Laptops are a little technological miracle and oh-so-handy to have around, but they can do a real number on your back. Here’s how to avoid that.
Don’t Use a Laptop on Your Lap
Yes, it’s called a laptop. Yes, you can put it on your lap and type away. For short tasks, that’s not the end of the world. But for getting any extended work done, you’re taking a shortcut to back pain.
There’s nothing natural or comfortable about hunching forward over your laptop. We don’t design desktop computers to put the keyboard on our lap and the screen down lown near our knees for a reason. Laptop design is a compromise based on size and portability, not on ergonomics.
So, as you might imagine, the rest of our suggestions will focus on all the ways to get out of that hunched-on-the-couch position and use your laptop comfortably.
Use It at a Proper Height Table
Whether you use it at your dining room table, a desk in your home office, or even standing at the really tall pass-through window between your kitchen and dining room because the counter there is the perfect height, you need to focus on a key ergonomic height requirement.
Sitting or standing, the keyboard must be at a height so that your elbows are roughly at a 90-degree angle. You don’t want your arms to droop down, and you don’t want to reach up. Both positions bend your wrists and will lead, in time, to aggravation of the carpal tunnels.
If you’re using your laptop as is without any of the suggested add-ons from later in the article, you can adjust the height on the table by putting things beneath the laptop (stout coffee table-style books are good for this) if it sits too low. Or, if you’re sitting too low, you can raise yourself by swapping the chair or putting a nice cushion on it to raise your body up.
Pair It With an Ergonomic Chair
You don’t need to splash $1,000+ on a primo ergonomic chair (although I’m writing this article while sitting in a Steelcase Leap, and I assure you it was worth every penny). While an office chair might look at home in a home office, if you’re working from the dining room table, it would certainly look out of place.
Whatever kind of chair you’re sitting in, however, you need to do what you can to make it as supportive as possible. That means no sitting on a wooden chair until the back of your legs are numb or spending hours in a chair with poor back support.
If the chair is uncomfortable to sit on and/or doesn’t support your lower back properly to avoid a lumbar-crunching hunch, it would be wise to invest in some inexpensive pillows to remedy the situation.
If the chair seat is comfy enough, but the back isn’t particularly supportive, grab this lumbar pillow. And if both the seat and back are uncomfortable, grab this combo package that includes both a really nice lumbar pillow and an ergonomic pressure-relieving seat.
Elevate Your Feet
If you’re not using an adjustable-height office chair, there’s a good chance that your work surface and your chair aren’t perfectly aligned.
While sitting with your knees slightly raised above the plane of the chair seat isn’t ideal, it isn’t the end of the world. Where you’ll end up in a lot of discomfort, however, is if the chair is tall enough that your feet don’t sit flat on the floor—at all or without putting pressure on the backs of your legs.
In that case, you’ll want something to rest your feet on. Whether that’s an old Wii balance board you dig out from the back of the hall closet or a dedicated and comfy footrest like this, it’ll help keep your legs in alignment with good circulation.
Raise the Screen Height
Getting your laptop off your lap is one of the best things you can do to significantly increase your comfort. The second biggest thing is to elevate the screen so that you’re not perpetually looking down, creating a text-neck crick while using your laptop.
Putting your laptop on an appropriately sized Amazon box or a stack of old textbooks is the classic and cheap way to raise your laptop up to eye level.
While that’s a fine temporary solution, if you want something that both looks a bit nicer and offers a lot more adjustability, we recommend a laptop stand.
Use an External Mouse and Keyboard
If you raise your laptop up so that the screen is positioned at eye level, that creates a bit of an interface issue. The screen is now up high where it belongs, meaning the built-in keyboard and touchpad are now elevated a good ten inches off the table in front of you.
I can’t speak for everyone, but as a lifelong mechanical keyboard and trackball lover, hooking both up to a laptop immediately makes me feel at home and offers such a huge comfort upgrade over using the little chiclet keyboard on the laptop and the trackpad. Why fuss with a trackpad when you can enjoy a trackball’s silky smooth and precise motion?
Consider an External Monitor
Sure, you could buy a bigger laptop to get a bigger screen, but that’s not very practical. I love my diminutive Dell XPS laptop specifically because it’s so small and easy to take anywhere. I don’t want a laptop with a massive screen (and corresponding massive body). And if you’re using a work laptop, swapping it out for a giant widescreen model probably isn’t an option.
Instead, you can use an external monitor with your laptop. Once you’ve added the external mouse and keyboard we just mentioned, the monitor is the last step to make your laptop feel like a proper desktop computer.
You’ll have a nice big screen, a comfortable keyboard, and a mouse. If you’re so inclined (and your laptop supports it), you can even set the laptop off to the side of the external monitor to serve as a secondary monitor for email, Slack, or your to-do list.
You might be tempted to buy just any old monitor, but I’d encourage you to consider getting at least a 27-inch monitor 1440p “gaming” type monitor with a high refresh rate. You might not have considered looking at them, but as somebody who uses such a monitor every single day for office work I can’t recommend the experience enough based on how sharp the screen looks and how buttery smooth the refresh rate is even when doing basic tasks.
Make Life Easy with a Docking Station
If you follow all of the suggestions above and you have to frequently disconnect your laptop to take it to work with you, visit clients, or otherwise move it around, you’ll probably quickly tire of unplugging and replugging cables.
That’s where a laptop docking station comes in handy. Instead of plugging in all the cables your workstation requires—like the keyboard, mouse, monitor, and maybe an Ethernet cable or other peripheral cables—you plug all those things into the dock and then only plug a single cable in from the dock to your laptop.
There are a variety of universal laptop docks on the market. They work well enough, but we’d encourage you to search for laptop docks compatible with your particular laptop.
For example, you may find that your work-supplied HP or Dell laptop is very particular about docking stations, and to take advantage of all of the features, you have to pair it with a first-party laptop dock (and a specific one at that).
By adopting some or all of the suggestions above, you’ll easily take working on your laptop from a back-ache-inducing experience to a far more comfortable one.