Repetitive Strain

August 06, 2018

I returned from a conference last week and began to feel the creeping pain of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) in my hands and wrists. I finally have enough data points to make the connection that conferences and client visits exacerbate my RSI. It’s now obvious that using my laptop and trackpad as well as increased mobile phone usage are taking their toll on my body.

It’s hard to explain this injury if you don’t have it. It’s like fire in my wrists. Or a sprained wrist that is immune to ibuprofen. Last week’s end was so uncomfortable for me and I lost so much productivity that I’ve spent the last few days weighing solutions.

First step: Buy my way out of this problem

When in doubt, buy your way out! This is a terribly privileged point of view but if there’s a technological solution out there for me, I’d like to explore that option (before medication or surgery).

Hand holding an Anker vertical mouse

I purchased a vertical mouse for work. My mousehand stress is about a 2 out of 10 compared to the WASD hand which is about a 9 out of 10. Anker sells a $20 vertical mouse and I figured it’d be worth it to try and upgrade to a nicer/dorkier one later. Like… some people use a joystick instead of a mouse, which sounds pretty effin’ awesome now that I think about it.

What will really make a big difference is a keyboard…

Ergodox separated keyboard that doesn't look anything like a normal keyboard

I’m looking at an Ergodox keyboard. The Ergodox is an expensive ($350) and weird looking open source keyboard, but if it saves me from wrist pain like last week, it would be all worth it. If it doubles as a gaming keyboard, even better. I’m currently switching between a Microsoft Ergonomic Keyboard for coding and a mechanical keyboard for gaming. It’d be nice to clear a keyboard off my desk. There are a few keyboard options sitting in this niche mechanical+ergonomic market.

I’m worried about this being snake oil though. There’s a lot of mechanical keyboard fanatacism to sift through. There’s no ergonomic keyboard certification on the site. There’s no Dr. Oz saying “Yep. Buy this one!” There’s the word “ortholinear” which sounds official I guess. The testimonials on the site are mostly white men who use off-brand Linux distros. And to top it all off, the snake oil vibe is not helped by Ergodox-EZ’s aggressive remarketing ad campaigns that are chasing me around the web. Is the Ergodox really ergonomic? Or just a weird mechanical keyboard that keyboard nerds like?

I’ve heard a few first-hand reports that this weird keyboard is a godsend. Those are valuable. If you sit in the cross-section of quirky mechanical keyboard enthusiast and wrist pain sufferer, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Where I think the Ergodox stands out is its customization options of the keyswitches, keymappings, tent legs, and independent left/right positioning. Customizability seems to be a key component for ergonomics and I can see myself tinkering to get the right fit. The keyboard takes 6-weeks to fabricate, so the sooner I make a decision the better (for my wrists). I’m into its weird aesthetic, so I’ve ordered ~$30 worth of tester switches to get the best $350 keyboard possible. I’m hypothesizing that quiet, linear speed switches (Kailh Silver?) might be the best fit for me.

Second step: Throw my phone into the ocean

Unfortunately, I think the real culprit of my RSI is my iPhone X. The increased size and the swipe oriented UI are causing my hands a lot of stress especially when trying to balance this $1000 phone in one hand while operating. At conferences my phone is a great way to stay connected to work-Slack and Twitter casually as well as my family while still engaging with the conference.

I’m currently weighing my options here:

  1. “Use phone less” is the obvious tactic but so far has gotten me nowhere.
  2. “Enter room and throw phone across room” works but only works in limited spaces.
  3. The nuclear option: a Nokia 3310. This would mean sacrificing FaceTimes with my family on the road.

There’s no clear winner here. I’ve tried Pop Sockets, but they don’t fix it either. Maybe a $350 watch fixes this? Open to suggestions.

Last step: Unplug more and prepare

I think I need to unplug more. Specifically I need to abandon my Twitter addiction. In addition to mental anguish, it’s literally causing me too much pain.

I’m heading into a travel season so I need to gird myself. Not sure what my actionable items are right now. Maybe I should build/commission a more-portable (and adorable!) MiniDox keyboard.

What I fear most is that my side project days and maybe even PC gaming are at risk. That would be most unfortunate. I’d have to find a non-computer hobby.

Lastly, I know what you’re thinking, “Dave, Dave, maybe this repetitive strain is just a physical manifestation of an internal demon related to the general repetitiveness of building websites!” Yes, Dear Reader, yes… that has crossed my mind…