Guilty of the sofa slump, the cafe hunch or eight hours of mindless snacking? There are better, more productive ways to work that can transform your day at your desk – and your productivity.
However you work – desktop computer, laptop or mobile device – we’ve all felt the drag of long days in front of the screen. If you’ve no colleagues to interrupt you, it’s easy to get into a flow and realise you haven’t moved for hours, skipped lunch for a deadline, or you took part in an endless session of email scrolling that’s left you with text neck once you look up and log off. None of this is conducive to great work and can leave you hungry, fatigued and aching.
According to a report by IPSE (the Association of Independent and the Self Employed), the majority of freelancers prefer to work from home. That means that while there are so many comforts to be gained (being in charge of your own schedule and smashing through the laundry during conference calls), we don’t necessarily adopt the best working habits. These can have short-term side effects, such as dehydration and lack of concentration, or more long-term consequences including minor aches and pains or even repetitive strain injuries.
Why we fatigue at our desk
There’s a long list of reasons why we tire, slump and feel lethargic at our desk, and they can be broadly summed up into environmental factors and personal factors.
Environmental is just that – lighting, temperature and the poor workstation setup; personal is what’s going on with you, and some are more within your control than others. Poor posture awareness, lack of sleep, lack of good nutrition, prolonged positions, poor eyesight and repetitive tasks are all factors that can make our day debilitating. And then there’s stress. “Stress, pain and tension all have similar chemistry, and it’s one of the biggest drivers that I see in patients coming to the clinic,” says Hannah Freeth, a musculoskeletal physiotherapist at Vanbrugh Physiotherapy.
Forgetting to stay hydrated or stopping to eat are two things that Alison Clark, a freelance dietitian, sees regularly in workplaces. “Being dehydrated, even a small amount, can affect your concentration, performance and can even make you perceive a task to be harder,” she says. “I recommend getting into a routine of sipping water throughout the day. Most people don’t drink anything until lunch, if they even take a break, and then they’ll down a litre of water, which the body won’t absorb as effectively.”
Take a look at your setup. Are you using a computer or a laptop? Is your chair adjustable, or are you spending your working day unsupported in a dining room chair? Hannah says you don’t need every bit of kit under the sun, just a few important basics to help support your posture. “If your main job is computer-based, getting a monitor, separate keyboard and mouse are good places to start. I’d also advise getting a good chair – one that goes up and down. That way, if you work from a dining table you can adjust to the right height.” If you’re shorter, get a footrest to bring the floor up to you.
Once you have your computer and desk equipment checked, it’s time to sit right. “Get your body to the back of the chair,” says Hannah. “Get your angles right and sit with your elbows and knees at 90 degrees. You don’t want knees above your hips. Keep your shoulders back and your chest upright. I advise patients for a relaxed effort with their posture rather than tensing, so around 40-50% effort.”
Avoid a hotdesk of horrors
If you’re working out of home and perching in a cafe, it may not necessarily be designed to accommodate long working hours. Hannah’s best advice is to carry a portable mouse and make the best use of the chair. “Make sure your bottom is at the back of the chair, and that you’re relatively close to what you’re working on to avoid stretching out.” You also need to be conscious to move more (a good excuse to go and order that third flat white) and get your circulation going. “Do some shoulder rolls, raise your arms in the air, extend one leg at a time, or stand up, every 10 minutes.”
Saved by the snack
“I encourage some snacking through the day, but you need to be mindful about it,” says Alison. Instead of aimlessly going through an entire bag of nuts, measure out a small handful into a bowl and keep it on your desk. “This’ll help keep your blood sugar levels up – low levels can cause the shakes, poor concentration and limit your ability to make quick or effective decisions.”
Power up your posture
“The reason posture tends to fail and cause problems, I believe, is because we’re more static,” says Hannah. “We’re not as active generally and unfortunately our body’s not necessarily designed for that – we’re designed to move.” In light of that, you might be looking for some preventative care to counter the long hours at your desk. Hannah recommends Pilates, “it’s a good place to start for posture awareness,” she says. “It’s important to make sure your body is strong enough to maintain those positions you’re working in so you can work efficiently and avoid pain.”
Break for lunch
When you break for lunch, make sure the plate is balanced. Alison advises: “Your plate should be made up of 50% vegetables or salad, 25% lean protein and 25% low GI carbs. Or if you’re very hungry and need something quick without the risk of an afternoon slump, try a vegetable soup, which is quick and easy to make.”
Get up and get out
Being freelance gives you the freedom to set up your day however you want. Factor in short breaks every hour as you would a meeting or call, and find time to get outside in the middle of the day. The time away from your desk will give you a quick mental reset and keep your concentration ticking along. “Now is also a good time to top up your vitamin D stores while the sun is shining,” says Alison. “Just 10 minutes a day outside without sunscreen, 2-3 times a week around lunchtime should be enough to see your levels through winter.”