Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Workrave: more than an RSI prevention tool

Workrave is a little program (for Linux as well as Windows) that aims to prevent RSI. With its default settings, it encourages you to take a 30-second “micro-break” every 3 minutes and a 10-minute “rest break” every 45 minutes. It also implements a “daily limit” of 4 hours. The breaks themselves do not count for these times, nor does time that you're not using the computer — in fact, if you do not touch the mouse and keyboard for long enough this will count as a break and reset the timer.

I've been using Workrave ever since I felt a strange kind of pain in my wrists and elbows. As a computer science student whose main hobbies also involve computers, I cannot afford problems with RSI. Not that I really feel scared of it, but I know that I should. Not being able to use a computer would drastically change my life. Oh wait, I don't have one. Never mind.

The following experiences come mainly from days of programming, i.e. writing actual source code. Note that this is very different from, for example, the work of a typist, who hammers away at the keyboard all the time, or a Photoshop artist, who uses the mouse a lot but also switches to the keyboard for shortcuts.

The first thing I noticed was that a daily limit of 4 hours is plenty for a full workday of coding. This may sound odd, but apparently I spend at least another 4 hours just looking at the code, or just thinking without looking at the screen at all. This goes to show that coding is a difficult business indeed.

The second thing I noticed came as a surprise. You might think that a tool like Workrave is bad for your productivity. I can say from experience that the opposite is true. Because a break is always just around the corner, you do your best to do as much as possible in the little time you have left. It is easier not to get distracted because you know you can allow yourself to be distracted in just a few minutes.

Thirdly, a break brings about a change in perspective. During the breaks, especially the micro-breaks, my mind shifts from the gory one-line-at-a-time perspective to a higher level of the work: the entire function, class, namespace or program architecture. It is very refreshing to look at your work in this way. I see problems that I would otherwise have noticed only later, when they would need fixing instead of preventing. Or I would not have noticed them at all. I'm quite sure that using Workrave improved the quality of my code.

Fourth, what is a 10-minute rest break good for? It's one of those little time slots that you can fill with one of those infinitely many little things that need doing. Make a phone call, clean out your wastebasket, tidy your desk... there are always these little things to do, and rest breaks encourage you to do them. But just as often I end up pouring lots and lots of tea into me, which is not bad either.

I heard from several people that they have similar experiences with the program. So, whether or not you ever had any RSI symptoms: if you do any kind of work at the computer that involves thinking, you really should give Workrave a try.

I just have time to read over this post once more before my rest break. Then I'll have a nice cup of tea.

No comments: