Last Updated on February 17, 2020
Working from the road is the holy grail for a lot of freelancers and remote workers. The idea of typing those work emails from a beachside hammock is alluring, even if not very practical. It’s actually pretty hard to type in a hammock! And if you type on a computer in that non-ergonomic position, it’s terrible for your body’s alignment.
When you work on a computer for hours every day, even if it’s remotely from fascinating corners of the world, it’s important to use an ergonomic travel system of tools and apps that help you maintain proper posture, avoid repetitive strains, and generally balance work and travel.
Working remotely as a digital nomad is still fairly new today, and even more so when I started working online in 2005—no travelers were talking about the ergonomics of working from random hotel rooms. It can be a strain on your body well above and beyond the structured office environment of most previous computer work.
If you’re hitting the road to work online while traveling, below I share my system for managing RSI injuries (or preventing them) as well as the portable and ergonomic products I’ve found useful over the years. I’ve also included range of exercises and tips for avoiding RSI injuries and the most common problem areas caused by traveling.
My Road to RSI
When I left on my round the world trip, I planned to work and travel for one year. I shouldered my laptop and hit the road. About six months into my trip the strain of working from trains, hostel bunk beds, and coffee shops began to take a toll. In 2009, my issues with RSI and carpal tunnel began to creep into my working days. I didn’t heed the warnings, however and continued my non-ergonomic peripatetic wanderings.
By 2013, I had done serious damage to my hands, arms, and back by working from crazy positions and in non-ergonomic positions for years on end. The burning pain in my hands prevented me from typing for more eight-minute bursts for up to hour. It threw my work into upheaval. I was forced to postpone and cancel projects, while also learning entirely new project management systems. I added more voice-to-text to my routine. I installed several apps into my browser. I drastically cut down on casual internet surfing. It was a big change. Since that huge flare-up, I’ve been on a quest to find the best portable products that allow me to create an ergonomic office from anywhere in the world.
Portable, Travel-Friendly & Ergonomic Products
The best way to prevent new injury is to create a perfectly ergonomic desk situation. That’s a heck of a lot harder to implement on the road. But it’s possible with the right tools.
This portable laptop stand folds down into a mere sliver of plastic that slides right into your backpack. The Roost comes with height-adjustable features, and it fits a wide range of laptops. This is—bar none—the most travel-friendly laptop stand. It’s slick, lightweight, and it has completely transformed my work and travel. This alone is one of the major ways I manage my RSI. I use this stand with external mouse and keyboard, and it allows me to create a full office setup in any location, even coffee shops if needed. The stands keeps your screen at a proper height, eliminating the hunching effect many of us have when we type on laptops. This comes with the highest recommendation. There are no other recommendations, there is no competition here. I supported their Kickstarter so I could get one of the first shipments of this new design—it’s that good. Any lookalikes online crib the design but not the quality.
If you use a Roost—and you should if your aim is to create an ergonomic, streamlined laptop system—then you need an external keyboard and mouse. I use a small bluetooth keyboard and it works. I pair this keyboard with a gel wrist rest to give simple keyboard support without adding bulk to my gear. When my injury was at its most serious, however, I stayed stationary and used one of the larger ergonomic keyboards that have support and split configuration—these are much less portable (and thus less travel-friendly) but might be your best option if you’re recovering from an injury. Also note that the wrist rest makes all the difference and I do travel with it—it allows me to work with just a simple keyboard without further injury. (A reader also highly recommends the Kinesis Freestyle 2, which seems pretty portable ergonomic keyboard too.)
I alternate between a slim bluetooth mouse and this more ergonomic mouse with a ball. Here’s the thing, I hate the ball mouse. It’s bigger and it frustrates me at times. But it works. It shifts the repetitive clicking motion to a different muscle group and it is one key reason that I recovered from my 2013 RSI flare-up. For that reason, I carry both mouses and I switch them out every other month. I also sometimes switch my slim mouse to a left-hand configuration. Working left-handed creates a slower work process, but again, it’s an effective way to lessen the strain on just one hand. And there are certainly more ergonomic mouses out there; if you are at home there are better options, but those two above provide the best mix of portability and ergonomics.
If you already have wrist and hand injury from either RSI or carpal tunnel, then most doctors recommend that you sleep with wrist guards on the affected hand. I have injuries in both wrists, so I look pretty slick every night with my twin black wrist guards. I have tried many over the years and these ones are low-profile, soft, affordable, and effective. They’re also the only ones I could find that would cinch tight enough on my thin wrists. The aggregate of my research seems to agree that you should not use them while working, but instead wear them at night so that you don’t sleep with your wrist in a stressed or weird position.
This BenQ portable laptop light is more about making your travel setup more effective than it is about ergonomics. I’ve done a lot in the last few years to limit blue light in my life (I use Flux religiously) to protect my eyes. I love that this light allows you to adjust the color of light, and unlike desk lamps, it perfectly illuminates the space in front of your laptop without any awkward reflections. Is this absolutely necessary? No, but it’s a purchase you will thoroughly enjoy if you work on your laptop a lot, especially in the early mornings and evenings. I far prefer this light to other lighting that causes awkward glares and reflections.
Apps To Prevent RSI and Carpal Tunnel
Over the years, I have owned both PCs and Apple products, these are the apps and tools that I recommend on each system.
- AntiRSI for Mac: This is affordable, simple to configure, and it just works. The app allows you to configure two types of breaks. Micro-pauses are very short and more frequent. A window pops up and counts down for something like 10 seconds or so (you choose) and most times you should configure it for every three to five minutes. This is a quick break that forces you to break your position and give your hands a quick rest. The longer break is usually once an hour (I have mine every 50 minutes) and it asks me to step away from the computer, get up and move around. I program mine for an eight-minute break every 50 minutes, but I schedule more frequent long breaks when my injuries flare.
- Workrave for Microsoft/Linux: This free app is simple and effective. I also really like the built-in exercises that it runs through on your longer breaks. These exercises stretch muscles that are commonly stressed by computer work. Even though I currently use AntiRSI on my Mac, I continue to use the exercises that I learned by using this app on my previous PC.
- Dragon Dictation: I could never quite acclimate to using this on my computer, but I do use the iPhone app and I try to dictate email responses when possible. This KnowBrainer forum has heaps of amazing discussion and resources on mics and apps if you’re keen to look more into dictation.
Stretches & Habits to Prevent Injury While Traveling
Proper posture and effective stretches can make a huge difference. Here’s everything I’ve learned since I dove into the world of preventing RSI injuries. If you use a cross-body messenger bag for your laptop, you’ll need to switch to a backpack so that you evenly distributing the load. I use this Timbuk2 one that fits my laptop, Roost, mouse, and even my camera gear. And if you’re a backpacker, consider getting a wheeled suitcase if you’re having serious RSI struggles. Again, this lessens the stress on your back and allows you to work on posture and rebuilding strength.
Create an Ideal Workstation
- Use a table and chair. Pick a table at the hotel, AirBnB, or café that has the best chair possible and a table at a reasonable height. If you can choose between working at a counter or a table, opt for the table. Then, if you’re in your own space, use pillows to adjust your height in the chair so that you can sit up straight and have your hands resting comfortably on the table. You should also use a pillow if needed to provide back support. Don’t work from the bed, or hunched in a corner. Also be wary of casually answering messages slouched over your phone or iPad—that all adds to the strain.
- Adjust Roost Stand. Ideally, position your laptop with your eye level falling within the top 20% of the screen. This PDF has a great image of proper sitting position, or a video here if you are more inclined.
- Set up your mouse and keyboard. You should sit high enough over the table that your arms are at a comfortable 90-degree angle, with your wrists flat.
- Keep good posture. Now that you have an ergonomic workstation, you just have to use it properly. It takes practice to fight old slouching habits. Your feet should rest flat on the ground, never cross your legs.
- Always readjust. Use your timed breaks to readjust your posture and your position. Longer breaks should be used to walk around and stretch.
- Stand and work. If you have a setup that allows it, consider using a counter in your new digs to stand and work instead. This is very healthy too and keeps you from holding any position too long.
- Practice Wall Posture. The Bruegger’s Posture technique has changed my life. That is not an exaggeration. During my longer breaks I take 30 seconds to stand against the wall and practice holding the proper posture muscles (learned from this video). They also have a range of Bruegger’s exercises that are great. But really, it’s the posture that has drastically helped my RSI symptoms.
- Do Hand Stretches. Give your hands and wrists a stretching session every hour (when it’s bad) and once a day when you’re in maintenance mode. This site has some that I often use. Here are Yoga poses that stretch wrists. And this video and this video walk you through hand stretches too.
- Body Stretches. Stretching your back, shoulders, neck, and arms is also very important in maintaining good RSI habits. A regular yoga practice would likely be best, but barring that I usually just head to YouTube and find some good stretches. I also do many of these stretches listed here and here between my work sessions.
Apps for Focus & Effectiveness
Preventing injury is more than just posture, it’s also about making your computer time a lot more effective. There’s tons of information out there about productivity, so this section will include some apps and resources I have found helpful.
- Stay Focused for Chrome: This app allows you to limit your time on certain websites, or it can nuke the entire internet from your browser for a set amount of time. I found that even without thinking I would often just navigate to Facebook or Twitter. With this app, I can prevent myself from descending down those rabbit holes while I am trying to be effective.
- Leech for Firefox: This has nearly identical functionality but works on Firefox if that is your go-to browser.
- Flux: This ingenious app fades the blue light from your screen after sundown. If you work at night, this orange tint on the screen is like a pillow for your eyes. It also helps keep your sleep cycles accurate because the color of light emitted from our computer screens are designed to mimic the sun—with flux turned on, it runs in the background and keeps your screen at an appropriate color for the time of day. Super simple and easy to use (and I am in a huge fan if you can’t tell).
- Background Noise: I work better and faster with background noise. And while I can do certain tasks with music (and I use Spotify for music on the road), I prefer some of the ambient noise options out there. I often use browser-based Coffitivity (free) to get into the work zone.