The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Thursday, March 03, 2011

In praise of paper

RSI Awareness Day came round again on February 28. Perhaps appropriately though, I’ve been away for a few days, so I wasn’t at my desk on Monday. At this time of year, I generally try to find a new angle on safer, more ergonomic ways of working with computers, but this year as I've noticed that more and more tasks both at work and in everyday life seem to be becoming computer-based, I thought it might be time to extol the virtues of working away from your screen.

In general, I’m in favour of using less paper, on eco-principles. When it comes to work though, I’m quite a fan of a bit of paper now and then … recycled, of course! One of the main reasons why excessive computer use can lead to RSI and other health problems is because it's so easy for your body to get fixed in one position for long periods of time, often in an unhealthy posture, repeating the same little movements, with the mouse or keyboard. Most ergonomics experts recommend you take mini breaks every 10 to 15 minutes where you move your arms away from your keyboard and mouse, change your overall sitting position, let your muscles relax a bit and take your focus away from the screen - because your eye muscles need to relax too.

Now the principle of mini breaks sounds very simple, but in practice, even someone as committed to healthy working as I am, can find themselves caught up in a piece of work and not having moved for maybe an hour. So one way I try to force myself to move away from my screen and keyboard as regularly as possible is to build non-computer-based media into my usual working routine. Mostly, that's just a fancy way of saying I write things down on paper!

I have a big A4 notebook on my desk which I use for writing down all manner of notes. I might be working from one document on screen, but then making notes on paper, which I then read through, scribble over and doodle on before they make it back into an electronic format of some kind. It's not exactly a revolutionary idea, but just that action of putting down my mouse and picking up a pen instead, switching my focus from the screen to a piece of paper, I know gives my body a bit of a break. And by keeping everything in one big notepad, I don't lose things and can always look back through the pages if I need to find something.

I also have an old-fashioned paper desk diary that I use not just for writing down appointments, but to leave myself reminders about upcoming deadlines or people to contact. I note down the hours I've worked on each project, when I've sent off a piece of work or invoiced for a job - all of which, as a freelancer, helps me keep track of what I'm doing, all in one place. I know I can get some fancy scheduling software to do the same thing, but that wouldn't give me the excuse of looking away from my screen, swivelling round in my chair and picking up a pencil - a great little mini break.

And perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who works in publishing, I'm a big fan of books. I have a lovely bookcase of dictionaries and although most of them are available online for free, I'd much rather thumb through to the appropriate page than open another window in my browser.

Of course, everyone will have different ways of working and different tasks that they need to do, but I think that anyone can build a bit of paper back into their working routine for the sake of giving their body a break from their keyboard and screen.

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