Sit up, Stand up, Breathe: Our Bodies and Our Writing

March 10, 2017 / By: Dr. Susan Callaway, Associate Professor of English / Director of the Center for Writing

Dr. Susan CallawayAs the director of the Center for Writing and someone who teaches writing, I watch people write and talk about writing a lot. Most of the time people sit and look down or peer into a laptop. In the center, two students can be reviewing a hard copy of a draft, looking down at the draft on the table between them, or they might be scrolling through the draft on a screen, spending the hour reading out loud, pointing to parts of the paper, while the writer at times makes revisions. Faculty at the writing retreats can spend hours in a chair in front of their screens. They hover over their notes, or other texts they’re referencing, morning and afternoon for five solid days.

Crouching, slouching, peering, typing. This is not good. I’m not even mentioning looking down at a smartphone, thumbs tapping. What is going on in our necks, our wrists, our hands, our eyes, our shoulders, our backs? It turns out a lot.

From carpal tunnel syndrome to headaches, our bodies are probably telling us that we are doing too much as writers. This is ironic, of course, because most of us are trying to write more—desperate to find time to immerse ourselves in our own scholarship. But this will mean more time sitting in front of a screen. And keep in mind what else we’re doing with our time beyond trying to write: sitting in meetings; sitting answering emails; sitting talking to students; okay, and sitting watching Netflix.

So what’s wrong—besides all the sitting?

Our eyes. Our eyes have muscles that need exercise as much as other parts of us, so we need to look away from the screen. Think long range, medium range, and then back to close range every 20 minutes.

Our posture. We need to set our laptops and computer screens so that we remember to sit up straight, full back in our chairs, with the screen eye level and an arm’s length away. Of course we then gradually migrate back to our most comfortable and not good for us at all posture. The problem is blood is pooling and we need to move to get it moving again, especially to our brains.

What can we do?

The bad news (sorry) is that what we hoped might work doesn’t.

Exercise. Turns out that you can’t undo all that happens to you when you sit for hours. So binge-writing or reading and then going for a run won’t counteract the fact that you were sedentary.

Standing. Unfortunately standing at a stand-up desk actually transfers the pressure points elsewhere on our bodies: our ankles, calves, and hips. I was so hoping this one would work.

Standing desks with treadmills. I wish I could afford one, but I fear they would be massively distracting and I’d ultimately hurt myself.

Propping up that laptop. Turns out this will position your wrists poorly so as your neck and eyes reap the benefits, so too will your carpal tunnel.

Wrist pads on the keyboard? By the mouse? No, not helpful as it turns out.

But there is hope!

Give your workstations (yes that’s plural) a makeover. There are YouTube videos on setting up where things should be ergonomically, and there are resources on our campus who can help as well. Treat yourself to what can matter in the long run: consider a good chair with a lot of back support for your office at home.

Move. To counteract the slouching you’re developing, exercise. Have walking meetings when at all possible. Stand to think or talk on the phone. Have multiple places where you write and change them during the course of a day or project. Alternate between writing stations: write sitting down for part of the time, stand for part of the time.

Use a timer. The most interesting advice coming out of people who make it their business to study these things (productivity and our health) is to work in short spurts. The Pomodoro Technique would have us setting a timer for 30 minute intervals where we grab a project and work on it, then at the end of that time, set the timer again and go after the next project. The National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity suggests writing for 30 minutes a day. We can make surprising progress when under the gun.

Working on a longer project and hope to make headway over a few hours’ time? Write for 55 minutes then get up and walk around. Participants in the January retreat found that leaving their writing and walking the halls for 5 minutes gave them a fresh perspective on their work.

Finally, breathe. Fight the stress and the feeling of urgency as you write and during your day.

It would seem hypocritical to give you links so you can spend more time at your screens to find the research on all this, or to find the person on our very campus who can help you set up your office workstation to make you a healthier and happier person, or to find our meditation room to get some peace. So I will leave you with what is arguably the most important online resource you may need.