Web giants, have made taking care of their best geeks a major part of what they offer, with improved meals, wellness centers, massages and all matter of ergonomics. But not everyone works at these big companies, locked away in bland cubicles or fluorescent-lit dungeons. In the absence of someone else taking care of you, you need to do it. For years, I've put up with people asking "how I hurt my wrists" or if I have carpal tunnel, and the answer is that I don't, and I'd bet a major reason I don't is because I made sure early to avoid it. As your doctor will tell you, preventative care is the best kind there is, so don't forget to take care of yourself. I just bought a new pair of wrist supports today.