Favorite Things, Personal, Reviews

Ow, My Back

We officially went into quarantine on March 22. One hot afternoon in June, I found myself in the garage with a pair of shears, a screwdriver, and a hammer so I could cut an inch of leather off my belt and punch a new hole.

All in all, I had lost twenty pounds by doing nothing. At least not intentionally. It was merely due to skipping meals (no more lunch out at work every day), the food I did eat was almost always cooked at home, and I had cut out my twice-daily can of soda from the office fridge. (Not to mention a heaping daily dose of existential dread, anxiety, and fear.)

Small changes, but over three months, they added up. Fast-forward to October 1, when I tweeted this

Since the start of COVID, I've punched three holes in this belt and cut off an inch of leather two times. Today, it finally went in the trash, and I bought a smaller size. Not everything in 2020 has turned out awful.

COVID Belt

I lost weight and was certainly medically healthier. But did I feel better? Not at all. By May, I was hurting. The next month I was in pain. That summer was nothing but agony from muscle and skeletal pain.

I knew what the problem was. I've sat in front of a computer some portion of almost every day of my life for the past thirty years. And I've always had terrible posture. Add that on top of Tourette's syndrome, and I'm amazed I've even gotten this far in life without my body completely revolting at one more hour hunched over a keyboard.

(I've talked about this a little, but I was formally diagnosed with Tourette's twelve years ago. It's a motor tic disorder, which means I twitch all the time. And when I try to control and repress my tics or when I'm physically unable to let them happen, my body becomes incredibly sore from trying to twitch.)

Coincidentally, as I've been drafting this post over the past few weeks, I read an article in The Atlantic titled "Yes, the Pandemic Is Ruining Your Body: Quarantine is turning you into a stiff, hunched-over, itchy, sore, headachy husk." It goes into data behind so many people coming to doctors with non-COVID medical problems brought on by the switch to working from home, shitty ergonomics, longer working hours, and, yes, stress.

And so, bingo. My excruciating back and neck pain. Not being able to sit on a couch without feeling like there was a lump in my throat (yes, I got that checked out) and a hot poker in the base of my neck. Or the tingling sensation from the heel of my foot up the side of my left leg as I made the short walk from my home office to the garage fridge for a Coke Zero.

Those were all the many ways my body decided to tell me, "Yo, none of this is healthy, and you're gonna be real fucked up soon if you don't find a better way of working (less)."

So, I listened. And five months later, I feel so many light-years better than I did that when I think back to mid-2020 that I can only gasp and wonder how I got any work done at all.

This post is all the fun, nerdy details that went into making my home and work offices more comfortable. It was a bit of self-preservation mixed with stress-shopping. But if you want the TL;DR, I can sum it up with two words:

Stop. Sitting.

There's more nuance to that, but I'll get there. First, I'm going to be upfront and say that (where possible) the product links below are affiliate URLs. However, next to each link, I also include a non-affiliate URL. Everything I list is what I purchased and (most importantly) ended up sticking with and whole-heartedly recommend. If you find the links useful and want to throw a few Amazon bucks my way, you're awesome. If not, then I hope you find these links helpful regardless.

OK.

I've had a love affair with office chairs for years. I wrote about my favorite one back in 2014 that I liked so much I bought two. But even with my back wrapped in the warm, Silicon Valley-esque embrace of a Herman Miller chair, my body was having no more of it.

I naively thought, "Ten years in the same chair. I just need something different." I didn't want to spend that kind of money again, so I settled on this cheap (but not horribly cheap by office chair standards) model (non-affiliate link).

It was sturdy, sat mostly OK, and the back support was adequate. My only real complaint was I found the armrests too high even in their lowest position.

I bought that chair in June, but it was clear my back and neck problems weren't going away by August. (Yes, I'm doing more throughout this whole period than just switching out chairs. Taking more breaks, daily walks, etc.)

I didn't see any way forward other than just not sitting eight or more hours a day. I last used a standing desk briefly at a job in 2013. But it didn't last. It was a fixed height (and incorrect for me), and I stood on hard commercial carpeting on top of cement. I wasn't optimistic I'd be able to go full-time standing, but I wanted to try.

I was lucky enough to get a motorized desk at work; I did more online research and found this highly recommended standing mat (non-affiliate link) from Ergodriven. Instead of being flat, this one has "terrain," as they call it - raised edges and a center "dome" that encourage you to keep your legs and feet moving more than you would if standing on a flat surface.

Ergodriven Standing Mat

It's quite wonderful. Comfortable in sock feet, sturdy when I wear shoes, and I've developed a habit of naturally angling my feet on the raised portion to stretch my legs as I work. I also bought a second one for my standing desk at home (more on that in a bit).

Ergodriven Standing Mat on Amazon

Speaking of standing desks, I think I was always hesitant to move to one because I've heard for years that the inexpensive ones are crap, and only the premium (trendy?) ones are worth the money.

So after standing full time for two months at work, I declared my standing desk experiment a success. My wife (amazingly) was all for me getting one at home, too. I liked the one I had in my office but assumed it was in the $700+ range. I asked my boss and was delighted to find out, nope. $280 ? (non-affiliate link).

Office Standing Desk

You'll notice in that photo of my office desk my monitor is raised to a comfortable eye-level using a very classy MoonPie collectible tin. I wanted something just as nice for my iMac at home. I couldn't find a Little Debbie collectible tin, so I settled on a HiRise stand (non-affiliate link) from the lovely folks at Twelve South.

Twelve South HiRise Pro

It matches the iMac's finish, and the front panel flips down to reveal storage. Also, the thing weighs a million pounds. Any computer or monitor you sit on top is not going anywhere - believe me.

Twelve South HiRise Pro

Next up, I work all hours of the day and night. I did have an old table lamp on the corner of my desk (overhead lighting is the devil), but it had a huge base and lampshade, which took up more desk space than I'd like. I wanted something smaller and ideally with an adjustable temperature bulb. (I'd prefer not to reach for an app just to control a "smart" bulb.)

I found this one (non-affiliate link).

LED Lamp

It's skinny and has three points of adjustment, so I can freely reposition it as needed. And if you look closely here

LED Lamp

You can tap to switch the LED between four color temperatures - cool to warm. And it's hard to see in that photo, but the white/gray rectangle in the middle has + and - buttons to adjust the brightness.

You may be wondering about that large, silver box in the first lamp photo. That is an amazing device from Yottamaster that I should have bought years ago.

On December 20 I tweeted

For the first time in my adult life I am at peace with the cable organization behind my desk. Ending 2020 on a high note.

My iMac serves as the media and storage hub for my family. All of our movies and TV shows, music, photos, everything - stored on (currently) an 8TB and 12TB external drive.

I've never wanted to go all-in on a real NAS for various reasons. I've rolled my own over the network with a Raspberry Pi and openmediavault, which worked surprisingly well. But nothing beats the performance of having drives connected directly and the insanely affordable Backblaze pricing for tethered drives (non-affiliate link).

But it always drove me crazy giving up USB ports for multiple drives. And especially the awfulness of giant power bricks and their cables. I have no idea why I never thought to look for something like this before, but that silver box is perfect for my needs (non-affiliate link).

It's just a hard drive enclosure with four bays. But it's not RAID or anything fancy like that. It's a single power cable and a single USB cable. But each drive mounts individually on my Mac as if they were all plugged in separately. I don't want the overhead of dealing with a RAID array. I'm perfectly content spanning my data across multiple drives myself, so this is a terrific and inexpensive solution.

Yottamaster 4 Bay Hard Drive Enclosure

Yottamaster 4 Bay Hard Drive Enclosure

All right, we're near to the end. One more thing for my desk. One more thing for my feet.

After standing full-time at work beginning in August and then doing the same at home in October, my legs hurt. Don't get me wrong. It wasn't the scary tingling sensation I had before or a painfully sore neck; this was just regular muscle soreness from being out of shape. I knew that my legs would adjust and get stronger with time, and they did.

But what I didn't expect was around the time my legs stopped aching, the soles of my feet and especially my heel really began to hurt. At this point, I'm sure I was standing (and walking / moving) ten or more hours a day, thanks to an out of whack work/life balance. My back and neck had recovered by no longer sitting with poor posture all day, but now my feet were screaming. Fiery pins and needles type pain.

I could tell the standing mat helped, and so did taking breaks on the couch for conference calls. Ultimately, all the advice I read online agreed with an email response from my doctor, who I'm sure thinks I'm an idiot for not thinking of the fix myself.

Change your shoes, dummy.

At home, I was standing in my sock feet all day. And at work, I was in sneakers the whole time. Neither option was very supportive - and even if they were, standing the same way all day every day isn't going to feel good.

Again, I researched online and talked to two friends who are nurses (walking in hospitals for 12+ hour shifts). I went with their recommendation and bought a pair of Dansko clogs (non-affiliate link). They're not particularly good looking (a co-worker laughed), but they're hella supportive when standing.

Dansko Clogs

My new routine is to switch between the clogs and sock feet every few hours throughout the day. Since making that adjustment in December, my feet are no longer in pain.

Finally, rounding out my home office, the only thing I don't like about my desk is the desktop is so smooth it's borderline slippery. It just doesn't feel comfortable under my writs, and my keyboard will occasionally slide out of place.

I totally get this is a huge Princess and the Pea situation, but so be it. I wanted something that looked and felt nice and found this desk pad from Grovemade. Made of wool, feels great, nothing slides around anymore, and they even included a handwritten thank-you note with the order. So, three cheers for well-made products from friendly companies.

Grovemade Wool Desk Pad

Grovemade Wool Desk Pad

That's it. That's my 2020 journey from sedentary pain, losing a little extra weight, upending my posture, and then falling down a rabbit hole of fussy home-office accessories. Like I said earlier, it was a bit of getting healthier along with some retail therapy to get through a genuinely shitty year for our world.

Happy 2021, and stay safe out there, folks.