Typing Break and WorkRave: Keep RSI at Bay

I woke up on Thursday with a left arm more painful than a 100 episodes of Wheel of Fortune. I had almost pulled an all-nighter the night before to finish reviewing/correcting a paper. I went to the doctor, fearing the worst. My left wrist was aching, and no change of position or angle would suppress the hurt.

The doctor said I had tenosynovitis – which is a member of the much talked-about Repetitive Strain Injuries. He advised me against using the laptop on my lap – this keep my hands all hunched up together. He also advised a couple of days of rest. So needless to say, I haven’t typed much over the weekend, though I wanted to write a short guide on implementing a Getting Things Done workflow in Linux. I had set things up for GTD the past week, and the search for tools that work on Linux was frustrating, to say the least. I finally had to narrow it down to an online tool that seems very capable of the task. I have been itching to write the article and yet have resisted.

Monday brought me back to work, and I thought I should look at options to reduce the risk of recurrence of the pain. For two reasons – the pain was real bad, and the doctor said that repeated occurrences of RSI would lead to the much-dreaded Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and perhaps permanent numbness of the digits in my hands.

GNOME is very advanced when it comes to providing methods to save your hands.

There is the Typing Break in GNOME’s keyboard preferences dialog (System -> Preferences -> Keyboard). Here’s a snapshot:

It is easy enough to ask you computer to lock up every once in an hour or so for 5 minutes to enforce a break.

But for those of us who are not satisfied with a fly swatter to swat flies, there is workrave, with the little sheep for a mascot.

You can install workrave using:
$sudo apt-get install workrave

Once installed, you can add it to your panel as an applet by right-clicking on a panel and adding the applet:

Once on the panel, you get to right click on the panel applet and set preferences:
workrave preferences

There’s a whole lot to choose from – you can choose to have micro-breaks of less than minute every 10 minutes, say. You can also enforce a longer break every hour or so. A break of 5 minutes every hour seems normal. You can also choose whether to be able to postpone the break when you get the warning of an impending break or not. A break can be either just a disabled keyboard, or a locked screen too, just so you don’t use your mouse to sneak a peek at you mail, or visitor stats :)

Workrave also has a neat feature where you can exercise your fingers, wrist, neck and arms during the break – there is an on-screen display of how to do the exercise and a virtual character does it with you. Marcel has written about workrave in detail and even has some more screenshots – including one of the dudette who does the exercises with you.

In addition to the forced typing breaks, I am thinking this would be a good time to switch to the Dvorak keyboard layout. The initial learning phase where typing gets really slow is what’s holding me back. Maybe that is one thing to filed under “someday/maybe” in my GTD system. :)

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