Photo by star5112
What’s the worst thing that could happen to a writer?
If you’re a writer, I’m guessing you’d put ‘not being able to write’ pretty high on your list of potential disasters. Logically, there are plenty of far worse fates, but emotionally this one looms pretty large – especially if your living depends on your writing.
Last year, that’s exactly what happened to me.
Since last April I’ve been experiencing debilitating pain and tension in my hands and arms, a.k.a. repetitive strain injury (RSI), which means I haven’t been able to type or write more than a few short sentences at a time.
Yet during that time I’ve written 41 articles for Lateral Action, a 58 page e-book, various proposals and seminars for clients, built a steadily growing following on Twitter, rebuilt and rewritten my Wishful Thinking site, and (just about) managed to keep up with my e-mail.
If you want to know how I did it, read on …
‘It’s impossible to go to lightspeed!’
In spring 2008, life was good. Not only was my consulting business thriving but I had agreed to start a new venture in partnership with two of my Internet publishing heroes – Brian Clark and Tony Clark. After our initial discussions, I was fired up to write the cornerstone content of the Lateral Action website.
But I’d only written a few pages when something odd happened. I noticed a feeling of discomfort in my right arm when I was using the mouse. Thinking that maybe I was over-using it a bit, I went out and bought a Wacom tablet. I write left-handed so I could give my right arm a rest while still ploughing on with my work. For a couple of weeks that seemed to solve the problem. Then disaster struck.
It happened very suddenly. One day I was typing away as usual when I noticed a deep ache in my forearms and wrists. They felt very heavy and stiff, so that typing was like wading through deep water.
It felt like that scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Han Solo switches on the hyperdrive – but instead of leaping forward eagerly, the Millennium Falcon makes a shuddering noise and the engines fizzle out.
Realising something was seriously wrong, I took the unprecedented step of taking the week off, even though I had urgent work to get on with. That week felt like eternity – but little did I suspect that I’d be here nearly a year later, still unable to type more than a brief e-mail.
Now before we go any further, I’m in no need of sympathy – I’m pleased to say that I’ve had great treatment from my physiotherapists and my hands are vastly improved from a few months ago. So (touch wood) the end is in sight.
And I’m not writing this post to boast of any superhuman productivity powers. I want to share with you what I learned about what work is really important and how to be more effective at doing it. Plus I hope to alert you to some of the pitfalls of working with computers, so that you can avoid my mistakes.
Think Like an Athlete
I’ve been told that the cause of my injury was absurdly simple:
I changed my keyboard.
Ironically, I was trying to avoid RSI. I managed to cure a pain in my neck by putting my laptop up on a stand so I wasn’t bent over the screen. I bought a desktop keyboard – but stupidly, not a wrist rest. This meant that my wrists went from being straight (supported by the surface of the laptop) to being bent back in a position known as ‘the claw’. Which meant the muscles in the forearms were not only constantly tensed, but being used in a different way to my normal typing posture.
The analogy used by one of my physiotherapists was that it was like a super-fit cyclist suddenly deciding he can run a marathon tomorrow – forgetting that he will be using his leg muscles in a completely different way. Ouch!
A professional athlete would never make this kind of mistake. She would take care to adjust her posture, date and equipment to avoid strain and injury. And she would get expert advice on exactly how to do this.
Just because you’re sitting at a desk all day doesn’t mean you aren’t using your body – quite the reverse, you could well be putting it under dangerous strain. Consulting a professional specialist could save you a world of pain. Where health care is concerned, prevention is always better than cure. But if you’re hesitating, remember this is your livelihood – you literally can’t afford to find out the hard way.
Takeaway: Think like an athlete: get the best advice and equipment you can get, to make sure that you are working with your body, not against it.
Focus on the Essentials
In The Four Hour Work Week, Tim Ferriss asks the following question:
If you had a heart attack and had to work two hours per day, what would you do?
When I first read this, I thought it was a clever thought experiment. I never suspected that a few months later I would find my workday cut down to almost exactly this length. My wife kindly volunteered to help me with computer work, but as she had her own work to do, there were days when she could only spare a couple of hours.
This forced me to look at what was absolutely essential for me to do. I realised there were only three things I had to do on the computer:
- Write original material – the foundation content for Lateral Action.
- Create slides and other materials for my seminars.
- Answer a small percentage of my e-mail.
So no Google Reader, no Twitter, no Facebook, no Last FM, no football message boards, no tweaking my blog template, no checking my e-mail 10 times a day. I’m not saying there’s no value or pleasure in these activities – but for me, this experience has hammered home the point that they should never take time away from my core work. And it made me appreciate face-to-face work with clients all the more.
Takeaway: Sit down and answer Tim’s question for yourself. Then redesign your working schedule around those core activities.
My wife’s help (and patience with my nitpicky writerly perfectionism) meant I got the foundation articles written. Ditto the slides for several seminars. I found physiotherapists who explained what had happened to my arms and gave me expert treatment and exercises to solve the problem. For one of my projects, I explained I couldn’t carry on doing everything myself and funding was found for an IT assistant. For my Wishful Thinking site, I stopped fiddling with the code myself and enlisted Antonio to help me out. I also found a funky WordPress theme that does most of the heavy lifting for me.
Takeaway: Don’t be too proud to ask for help. Even if you can do everything yourself, is it really the best use of your time?
‘Enter the Dragon’
What’s the one area where Windows Vista wipes the floor with Apple? Speech recognition.
As an enthusiastic Apple convert, it was disappointing to discover that my MacBook Pro’s speech recognition capabilities were frankly lame. Several people told me that Windows Vista had ‘surprisingly good’ speech recognition. I found this hard to believe, and
waited wasted several months before I gritted my teeth and installed Vista on my Mac. It was like a door opening again. It was by no means perfect, but I could surf the web and write short e-mails without excruciating pain.
Then I bought Dragon NaturallySpeaking and got my life back. You’ve probably guessed by now that I’m not typing these words. I’m strolling around my living room with dance music pumping out of the speakers, talking in my normal voice into a wireless headset – and watching the words magically appear on the screen, in an enormous font.
I’m going to write an in-depth review of Dragon NaturallySpeaking for Lateral Action, but for now I’ll just say it’s so good that I can’t imagine going back to typing, even when my hands are fully recovered. I’m a pretty fast typist , but Dragon means I can generate text as fast as I can speak. So I’m getting my thoughts down much quicker, and it’s great for editing and knocking the text into shape. So it’s definitely increased my capacity for producing written content, and made the writing process more enjoyable.
(I’ve heard a rumour that Nuance have recently released a version of Dragon NaturallySpeaking for the Mac – if any of you have tried it, I’d like to hear from you …)
Takeaway: Sitting hunched over a keyboard is sooooo last century. The Dragon and the Wii are just the beginning – explore new ways to interact with your computer. Ask it to dance!
Most E-Mail Is Not That Urgent
Can you imagine how embarrassing it was to have written a popular e-book on time management, and to have an overflowing inbox, including many unanswered e-mails from three or four months ago? One of the first things I did when I started using Dragon was to have an e-mail blitz, pumping out grovelling apologies, especially to people who had asked for help on various things.
The result? The people who responded were fine, and had usually manage to solve the problem themselves. And a high proportion of people didn’t even reply, which suggests that either (a) they were speechless with anger or disappointment, or (b) their requests weren’t as important or urgent as they sounded.
Since then, I’ve felt a lot less guilty about prioritising important work over a squeaky clean inbox. At the time I wrote my e-book on Time Management for Creative People, I was following Mark Forster‘s excellent advice to ‘Do It Tomorrow’, i.e. don’t respond to e-mail immediately, but within one working day. These days, it’s more like ‘Do It at Some Point This Week’ – I answer genuinely urgent and time sensitive e-mails as quickly as possible, otherwise I have an e-mail catch up session once or twice a week. Most of my correspondents seem perfectly happy with that. And I’m getting a hell of a lot more done with the extra time.
Takeaway: Don’t let your inbox dictate your day. Decide which e-mails merit an instant response, and catch up with the rest once you’ve dealt with your real priorities for the day.
Don’t Keep Your To-do List on the Computer
One of the most productive changes I made was to take my daily to-do list off the computer and onto a Post-It pad. That meant that the computer didn’t need to be on all the time by default – and I was less likely to get sucked into surfing or checking e-mail each time I consulted the list. Plus the size of the Post-It notes keeps me focused – instead of an endless digital to-do list, I know that if the list won’t fit on a Post-It, it won’t fit into my day. So I create more realistic daily lists – and actually complete them.
Takeaway: Try writing your daily tasks on a single Post-It note. If it doesn’t fit, cut it down to size before you start work.
Pick up the Phone
I answered a lot of e-mail by phone. In many cases, I saved time by avoiding several e-mails’ worth of exchanges. Plus it was nice to hear people’s voices and have a more meaningful conversation.
Takeaway: E-mail looks quick and easy, but in the words of Peregrine Took, shortcuts make long delays. For complex or emotionally sensitive issues, try a real conversation.
Monitor Your Time
Just before I got injured, I had started experimenting with RescueTime – a web-based service that monitors your computer use, and gives you accurate feedback on exactly how you’re using your computer. It can tell you exactly how long you’ve been using each software application and even how much time you spend on different websites!
Now that I’m in recovery mode and trying to gradually increase the amount of time I spend using the computer, RescueTime is helping me avoid overdoing it. More than that, high-quality feedback is essential for improving performance and achieving creative flow.
Takeaway: Gather data about how you’re really using your time. If you don’t trust RescueTime, fill out a time sheet every half hour for a couple of days. Notice what a difference it makes when you have to account for your time.
Be Thankful for Your Work
Whatever you do for a living there will be a downside. Unexpected problems. Unreliable tools. Annoying people. If you work in an office, your co-workers can get on your nerves. If you work alone, you can get lonely.
But the old saying rings true that you don’t really know what you have till you lose it. Since getting back to work, I’ve really appreciated what a pleasure – and a privilege – it is to be able to write and share my ideas and enthusiasms with my readers. Since launching Lateral Action, the response we’ve had from you in the comments and elsewhere has been phenomenal, and I wake up everyday feeling grateful to be a part of it. Thank you!
Takeaway: If you notice your enthusiasm for your work drying up, take a break. Leave it alone and notice what you miss. Then come back and make that your focus.
If You’re Worried about RSI …
Please note I’m not offering medical advice about RSI treatment. You’ll need to consult a qualified professional for that. What worked for me personally was a combination of Western-style acupuncture (to reduce inflammation and tension in the muscles) and physiotherapy (mostly exercises to improve functioning and posture).
I’ve already said that prevention is the best cure – if you spend a significant amount of time at the computer, consult a professional specialist to make sure your working posture isn’t putting you at risk. And beware of making any sudden changes! If you do change your setup, get advice to make sure you’re making the right changes. I’m told that in my case, the cause of the injury wasn’t so much repetitive strain as a different kind of strain brought on by the change in keyboard setup.
If you are experiencing pain or discomfort already, please consult a professional specialist without delay. If I’d done that, I could have saved myself months of lost work, not to mention pain.
And if you have successfully overcome RSI, I’d be really interested to hear your comments about how you did it. (N.b. I’m looking for personal stories of things that worked for you – comments from companies touting their own products or services will be deleted.)
Keeping Yourself Healthy and Productive
Have you ever had to deal with an injury that interfered with your work? What did you learn from it?
Have you successfully overcome RSI? How?
Heavy computer users – how do you take care of your physical health?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach.