Writing Ergonomics: Your Chair

What do chairs, writers, and a former king of England have in common?

In one of my college history courses, years ago, I learned that while Henry II of England might have been an astute political leader, he had an awful time sitting still for any length of time. Apparently he possessed a ten-minute attention span and commanded his archbishop to limit sermons to that length. Otherwise, he was out the chapel door.

My father used to say that people stop listening or paying attention once they develop “tired bottom.”

So besides your computer, the chair you write in is probably the most important piece of equipment you should own. Do you have a worthy chair? Or do you sit in whatever’s at hand?

When you write, how long can you stay focused and productive? (Presuming that the writing itself is going well, of course!)

How comfortable is your chair? Can you sit in it for several hours? Is it supportive to your low back? Are the arms–if any–at a height that keeps your forearms parallel to the floor? Is there correct thigh support so your ankles don’t swell or your legs don’t go tingly and numb? Are your feet flat on the floor when you’re working at the proper keyboard height? Do you have a chair that can adjust to your needs? Can your chair compensate for poor ergonomics in the rest of your equipment?

For example, at my day job, I have an office outfitted with a beautiful wooden desk. The desk lacks a keyboard drawer, so my computer keyboard is on top of the desk surface, far too high. Fortunately, my office is also equipped with an Aeron office chair. After my request to have a keyboard drawer installed was denied, I found that if I raise my chair on its pneumatic lift to maximum height, I can keep my wrists and forearms parallel to the floor when I’m typing. I lose proper thigh support, have no lumbar support, and perch on the very edge of the seat so my feet can touch the floor, but I’m not risking carpal tunnel in doing so. When I’m not at the computer, I lower the chair to a more normal position.

In my previous home, the rooms were so tiny that I had to commandeer two of them for writing purposes: one to hold files, copier, and business matters; the other to hold reference books, my own published work, and my writing computer. I used my old leather chair for the business office. It isn’t very adjustable and there’s not a lot of low-back support, but the seat is cushy and comfortable. For my writing office, I invested in an Aeron chair as soon as I could afford one. Every aspect of the chair adjusts. It’s designed for long-term sitting and high productivity. As a result, I’m not frequently squirming with discomfort or leaving my keyboard in mid-scene to go get a snack.

The chair is well worth its purchase price. It’s even worth the time and effort necessary to assemble it. (Everything on this chair is easy to put together except one tiny little cable that affects the lumbar control.) I’ve had the chair for about five years now. I’m sure that designers have come up with some other chair that’s even better, but as long as my chair is working for me, I’ll keep it.

I also collect vintage office chairs, the kind made from wood, with seats that were carved to fit human contours. Yeah, they’re hard. But they’re not as uncomfortable as you might expect. In fact, I used one of them for years at my day job before a remodel gave us Aerons. However, I wouldn’t want to do a long writing session in an old wooden number.

Now, what are you using when you write?

An old wobbly kitchen chair? The kind that numbs your backside within twenty minutes, so that you’re distracted away from the story you should be writing and wandering away to look in the refrigerator?

You may think it’s outrageous to spend as much money on a desk chair as you would on a computer. But consider which pieces of office equipment your body directly interfaces with: your keyboard and your chair.

Where is the position of the keyboard? Is it going to hurt your body?

What kind of chair are you sitting in? One that supports you and keeps you comfortable? Or one that lets physical misery creep into the edges of your awareness while you create?

Go to high-end office furniture suppliers and sit in everything they have. Don’t bother with discount stores that stock cheaply made, one-size-fits-all furniture. Figure out what make and model of chair suits you best. Then save up for it, or when that book advance comes in, spend a portion of it on a decent chair.

Your body will thank you.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Writing Ergonomics: Your Chair

  1. Bill M

    I remembered this post from when you were doing your series on Ergonomics. I had to get back to it since I finally invested in a good desk chair. Back in 2011 I had just gotten one of those cheapy chairs to replace an old chair. Both chairs were kind-of comfortable, but I did not truly like either. I wanted one of those military kind of heavy metal and thick padded kind from the 1950s or 1960s that are no longer made. Then I decided on the old nice leather executive chairs that I could not even think of affording.

    A few days ago I found an excellent well padded nicely fitting full motion executive leather chair, used of course. I love it! Thanks for your great advice. I did not give much thought to a chair other than fitting me and my desk. Now I sit for hours at my desk, reading, writing or typing.

    I agree: invest in a good quality chair.

    Thanks for your post.

    • Congratulations, Bill!

      What a great idea, to seek out a used, high-quality chair. Economical AND ergonomic AND sensible.

      I know the kind of military chairs you mentioned. They had spring coils in the seat cushions, which made them sturdy and comfortable. Hard to find these days. I have a vintage desk chair made of walnut–probably circa 1950. Because of the way the seat is carved, it’s surprisingly comfortable, but I wouldn’t want to type a novel while sitting in it.

      I regret pitching the secretarial chair I bought when I first started out: it had an oak frame and good spring motion in the back support. Currently, secretarial chairs are cheap plastic with a modicum of foam cushioning–dreadful things!

      Anyway, thanks for letting me know that you are now able to work and read in comfort. Good for you!

      -Deb

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