Friday, 18 January 2013

5 Free Software Tools To Help Prevent RSI And Make You More Productive

How Do I Prevent Repetitive Strain Injury...And Stay Productive?

RSI Prevention Part 10

So far in this series, I have been looking mainly at hardware of some kind; either as part of your computer (such as your mouse) or related to it (your chair).
In this post I will change tack to focus on software.

I have found a number of small and more importantly free programs which can help to reduce the effects of RSI.
What's more, they can even help to improve your productivity into the bargain!

1. Take Breaks With Workrave

Workrave
Workrave (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have posted elsewhere on the importance of taking breaks from the computer, but did you know there is a break reminder program to help you with that?

Workrave runs on Windows as well as GNU/Linux
It takes up very little space and spends most of it's time hiding in the program notification area.

While it doesn't seem like it's doing very much, it monitors your activity on the PC to see when you are using the keyboard and mouse.
As you use these tools, Workrave runs a timer and at pre-determined intervals, will pop up a dialog to remind you to take a break.

In fact, Workrave has several different timers for different kinds of break:

  • rest break for several minutes (usually 5-10)
  • micro-break (20-30 seconds)
  • A daily limit (optional) which tells you when you have done too many hours
A micro-break is just to "down tools" and/or look away from the screen for a short while.
With a rest break, it will encourage you to step away from your desk and do some simple stretches.
This stretching software (pun intended) shows some simple animations at the start of a rest break, which helps you to understand what to move and how.
Over time (pun not intended!), it does a great job of showing you all the different muscle groups you need to keep moving.

You can customise it to your heart's (and body's) content.
Some of the things you can choose:

  • Change the frequency and length of breaks
  • Whether you are 'allowed' to delay the prompts for a few minutes
  • Lock it completely to force you to take the break, so you can't ignore it

Sadly, Workrave has no version for Mac users.
However, there are alternatives and if you get an Evoluent Vertical mouse and install the drivers, then it comes with its own break timer software.

2. Use Your Optical Mouse Drivers: Change Mouse Settings

windows_7_logitech_mouse_settings
windows_7_logitech_mouse_settings (Photo credit: DrJohnBullas)
Many people suffer with pain in their hand from using the mouse and I have posted elsewhere about some hardware alternatives.
However, some simple changes to your mouse pointer settings can help while you are waiting for that alternative to arrive in the post.

In Windows 7, open up the Control Panel > Devices and Printers > option then right-click and choose Mouse Settings.
There you can see ways of:
  • Speeding up or slowing down the pointer movement
  • Auto click when the mouse is paused somewhere (so you don't have to press the button)
  • Doing a double click with a single click
  • Click lock simulates holding down the button so you don't have to (useful if you struggle with drag and drop operations)
  • Make a larger pointer so you can see it more easily
  • Make the middle button scroll at different speeds
Making clicks easier is a bit of a no-brainer, but the other benefits are not so obvious.
The key point to make here is that increasing the speed and the acceleration of your mouse, means that the pointer moves a larger distance across the screen for a relatively small movement of your hand.
A small movement of your hand each time = less distance 'travelled' overall = less strain at the end of the day.
"A small movement of your hand = less travel = less strain"

There can be a delicate balance to this:
The mouse needs to be fast enough to give the distance boost described above, but slow enough that it is still easy to position when you need the really small, accurate movements such as when you are trying to click on the 'X' to close a window.
This is another reason I love my Evoluent mouse, as it has a physical button on the side and an indicator light, so I can change the speed on the fly without having to find the control panel software.

You may also find it needs a couple of days to adjust to the new speed.
When I first turned my mouse speed up I initially found my hand ached more for a day or so, before then settling down to a better level than before I made the change.
I would therefore advise to give it a try and make one change at a time, with some time in between to allow for this.

3. Mouse gestures

Magic Trackpad
Magic Trackpad (Photo credit: N0fX)
Some people have the opposite problem.
They find it easy to use the mouse but struggle when they have to type too much on the keyboard.
That's when something like mouse gestures for Windows can be helpful.
These are very similar to the "swipe and tap" or multi-touch concepts that we have got used to on our smartphones.
In fact, if you have an Apple Mac then it is already built in with either your Magic Mouse, or the multi-touch tablet.

There is a program called StrokeIt which provides mouse gestures for windows.
It's not actively developed these days but I believe it still works on most PCs.

There are a number of other programs that have been set up for specific browsers.
However, the advantage of StrokeIt is that it will work anywhere in Windows.
Direct alternatives to StrokeIt include http://justgestures.com/ (free for non-commercial use) and http://www.strokesplus.com/

Whichever platform you use, the idea is to make a swipe or other movement with the mouse pointer (often with the right mouse button held down).

The gesture is then interpreted as an action in the operating system, common ones being to minimise or maximise windows.

The theory is that a large movement of the mouse is physically easier to perform than the fine movements that are required to click on the small icons we typically see on modern PCs.

"A large movement of the mouse is easier to perform than fine movements"

We are most familiar with simple movements such as "swipe left or right" to move back/forward when surfing the web.
However, the gesture can represent anything.
Examples I have used with StrokeIt:

  • Diagonal top-right towards bottom-left - Minimise the current window
  • Diagonal bottom-left towards top-right - Maximise the current window
  • Draw a big "C" on the screen - close the active program

4. Clipboard History - Why Doesn't It Have One?

We all know how the copy/paste keys work with the windows clip board.
Most of us know the keyboard shortcut for cut (CTRL+X), but don't you find it annoying when you have to do lots and lots of it?

Even if you are a keyboard junkie like me, you have to keep on pressing CTRL+C then CTRL+V, over and over (and over) again.
It's repetitive (what we're trying to avoid), boring, and why doesn't it remember the things I've been CTRL+C-ing if I want to paste one of the items again?
The answer is to use a clipboard manager.

There are lots of these programs around and about (many people wonder why it wasn't included with Windows in the first place...)
However, the one I will talk about is the free clipboard ArsClip by JoeJoe Soft.

ArsClip is another program that sits in your task tray, acting all quiet like, but in the background it records every single copy/cut/paste you do to the clipboard.
When you want to recall something you copied earlier you just press CTRL+SHIFT+Z (you can change the combination if you want), and up pops a dialog listing your most recent items.
You can either click the entry or type the number or letter that is displayed in the dialog and bingo: copy/paste heaven!

To avoid the list getting too long, ArsClip automatically moves older items into another section, but you can still access these clips via another menu.
You can also pin specific items to the menu so if there is a word or phrase you are always using, you can save even more time!

5. Launch Programs With Keyboard Keys

Why not use keyboard shortcuts instead of clicking with the mouse?
If you have Windows Vista/7/8 you can use short cuts for windows.

You know that you can press the Start key to see the programs menu, right?
I'm guessing that you also know how to use the arrow keys to move the selection up, down, left and right too?
Well, did you know that you can also search for your favourite program too?

Just press Start and begin typing the name of the program.
You should see the standard list of programs disappear and a "searching..." prompt appear.
Then a list of possibilities appears, often before you have finished typing and you can use the arrow keys and Enter/Return to open it.
For example, on my system I can type "ever" and Evernote will appear as the only option.
I then press enter and voila, it starts up.

Launchy
Launchy Dialog
If you are still stuck on an older version of windows, or don't like the Start menu, then there are other options too:
Launchy and Find and Run Robot (FARR) are both good choices.

Launchy looks nicer and opens up with a key combination of ALT-SPACE.
FARR also opens with a similar key press and with both programs, you start typing and they start to give you suggestions of what to launch.

I have used both of these programs extensively over several years.
FARR can find more stuff (apart from just programs), but doesn't seem to remember your favourites quite as reliably as Launchy when there could be a choice of similarly named programs.
In either case, I would heartily recommend either program to anyone needing to cut down on their mouse use.

So there you have it:
5 free programs. Less RSI. Better productivity.

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4 comments:

  1. 2 and 3 are a bit contrary to each other.
    2 >"A small movement of your hand = less travel = less strain"
    3>"A large movement of the mouse is easier to perform than fine movements"

    My own experience: larger movements better for preventing RSI.

    It is not proven that smaller movements prevent RSI. In fact some say that it stimulates rsi as you mainly use the same muscle parts in your muscles.

    Thanks for the link to the free to use workrave. I like that program.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for pointing that out!
      I think what I was trying to do was to make a case for two different scenarios:
      One scenario is where one is moving the mouse from one side of the screen to the other in large movements (which could use the upper arm/shoulder muscles) - which I would want to limit/reduce.
      The other scenario is where one uses the mouse for fine movements, such as pointing/clicking on specific parts of the screen (which is more likely to use smaller movements of the fingers/wrist).
      However, I agree that the evidence seems to point to larger movements being generally better than small movements.
      I will have a think about it and see if I can work out how to re-word this post - or maybe write a follow up!
      Thanks for reading and taking the time to leave a comment.

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  2. Thanks for the nice review Tim. I would like to suggest a couple of things that were useful to me in reducing RSI, on top of what you mentioned.

    Doing regular breaks is important but I think that having a gentle touch on the keyboard is important as well. I see a lot of people that strike the keyboard putting a lot of force into that and causing a lot of strain in the body.

    Also typing less is another point. I saw you didn't mention any text expander programs. A text expander lets you type a short abbreviation and expand a full block of text. This can dramatically reduce the number of keystrokes you have to press for the texts that you have to type over and over.

    I want to mention PhraseExpander for Windows - http://www.phraseexpander.com (full disclosure: we created the software) and TextExpander for Mac http://smilesoftware.com/TextExpander

    Hope this is helpful.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your input on this.
      I think that a gentle touch on the keyboard is an important point too.
      I didn't mention text expander programs here because this article was about free programs and all the expander programs I'm aware of are paid or shareware.
      However, I have written about them (including a mention of your own Text Expander) in part 4 of this series : http://timboontech.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/rsi-prevention-part-4-ergonomic.html

      Delete