I screen, you screen…

by Maria on June 27, 2017

I can’t be the only person who gets horrible eye-strain and frequent migraines from looking at computer screens for many hours a day. But my job, in the physical sense, is basically reading screens and typing stuff into computers. Like so many of us.

Then there’s the generalised version of the ‘spending too much time reading crap on Twitter’ problem, which is a total time-sink and makes me aggravated and unhappy.

These are two distinct but also connected issues. Stuff I’ve considered/tried includes:

Turning off the router at night and only turning it on again in the morning a couple of hours into actual work. Other household members can find this annoying. (Understatement)

Looking for a word-processing only machine – but they’re all extremely old and have tiny screens.

Reviving an old laptop and making it a non-connected machine. Helps with the Twitter problem, but not with the migraines.

Writing by hand and inputting later. Good for shorter stuff, extremely tedious in longer doses.

Keeping the lightness setting on my laptop squintingly low. Helps with the headaches, not the Twitter.

Using an unconnected machine for long-form. I always crack.

Freedom or other such programmes. I always crack.

Feeling that as kindles and such can be read without eye-strain, there must be some sort of work-devices that also can? But being unable to find one.

And so forth.

I mean, the overall problem is that we have little monkey (ok, ape) brains and love novelty and distraction and tiny yet sustained doses of social feedback, and also live in a wider techno-capitalist superstructure that wants to get and keep us addicted, etc. etc. And also that an inability to think long-ish and against the grain kinds of thoughts is, well, convenient to the maintenance of that type of economic set-up. I get that!

But I will take 100% responsibility for being so distractable if I can find a way to work without getting a fucking migraine at least every ten days that wipes out my ability to produce work for at least two days, each time. And is also no bloody fun.

So, this is clearly a bleg, but I figure many CT people struggle with this sort of thing, and any experiences/suggestions you have may find a grateful reception from many others.

Also, my back is completely banjaxed from it, but there’s yoga for that.



Atrios 06.27.17 at 8:57 am

install f.lux https://justgetflux.com/

warms your screen colors and does so increasingly as it gets later. play with the settings a bit. Really helped me.


John Hayter 06.27.17 at 9:05 am

Have you discounted the Freewrite? Disclaimer: not tried it myself.


Richard 06.27.17 at 9:38 am


JM Hatch 06.27.17 at 9:42 am


Lynne 06.27.17 at 10:17 am

Oh, Maria, you are not alone! I use Flux, as mentioned above, which saves me having to manually dim the screen, but does allow for easy extra-dimming, or brightening. But what stopped me waking in the night with headaches is eyedrops called HyLo—no preservatives. Apparently the eye naturally dries out at night and this causes pain (according to my optometrist). You can use the drops several times a day and do they ever make a difference.

Notice I have no suggestion for increasing willpower.

My coffee is just ready. When I come back I’ll look for a link for the drops.


Lynne 06.27.17 at 10:20 am


Ivo 06.27.17 at 10:35 am

Are you sure the migraines aren’t a consequence of your banjaxed back? If I take care to sit correctly (and regularly stand up and move around for a bit), then my back doesn’t hurt and I don’t get headaches either. Taking the time to configure any chair I sit in (and switch the chair entirely if I can’t find an arrangement that doesn’t lead to back pain) is well worth it for me.


Anonymous2 06.27.17 at 10:39 am

My wife has found a change of diet has stopped her migraines.


Henry 06.27.17 at 10:56 am


Mario 06.27.17 at 11:33 am

I’ve had some limited success using a blocking plugin for firefox (leechblock), when complemented by the following. I keep a journal open in a text editor alongside, and when I crack and hit the block, I write down in it the feelings and thoughts I had shortly before. My theory is that taking conscience of what motivates me to wander off on the net may help me devise some psychological change to have less of that. It certainly helps in that I normally can recover from the slip of attention and return to what I was doing instead of just circumventing the block and heading to twitter.

(So far I’ve noticed that current world affairs are causing me a moderate but constant level of anxiety. No idea what to do about it – changing the world does not seem a realistic option…)

The headaches and your back problems are probably related. Taking conscience of your position and sitting habits might help. Has helped me in the past.

The freewriter linked above by Henry looks very interesting.


Krom Hout 06.27.17 at 12:09 pm

Instead of writing by hand (and cheaper though somewhat noisier than Freewrite): you could use a typewriter, then scan the documents and use some OCR tool (like the one from ‘PDF Exchange Viewer’) to convert this to editable text.


Doctor Memory 06.27.17 at 12:26 pm

The eyestrain/headache problem should probably be considered somewhat in isolation from the more, ah, existential perils of constant social media engagement. Some suggestions for the former ranging from “free” to “somewhat expensive”:

Others have mentioned f.lux and I concur, but let me suggest something perhaps obvious that nonetheless was conspicuous by its absence: increase your system’s default font size, possibly by a lot, on both your phone and laptop. Eyes are weird squishy things and they get weirder as you get older: once you’re past your 20s, spending all of your time reading 8-point text is probably a terrible idea. (The ability to adjust font sizes on books as I was reading them was what finally and completely sold me on e-readers.)

Also: there are a billion applications (some free, most cheap) around that will remind you to take hourly (or more frequent) breaks from your computer, even to the point of locking the keyboard for 1-5 minutes at regular intervals. They’re usually pitched for helping people avoid/treat RSIs (carpal tunnel / tendonitis) but they’re also a good plan for your eyes/back, especially if you like me tend to hunch over and squint if you’re at all engaged with your work.

Eye drops! Have a bottle next to every place you’re likely to sit down with a computer. Have one in each of your bags that you regularly carry. Use them! (Possibly every time you take a break as above.) Older eyes are dryer eyes, and dryer eyes are squintier eyes.

Then in the realm of Actual Money:

– hire someone to do an ergonomic consult on your work area. At a minimum this should involve measuring the heights, distances and angles of your desk, chair and monitor and adjusting some or all of them.

– consider buying a new monitor. Modern high-resolution monitors (“4k” models) have a pixel density approaching that of an old laser printer (270-300 dpi) and can be much more comfortable to read. They’re also often brighter and have better viewing angles. The 4k ones especially used to be viciously expensive but are recently nudging down into the sub-$350 range.


Matt 06.27.17 at 12:57 pm

Writing by hand and inputting later. Good for shorter stuff, extremely tedious in longer doses.

I actually do this for lots of “rough drafts” where I mean _really_ rough. But, the problems reoccur when it comes time to type them out, and I have the additional problem of trying to figure out what the hell I wrote down a lot of times. Still, I do often think that I think better w/ pen and paper than on the computer.


Maria 06.27.17 at 1:38 pm

Thanks everyone. Some fantastic pointers here. I hope others find it useful, too.


Ed 06.27.17 at 2:55 pm

Your answer is the answer to everything, discipline and a strict diet.


Plarry 06.27.17 at 3:18 pm

Dr. Memory makes good suggestions. A new monitor was going to be mine also. The other that hasn’t been made is to convert to a standing desk for back problems. There are various solutions for this from the free do-it-yourself kind to the expensive ones. But pain is a sign that your system is not properly configured for you.


novakant 06.27.17 at 3:29 pm

Start smoking – a wonderful way to relax at regular intervals.

OK, I’m kidding of course, but I do miss it and it was a very sociable experience, also great for bouncing ideas around – I hung out with the remaining smokers long after I had quit…


JanieM 06.27.17 at 4:47 pm

Looking for a word-processing only machine – but they’re all extremely old and have tiny screens.

I’ve wanted something like this (and portable! ;-) for thirty years. Too bad.

Quick thoughts, haven’t read all the comments yet:

I had headaches a lot through my earlier adulthood, never had them diagnosed (thought they were sinus-related but a doc friend insisted they were migraines). They mostly disappeared with menopause and the end of child-raising. I was taken aback when I started to have migraine auras a few years ago (never had them with the headaches in earlier years), sometimes followed by headaches, sometimes not, but always followed by a sickish feeling that lasted for a day or so.

I realized after a while that the auras had started after I replaced all my incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents, so I re-replaced the fluorescents with some incandescents (bought a lifetime supply from the last bin at Lowe’s) and some LEDs. Auras got very rare again.

I recently had a big lesson about food and the headaches/auras. I usually think of food first when anything goes wrong, but for some weird reason I had never considered food as a possible trigger for the headaches. But I made a pesto recipe using walnuts and parmesan (neither of which I eat much any more) and had four auras/headaches in three days. It was just awful. Then when the pesto was gone I went back to normal.

I tend to think of the computer screen as a villain in all this, but it really doesn’t seem to be. On the other hand, because of back, hip, and shoulder issues (I’m getting old!), I take breaks from the screen every 15-20 minutes anyhow.

As to the time-wasting: I laughed at novakant suggesting smoking as a way to relax at regular intervals. Back when I had my Irish girlfriend, she would have a smoke at every transition from one thing to another all day long, and sometimes on no excuse whatsoever. (Lots of smokes!) I have for a long time considered my time-wasting on the internet to be the equivalent of her cigarettes. :-) The trouble is, while smoking a cigarette may take what, seven minutes or so? — wasting time on the internet can easily expand to fill and hour.

Recently I’ve started simply leaving the computer off for a good long while every morning (though I too make my living in front of it, I do work mostly at home and have lots of flexibility about hours). If migraines ruin two days out of every ten, it’s not a bad tradeoff, if you can manage it, to take good long breaks during the day when you’re actually doing the stuff we all used to do all day long before there were computers. ;-)

As for standing desks — I built some shelves and put old modular desktops on them to make standing desks in L-shapes with my sitting desks. It was my dream for a long time! But — my knees are wrecked so, as it turns out, I can’t stand in front of the screen for long at a time either.

Hasty, sorry if I’ve duplicated what other people have said.


JanieM 06.27.17 at 4:54 pm

Just went to look at the Freewrite. Maddening website, can’t they just stop all that showy fol-de-rol and put some facts front and center?

It would appear that it doesn’t have a USB port, and in the FAQas they’re quite scornful of anyone so old-fashioned as not to want to use the Cloud to transfer files. You can hook the device up to a computer but they themselves say it’s a clumsy way to do it. (As in: we want you to use the Cloud! Get with the program!)

Okay, I’m just being crabby. It’s a good idea and I would love something like it, but $500 is a lot too, so I think I’ll wait and see how it evolves.


ADifferentChris 06.27.17 at 4:59 pm

A large, comfortable chair with armrests and headrests. A big desk, that lets you stretch your arms forward in front of the screen. No clutter. Wireless mouse, or a bungee line wired.

A window just to the side, so you can glance out and refocus. Light, fresh coloured walls and flooring. I like a couple of green plants, too.

A decent monitor helps. I find 120Hz and up smoother than the default 60. Frame should be black, not grey or white (helps perceived contrast). Calibrate it.

Workplace aside, 8 hour’s sleep and eating well (wholewheat pasta/rice/bread, veg, low sugar) may help mitigate the migraines.


JanieM 06.27.17 at 6:06 pm

P.S. on walnuts and parmesan — I found a list online (there’s more than one, natch) that listed these prominently as suspected triggers of migraines. The other pesto ingredients were things I eat all the time without getting headaches.

One of the reasons I’ve resisted the idea of food as a trigger is that most of the lists I’ve seen feature chocolate prominently, and 1) I’ve eaten chocolate all my life, through periods of frequent headaches and periods of none; and 2) what is life worth without chocolate?

Food seems to work in complicated ways with other triggers for various things, so I wouldn’t rule out that sometimes chocolate is a problem (and I don’t realize it) and other times it’s not. But that’s getting rather far afield of the topic, so I’ll stop.


chris 06.27.17 at 6:47 pm

To fix the twitter problem (not the headache problem), I straight-up got rid of my internet subscription at home. I still have it on my phone, though that’s limited to a small amount of gigabytes per month. I find that I’m less prone to long periods of getting distracted by the internet when I want to work. It has also changed the way that I interact with the internet. I’m more focused now on getting something done when I do have internet access (like at school or at a café), since I know that, once I go home, I won’t have access anymore.


Guy Harris 06.27.17 at 7:45 pm

Looking for a word-processing only machine

Jonathan Franzen’s solution – do it yourself:

Franzen works in a rented office that he has stripped of all distractions. He uses a heavy, obsolete Dell laptop from which he has scoured any trace of hearts and solitaire, down to the level of the operating system. Because Franzen believes you can’t write serious fiction on a computer that’s connected to the Internet, he not only removed the Dell’s wireless card but also permanently blocked its Ethernet port. “What you have to do,” he explains, “is you plug in an Ethernet cable with superglue, and then you saw off the little head of it.”

Sadly, these days machines may not have a wireless card, they may have a built-in interface. Maybe you can rip out the antenna, which would be the closest equivalent of blocking the Ethernet port.


Raven Onthill 06.27.17 at 8:25 pm

Might want to consult your employer’s workplace safety people; they should have them. If you don’t want to do that, or if they’re no help, here’s a few tips.

This WikiHow article, with pictures, covers posture at a monitor; this may help with your problems. There’s lots more at OSHA.

Also, get some break reminder software; a few minutes break every 3/4s hour or so helps. (RSIguard is excellent but expensive, workrave on Windows is free but has some annoying graphics, Time Out on Macs has at least the advantage of cheapness.)

Laptops are inherently a problem here; they encourage poor posture. The only real answer to that problem is to limit use of laptops, which I fear is a council of perfection.


Omega Centauri 06.27.17 at 8:31 pm

As Dr memory says about fontsize. Eyestrain is one source of issues like this. I can remember some older folks using a big monitor (like 23inches or more), with ridiculously large font size (like 1 inch block print), and I guess that works for them. The temptation is to use tiny-tiny font sizes so as to squeeze as much stuff onto the screen. Of course having a small screen, makes this problematic.

Also I try to avoid stuff like flashing images. I’ve been known to put a dummy window over overly irritating adds.


faustusnotes 06.28.17 at 1:20 am

I find the constantly sitting aspect of my job really worrying. I think it has started to affected my posture, it is definitely reducing my fitness and leading to weight gain, and although i do a lot of exercise (kickboxing) that works to stave off most of its effects, as I get older and the length of time I’ve worked in a sitting job increases, the required amount and intensity of exericse to offset it is growing. I don’t know what to do about it and it is very depressing.

Regarding migraines, I used to get them when I was maybe 19 years old and a doctor taught me this one neat trick (ha!): when you sense the prodrome, take a water soluble aspirin. For me the prodrome was this kind of hole in my vision and feeling of slight disembodiment. If I took the water soluble aspirin as soon as I saw that hole starting, the migraine never arrived (though I still spent a few hours feeling weird). It was a remarkably cheap and effective strategy. However, my migraines (though definitely migraines) were at the mild end of the spectrum and seemed to be related to my age, since they stopped after just a couple of years (possibly after I started kickboxing?!) So it may be that the strategy doesn’t work at older ages/more severe migraines.


Alan White 06.28.17 at 1:24 am

Really interesting reading this thread–it makes me appreciate the fact that I’m not subject to many of the health-related issues mentioned here, probably because my writing as an academic is more elective in terms of motivation and time-control. I’d truly hate to be tied to a task of writing on a daily multi-hour schedule.

For me, the chair is the most important thing–if I’m not comfortable in front of the screen, writing ain’t gonna happen. And again for me, that means one that can rock–I need to be able to move as the spirit does. So a comfortable executive-style chair is one for me. (In the last 10 years I’ve worn out 4, and this one is about to go too.)

Given that, I write from my lap with a wireless keyboard. I need to lean back and relax, and not hunch over a desk–did that for too many years. A window is a must, just to connect me with a real world.

But I’m also a child of media–specifically TV and radio. Something must be playing in the background as a kind of teasing muse–though of course it cannot be something that so interests me that it is a distraction. Right now it’s a Milwaukee Brewers game; many times it’s 80’s/80’s on internet radio (out of Germany). But TV was my sibling companion from the 50s onward–it’s hard for me to write in utter silence.

Thank you Maria for this forum on how we write.


hix 06.28.17 at 1:57 am

Window 10 has an inbuilt “nightmode” now after that last big update which seems to do the same thing as flux. Does not help me however (to sleap better after using my laptop for too long at night, that was my goal).

One technique to deal with avoidance behaviour in general is to limit ones time of the day asigned to the avoided work. During that time asigned short timeframe the options are either to do nothing at all or the work. During the rest of the day, working on the avoided work is forbidden. If possible one starts really low, maybe even just 1 hour and then moves slowly back to a full workload.


derrida derider 06.28.17 at 1:59 am

One of my longstanding beefs is how you cannot get affordable large e-ink screens for desktop machines – Kindles writ large that use ambient light rather than backlighting. That’s what you need for extended reading and writing of text.

If you’re staring at the thing for many hours at a stretch then avoid a laptop – laptops, tablets and phones are terrific for reading Twitter (or commenting on blogs) but not for writing War and Peace or for a ten hour debugging session of your latest operating system code. You need a couple of big screens properly ergonomically set up for that; one a backlit OLED one (stunning images and video, fast response) and one e-ink for writing and editing text would be ideal. But no-one sells that.


Scott 06.28.17 at 2:53 am

I don’t want to be that guy, but standing desk with laptop. Not only does it mean I move around more and takes tension off of my shoulders, which is good for avoiding headaches, it also radically cut down own on my time-wasting. Somehow when I am standing I am more focused- and appreciate it more when I flop down with the ipad to waste some quality time. I guess noodling on the internet isn’t as much fun when you have to stand to do it. I hasten to add that I don’t leap tall buildings in a single bound, walk on water, and all the other stuff standing desk evangelists claim. I just get more work done and don’t have such bad shoulders.


Yankee 06.28.17 at 3:00 am

Net nanny-type “parental controls”? It’s basically the same problem.


James Grimmer 06.28.17 at 3:22 am

Oh, dear, I had so much to counsel until I heard the rest. I don’t know, except to cultivate an aesthetic and epistemological distaste for Twitter.

It keeps me off Twitter to have it remind me I didn’t know much of beauty and little of anything at all when I lived among strip malls in the ugliest suburbs of Los Angeles growing up. And Twitter is too close to that place for me to go back too often after I visited an ordinary decent place. I go back home to visit, sometimes Twitter, sometimes my family.


Moz of Yarramulla 06.28.17 at 3:46 am

For hardware, could you get away with a bigger e-ink device for reading and something like a pi-top or other ludicrously low-powered device for writing? I can imagine that “browse the internet on e-ink” would be so awful that you’d find it easier to resist, but I solve that by simply not enabling wifi on my ereader (buying one without wifi is not really an option any more).

If you look at putting Linux on a laptop one approach might be to have someone else be the owner of the root password. Having to take the thing to your parent-or-guardian and say “plez can interweb?” might be enough of an obstacle. There are decent options for that now but sadly you still need to watch hardware support a bit. The cheapest option is likely a Dell because they broadly try to support Linux, but there are also dedicated Linux-hardware sellers. If you can dig up an old laptop and just trying putting Mint or something on it you might find it works.

What I found recently is that even 17″ laptops are getting harder to find, let alone anything with a useably large screen.


Anarcissie 06.28.17 at 3:58 am

My eyes are not what they used to be, no doubt in part because of the years I’ve spent staring into computer monitors, so I got a Samsung Note 10.1 which has very high resolution — you can’t see the dots (or I can’t, anyway) which means my eyes are not going to get tired trying to focus on what is inherently blurry (a less high resolution screen). I notice, though, that people seem to watch television for hours without complaint, and that’s usually comparatively low-res. So I don’t know. Maybe we’re all just doomed.


Joseph Brenner 06.28.17 at 4:02 am

What I do (not necessarily precisely what you should do, obviously):

(1) my laptops are all challenged where wifi is concerned– if I want to be connected I need to jack-in with an ethernet cable. This means when I’m out somewhere, I have to focus on whatever I’ve loaded up on the laptop, I can’t keep going “oh, maybe I should web search for–“. This works well enough for me that I might start removing the wifi gadgets from my laptops.

(2) firefox let’s you do various customizations, e.g. Edit->Preferences->Content->Colors let’s me switch everything to light-on-dark color schemes… BUT this is a positively ancient feature that has *never* worked perfectly (it’s not unusual to find a site that uses your background color with their text color, and black-on-black has readability issues), do in order to do this you need to run firefox with the profile manager option, ala “firefox -no-remote –ProfileManager”, so if you have trouble with the custom colors you can try again with a virgin profile. I’m also, at present running with a “theme” to modify the appearance to make the controls dark colored as well (the “Skip Beat — Dangerous Brothers” themse, which Belle Waring might appreciate, but few others here would): https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/skip-beat-dangerous-brother/)

(3) As someone else mentioned, you can make fonts bigger, e.g. in Firefox doing a “Control +” will jack the font size.

(4) By the way: there’s a new study out that claims to show that just having your smart phone near by, even if it’s shut off makes you measurably stupider. I already don’t carry one, but if I did, I would stop.

Also, much as I appreciate Firefox, they’re about to go off into another round of breaking everything in sight, so it’s an open question as to how well these various customizations will work in the near future. It could be there’s a Palemoon in my future.


Neville Morley 06.28.17 at 7:06 am

Headaches: admitting the onset of old age and getting a separate pair of reading glasses, with some sort of magic coating to manage screen glare, has helped.

Twitter: not sure I can help, other than being an Awful Warning – don’t create multiple accounts, however amusing this might seem at the time…


John Quiggin 06.28.17 at 7:34 am

An addictive response needs a counter in kind. A long run first thing in the morning is hard to start with, but once you’re hooked, you’re hooked.

Also, an Apple Watch will harass you to stand up, and give you infantile gratification rewards when you do.


SusanC 06.28.17 at 8:34 am

Given that we’re all reading CT, rather than doing anything productive, this may not bee the right place to ask for help, unless you consider it like an AA meeting. At least I’ll be going back to doing actual work and not reading CT once I’ve finished my morning coffee.

The choice of monitor and position is important uf you’re going to be using it at lot. Try to find one that diesn’t strain your eyes ad much.

The twitter addiction is a different kind of problem…

(I do work and random web surfing on rwo different machines, partly for security/firewall reasons, but it also has the useful side effect of me not being tempted to e.g. read CT when I’m trying to get work done).


Eszter Hargittai 06.28.17 at 9:10 am

I’m really sorry about the migraines, not sure any of this helps, but since I suffer from no such major issues (also, my back problems are comparatively limited), I thought I’d share my setup, first the physical one, then the digital one.

Since my very privileged graduate student days, I’ve had a Herman Miller Aeron chair in my office and I believe it has made a significant difference. (I say that from times when I don’t have access to such a chair and quickly realize how uncomfortable every other setup is.) I also finally got a desk that can be changed to a stand-up desk. As John mentioned, Apple Watch will remind you diligently when it’s time to stand up. If it’s not a good time to take a walk then I switch the desk to standing version and continue on with work, but in that different position. I sometimes have that need even without the watch reminder, it’s a good option to have. I have an ergonomic keyboard set up at the right height (Web sites will explain what that is). I used to have a special fixture on my desk on my pre-standup-desk to achieve the right height, it was worth it.

At home, I have no office setup. I am always working on the couch and coffee table or in another situation where I can put my legs up. This is essential for me. So yes, I use my laptop on my lap . This comes super naturally to me and that is how I’ve developed the habit. Whenever I’m elsewhere (e.g., hotel room), I find a similar setup.

Regarding online distractions, as Susan noted, this may not be the best crowd to help, but I’ll try. I only have two automated notifications set up: (1) two work-related Slack channels, which are always limited distractions, and (2) calendar reminders, which are helpful as I can easily lose track of time when I’m working. I get no disturbing notifications about anything else such as incoming email or Facebook interactions. So it is up to me to check these and I seem to have the willpower not to get too distracted by them too much, especially not when I am on a tight deadline. This doesn’t help with staring at the screen (I also dim it as others have suggested), but perhaps helps with the distraction component. I hope you’re able to change things in a way that helps!


Maria 06.28.17 at 10:19 am

So much good stuff here!

I ditched my smartphone the day Trump was elected, so at least there’s that.


Lynne 06.28.17 at 12:11 pm

As others do, I enlarge the font on my screen, and I have a non-glare screen on my desktop monitor. I use an e-reader because of the font-enlarging capability, and it is not backlit—glare is the real culprit for my eyestrain, including bright sunny days. I have a very good, multi-adjustable desk chair, also—I guess I assumed you did, too, Maria, since you work on your computer (everyone should have a really good desk setup, imo) so if you don’t, treat yourself!

Sort of related, our adult son was diagnosed last year with an RSI due to his computer use. I was so sad, because I’ve been living with one for longer than he has been alive. But to my surprise and delight, he has got rid of it. He went to a physiotherapist who corrected his posture, and then to a Pilates instructor for more of the same type of exercise, and he says that as long as he remembers what he learned, he can use the computer as much as he likes.

Anyway, just goes to show how the wrist-tendon is connnected to the neck-bone etc—truly, posture (if maintained for hours at a time) can affect everything, it seems.

Wishing you lots of luck, Maria (and you notice I’m still not addressing the willpower issue….)


Plarry 06.28.17 at 2:51 pm

JQ@37: NB, the point about an addictive counter-response is good, but someone with bad back problems is likely not well-advised to go for long runs; long swims on the other hand…..


Continental 06.28.17 at 3:23 pm

I personally find it surprising that any productive work is still getting done now that most
of the workforce is permanently online. I’m convinced that productivity will in the medium term decline, not increase, thanks to the internet. I doubt there is much that can be done about it.


Val 06.28.17 at 3:48 pm

Well I’m not a doctor so will start with the obligatory you should see your own doctor (and probably physiotherapist/osteopath). Otherwise general health promotion advice (some of which others have already said but I’ll repeat for emphasis and apologies if you do all this already):

Make sure you get sufficient exercise – about an hour a day moderate, like walking (eg 10000 steps) and occasional bursts of vigorous (I’m not sure there are guidelines on that but maybe several times a week?)
If you drive a car regularly (eg commute by car) try to cut down – try to use ‘active transport’ (eg walking, cycling) as much as possible
Take frequent breaks (eg every hour or so) move around, stretch
Look away from the screen frequently
If you drink alcohol, follow guidelines (here it’s no more than two a day in general, but some are now starting to say no more than one a day, and no more than four in any one session) also try to have several alcohol free days per week (consecutively is good) and consider a break eg ‘dry July’
Also follow a healthy diet (I am in favour of the old five veg and two fruit per day rule though I think that’s been changed here now, and of course restrict sugar and junk food)
(I’m a vegetarian, but anyway many people eat too much meat, so think about reducing meat, particularly red meat, if that applies to you)
Drink enough water (it doesn’t have to be the eight glasses a day that was touted once, can’t remember if there’s a formal recommendation, but make sure you drink enough)
Of course get enough sleep

We’ve just moved into new offices with all the ergonomic stuff which includes sit-stand desks, monitors on long arms so you can move them to where it suits you, and chairs that you can lean right back and stretch on (sorry I don’t know what they’re called, but their back is flexible, not fixed) – I know not everyone has this stuff, but I think it’s becoming increasingly recognised that too much sitting is an OHS health hazard (particularly for women according to some research I’ve seen) so you can agitate for your employer to provide it

That’s all I can think of off the top of my head – I don’t get migraines so can’t say anything about that – anyway I guess that’s doctor territory. Just ensuring you get enough exercise is a really great thing though.

On social media I cannot help you – can you help me? :) but spending at least an hour a day walking or whatever will give you a break anyway


Kate 06.28.17 at 5:14 pm

I’m with Neville.
I was getting terrible headaches at work. Got new glasses that were focussed to where the screen was on my desk and hey presto! the headaches subsided. Now I have a different set up at work and the headaches have returned. Time to head back to the optometrist, I guess.

That being said, those were regular headaches. I get infrequent migraines but they are completely different.

I set a timer for Twitter. But I regularly ignore the timer so…


PD 06.28.17 at 5:53 pm

My opthalmologist says that we normally blink up to sixty times a minute, but only half as often when gazing at a screen. That makes our eyes drier. Eyedrops should help.


Continental 06.28.17 at 8:48 pm

Amateur health advice: drink lots of water, at the very least 2-3 litres while in the office. I’m saying this out of personal experience (although I’m not prone to heavy migraines) but there is actual medical evidence that hydration reduces migraine suffering.


Shirley0401 06.28.17 at 9:27 pm

I find having a weekly internet sabbath is really helpful, and the benefits extend into the following week. It’s just a reminder that nothing online is as pressing or important or [insert your rationalization of choice here] as it seems. For me, at least, it just cuts down on that underlying buzz of anxiety that there’s something happening somewhere I could be engaging with. (As if the thing I’m not doing because I’m watching old Thundercats videos on YouTube isn’t engaging.)
For me, an actual recent memory of how nice it is to be unconnected helps me check myself when I’m tempted to click open a browser for no reason whatsoever. I always tell myself “it’s just for a minute,” but then it’s five minutes, then I stumble across an honestly interesting article that is in no way relevant to what I’d been doing.
I’m of the mind that you’re 100% right that there’s a “techno-capitalist superstructure that wants to get and keep us addicted,” but I don’t experience migraines, so this might or might not be helpful.
But. Yeah. Internet sabbath. Also what lots of other people said. Especially Flux, and limiting consecutive minutes in your chair. (I use my phone timer for that. Get up, get a drink of water, &c.)


Doug K 06.28.17 at 11:03 pm

I have an ongoing Evernote with secret plans and clever tricks to avoid twitter-pated procrastination.. it all boils down to much the same as Mario’s plan, intentionality and accountability. When tempted stop and write down why your mind is wandering off (over there ! use your stick, man ! there, that’s cornered it, thank you, bring it back over here) and why you should not be letting it. I attempt also to schedule twitter breaks, with a timer to bring me back.

Impeaching Trump and overthrowing his administration is the cure for my twitter addiction, but that seems to be taking a bit longer than I hoped.

Eyestrain and headaches started when I needed bifocals, since the computer screen is at neither distance. Larger text is the first step, then that necessitates a larger monitor so have had to spend that money too. I also tinker with the fonts and display on any new machine or monitor, as there are definitely improvements to be made from the defaults. On Windows try turning off ClearType if it is on, on if it is off.

Firefox is customized as per Joseph Brenner’s entry above, to display black text on a medium grey background. The text and background can be any colours at all but these work for me. In most cases using Options > Content > Color and switching from ‘always override’ to ‘never override’ will get the website displaying correctly. For the other cases, switch to Chrome with defaults.

F.lux seems to help with evening working.


Moz of Yarramulla 06.28.17 at 11:55 pm

John Quiggin observed An addictive response needs a counter in kind. A long run first thing in the morning is hard to start with, but once you’re hooked, you’re hooked.

I do the same with cycling, because I can choose to live about 30-50 minutes ride from work. It’s surprising how even in the worst weather “I could get the train instead but then I’d have to walk 5km from the station” means I ride almost regardless of weather :) If you can wake yourself up with a bit of exercise that should help. It also sets a mental boundary, when I work from home I find getting up, going for a ride, then coming back sets me into a “now I’m working” frame of mind.

But contra Joseph Brenner, I find having a smartphone very handy… however I am sufficiently cheap/paranoid/knowledgeable that I keep data and wifi turned off almost all the time. There are a lot of useful functions (calendars, calculators, note takers, all sorts of stuff). Annoyingly reading long form anything isn’t one of them, even on my 7″ phablet I struggled. I fear that trying to use a 10″ tablet as a phone would not work, to the point where I haven’t tried.


Faustusnotes 06.29.17 at 4:07 am

There are only a very small number of activities in life that are addictive. Twitter is not one of them, and neither is exercise of any kind (including running). You aren’t addicted to something because you like doing it, and a physical process isn’t addictive because it releases a few chemicals. Sex is not addictive, and neither is getting tattoos. If you’re doing too much Twitter than is good for you you’re not addicted – you’re just a bit of a dick. Also, you won’t cure one addiction by finding another. See eg the 100% smoking rate amongst people addicted to heroin, the rate of coffee consumption amongst runners, and the special smoking rights assigned to gambling parlours.

the best way to stop using Twitter is to delete your account. Advice trump obviously should have taken a long time ago!


Collin Street 06.29.17 at 9:48 am

Still, I do often think that I think better w/ pen and paper than on the computer.

It’s too easy to delete stuff on the computer. Sketching stuff out by hand, you’re stuck with what you’ve written and you move on.

Me… normally I write dot points and expand, when I’m writing long-form; easy to shuffle around. But sometimes the whole thing just doesn’t gel, and then it’s time to break out the paper and scribble some notes and thoughts down, leave the filtering for later.


Matt_L 06.29.17 at 3:19 pm

I feel your pain. I haven’t subscribed to twitter. I let Facebook wreck my life instead. I had abstained from it between the first Tuesday of November 2016 and end of January 2017. That was good for my mental health, but didn’t change my productivity. Unfortunately, the iPhone is my social media Trojan Horse. I hardly look at social media on the computer, but its up all the time on the phone. I need to go cold turkey again.

I second the recommendation made by Dr. Memory and others in this comment thread. If you can, ask your work do an ergonomic assessment. Most employers, even in the US will do this. I bet there is some sort of EU reg that will apply in the UK for now. If you work from home, or your employer will not do this, then there are a bunch of internet sites that have recommendations for monitor height, distance and seating (OSHA as mentioned above, but also Lifehacker and others). After I had an ergonomic assessment and rearranged my desk with empty cardboard boxes and unread scholarly journals, I had a lot less eyestrain and back pain.

Eventually I was given some extra money at work and could order a variable height desk with a monitor arm. Its nice to be able to move from standing to sitting every hour, but it was the initial assessment made the biggest difference. Once someone can observe you at work and point out your problem areas in terms of posture, the position of the keyboard and monitor, you can make some simple changes fairly cheaply (did I mention the stacks of unread scholarly journals?).

Good luck and feel better soon.


js. 06.30.17 at 2:41 am

I actually do this for lots of “rough drafts” where I mean _really_ rough. But, the problems reoccur when it comes time to type them out, and I have the additional problem of trying to figure out what the hell I wrote down a lot of times. Still, I do often think that I think better w/ pen and paper than on the computer.

This is my life.


For the aches/pains thing, I tend to pace and mildly stretch every 45-50 minutes. It’s pretty basic but it helps, I find, esp. because I have extremely bad posture when I sit. (Also, smoke breaks, but not recommending those. Yet, they are bizarrely helpful.)

For the distraction/procrastination, the only thing that has ever worked in my life is working across from someone who I know and who is also working. It’s basically a form of guilt-tripping oneself.


bad Jim 06.30.17 at 5:29 am

My chronic lower back pain went away when I switched from lounging in my leather office chair and peering at the screen through my glasses, to sitting upright in a task chair close enough not to need glasses. This solution is specific to my own mix of myopia and presbyopia, but the point is that getting the ergonomics right avoids a lot of pain.

Back when I was working, the Internet didn’t offer as many distractions and current events weren’t as fraught with peril, yet I still managed to fritter away my mornings with things which didn’t need to be done. It didn’t bother me; I thought of it as warming up. I could still lose myself in my code for hours when something needed that level of absorption. Time is not a problem when you don’t attempt a work/life balance.


paintedjaguar 06.30.17 at 8:47 am

Nuts, cheese, and chocolate reminded me of something… look up MAOI (mono-amine oxidase inhibitor) and “hypertensive episode”. You may or may not see some diagnostic connection.

The “flat design” craze for light grey text on acres of bright white background has been killing my own aging eyes. Dark themes are your friend, though Microsoft seems committed to removing your ability to customize your interface (Linux is looking ever more attractive). I’m currently using this Firefox extension: “Dark Background and Light Text”, as well as this Firefox dark theme: “Metal Lion Australis Tiger”. Yes, Mozilla is preparing to nuke all the add-ons. Installing Firefox ver52-ESR is a temporary solution.

Second the recommended larger monitor/fonts/dpi and custom prescription lenses for computing. Also, I vastly prefer a trackball (not the thumb-ball variety) to lessen muscle strain in the wrist and shoulder. Last, I haven’t tried it myself, but an LED strip to backlight your monitor (like a 1950’s TV light) is said to help with eyestrain.


Joseph Brenner 06.30.17 at 11:41 pm

Moz of Yarramulla@50:

But contra Joseph Brenner, I find having a smartphone very handy… however I am sufficiently cheap/paranoid/knowledgeable that I keep data and wifi turned off almost all the time. There are a lot of useful functions (calendars, calculators, note takers, all sorts of stuff).

Believe it or not, I have actually heard the pro-smartphone pitch a few times. You might remember that the OP was interested in the possibility using machines limited to wordprocessing.

You see, if you do have a problem with addictive behavior, advice of the form “you just need to use some self-control” misses the point and is often worse than useless. The solutions to addiction that have actually been known to work involve admitting that you don’t really have self-control, and setting up some sort of barriers for yourself.

“We own the technology to connect everyone to everyone, but those of us who have tried living that way are finding that we are disconnecting to get anything done.” — Kevin Kelley, “Out of Control” (1995)


Joseph Brenner 07.01.17 at 12:03 am

Here’s a link to that study (really, news about the study) I was talking about:
The mere presence of your smartphone reduces brain power, study shows


kidneystones 07.01.17 at 1:42 am

Maria, I admire your writing and the elegance, excellence, and clarity of your thought. Joseph Brenner is largely correct, imnsho. You have outlined the problems fairly clearly, documented your inability/unwillingness to change behaviors and set out your stall before the public.

Learned behaviors are difficult to change, not least because actions in one set of behaviors depend (almost entirely) on a preceding set of behaviors and feelings. As chemically dependent folks often remark, the act of picking up the drug/drink was simply the final act of predetermined and well-learned set of preceding behaviors and resulting feelings.

I’ve done a great many stupid things in my life, taking up tobacco in my mid-twenties being one of the more notable. Fully dependent and unable to quit, like you, I decided to everything but go outside my circle and seek the advice of people who’d actually, you know, successfully quit.

Once I did that, adhered to their instructions (principally on changing related behaviors) I was freed from that dependency. Even better I was armed with the knowledge and the tools to make other changes at will.

The psychological discomfort involved in changing behaviors passes within days. The long-learned feelings of self-loathing, guilt, and frustration we take on board as part and parcel of any long-term addiction persist far longer. These negative feelings are often as addictive as the original dependency. Recovering addicts frequently/unconsciously develop other behaviors in an effort to recreate the familiar, even if the familiar is unpleasant.

You’ve got (or can get) the how. The only two questions that remain are the when, and the why wait?

These two questions are well worth considering.


Moz of Yarramulla 07.01.17 at 7:22 am

You see, if you do have a problem with addictive behavior, advice of the form “you just need to use some self-control”

I wasn’t aware that that was what I was saying. I’m sorry for doing so, as that is not what I meant.

I was trying to point out that your statement that “just having your smart phone near by, even if it’s shut off makes you measurably stupider” seems unlikely. Do you have to know that your smartphone is nearby, for instance?

The report you linked to doesn’t say that, possibly because you’re summarised to the point where what meaning remains is misleading. They looked at a particular cognitively demanding task, not stupidity. Quote: ” participants with their phones in another room significantly outperformed those with their phones on the desk, and they also slightly outperformed those participants who had kept their phones in a pocket or bag.” … “The researchers found that participants who were the most dependent on their smartphones performed worse compared with their less-dependent peers, but only when they kept their smartphones on the desk or in their pocket or bag.”

Seems that it might well be true for Maria but not true for others, since she’s in the “smartphone dependent” group. I am too, but I very much doubt I am in the dependent group that they look at (for example, I find it difficult to navigate unfamiliar areas without a smartphone)


Sancho 07.02.17 at 4:00 am

Bluelight-filtering spectacles, sit-stand desk and a saddle stool.


otpup 07.02.17 at 11:41 pm

Search Angela Stanton on fb who does a couple of groups for ketogenic nutritional protocols for migraineurs. As for the eye strain part of it, I am wearing yellow lenses (sometimes polarized) to block blue light. I make a point of trying to make sure they are on at least an hour before my scheduled bed-time when I am doing screen time.


Maria 07.03.17 at 9:05 am

Thanks, everyone. There’re some really terrific suggestions here. And some thought-provoking stuff on addictive behaviour, yea or nay. I loved Faustus’ comment about basically being an asshole if you’re on twitter too much. Too true.

(Since I wrote this, I’ve been deadlining like mad, mostly with the Internet off, and working on paper as much as possible. Getting up, jumping around like an idiot. It is startling how much output rises from just these two things. And the threatened migraine rebound lingered but never fully manifested. Hurray. Though even in optimal conditions, output does seem to have a hard limit, all the same.

Oh, and swimming in the sea. Swimming in the sea, rain or shine, while in Ireland for a bit. It is kind of amazing to get to my forties and finally figure out the answer to the Western, self-obsessed questions; who am I / what do I want – does actually exist and is in my case is basically just to be somewhere I can work, walk, sleep, swim, chat a little and eat. Anyway.)

But in a couple of weeks’ time, when I’m out of this deadline tunnel, I’ll take another look at this thread and see if some of the great stuff on it can be organised into a table that would make it easier for others to scan and pull out tried and true suggestions. No guarantees, mind you. My other addictive (or just morally crass) behaviour is over-promising.

In the meantime, thanks, all, for a generous and fascinating discussion.

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