Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

21 May 2008

Anxiety, ergonomics, and performance

Clark @ 10:29 AM

I’m a little under the weather today. Not sick, but I’ve had a procedure done (minor, really), and have been a naughty boy on my keyboard. They’ve combined to jump on me this week, and there are some interesting side effects.

First, a number of years ago I was teaching in a department of Computer Science (I taught interface design). Here were faculty members who used computers for their research, their teaching, everything. And, of course, started suffering the side effects of too much keyboard use. In teaching HCI/interface design I talked about ergonomics, and still was as guilty as the rest. Fortunately, the administration recognized the problem, and hired some guidance and was willing to invest in products to remedy the problems including chairs, keyboards, etc.

I rightly noted that just telling folks about how to do it ‘right’ and giving equipment wasn’t sufficient, and that they’d need support in making the change to new ways. Which didn’t happen, so I don’t know how well the lesson stuck for others, but I did put in place support for myself, specifically a piece of software that threw me off every 30 minutes for 5 minutes. It worked after I got rid of the unix terminal on my desk so I couldn’t switch to the other machine in those 5 minutes…

I’ve got a good chair now, and have adjusted the ergonomics to match recommended guidelines.

OSHA seating guidelinesWhat I didn’t do was use the mouse properly. I had a wrist rest that I used while mousing, not just in-between. I’ve got pain in my right wrist now. I thought I might’ve broken it snowboarding or skateboarding, but it was x-rayed and that wasn’t the issue. Referred to a physical therapist, it appears to just be overuse again (maybe a WoW side effect?). And a big deliverable.

I’ve moved the mouse to the left side for the time being (as I did before) to get some rest, and am working to get better habits going (tho’ I just noticed I was typing with my wrists on the wristrest for the keyboard!). I usually am jumping up for something, so I typically don’t spend too much time at the keyboard in one go, but there are times when I’ve got to be more careful.  I’ll get better and switch back (it’s tough at first, and while you get used to it, I’ll be happy to switch back).

Before I draw on the learnings from this, I’ll confess to one other issue. I just had a minor procedure done, that involved some cutting. It was a followup to a previous one. The first one wasn’t a problem, but for some reason this one had induced more anxiety than I expected. I was trying to type a message while waiting for the anesthetic to kick in (local), and my fingers were shaky! I’m fine, but the effects of anxiety were brought home to me in a big way.

So, what are the take-homes here? First, be careful out there! Watch out for your own computing, and keep yourself practicing safe keyboarding (as well as safe surfing). As the therapist said, she’s surprised by how many folks say they’re too busy, but don’t realize that they’re more effective overall if they take the necessary breaks.

Second, how important it is in behavior change to get support. If you don’t provide support, it’s too easy to backslide into bad habits. And by the time symptoms manifest, you’re already damaged.

Finally, don’t forget to make a safe learning environment. There’s an (upside-down) u-shaped curve for performance, where as anxiety/pressure increases, there’s improved performance to a point, but then it falls back down fairly quickly. That high point in relation to pressure shifts a lot depending on the learner. Be careful to ensure that any anxiety is reduced sufficiently to allow learning to be effective (and now so low as to similarly interfere with learning).

Here’s to safe and effective keyboarding and learning.

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