Working Comfortably on a Laptop

Posted on April 12th, 2016 by Seth Nickinson

Hate to say it, but the laptop computer is bad for your body. Some researchers over at Cornell have phrased it with understated simplicity:

Un-ergonomic Laptops – the design of laptops violates a basic ergonomic requirement for a computer, namely that the keyboard and screen are separated. In the early days of personal computing desktop devices integrated the screen and keyboard into a single unit, and this resulted in widespread complaints of musculoskeletal discomfort. By the late 1970’s a number of ergonomics design guidelines were written and all called for the separation of screen and keyboard. The reason is simple – with a fixed design, if the keyboard is in an optimal position for the user, the screen isn’t and if the screen is optimal the keyboard isn’t. Consequently, laptops are excluded from current ergonomic design requirements because none of the designs satisfy this basic need. This means that you need to pay special attention to how you use your laptop because it can cause you problems.

bad laptop posture

So what’s to be done?

It depends if you are using your laptop occasionally (e.g. Web surfing on your couch, travelling for work) or every day.

Check out this UC Berkeley printable PDF for a nice summary.

Occasional Laptop Use

For occasional use, you will have to sacrifice neck position (which is controlled by large muscles) for wrist position

  1. Find a chair that is comfortable and that you can all the way sit back in, or a place where you are upright or slightly reclined. Use a pillow or rolled-up towel to support your back if you need to
  2. Position your laptop right in your lap for the most neutral wrist posture that you can achieve; that is, not held up or down by your muscles
  3. Angle the laptop screen so that you can see with the least amount of craning your neck away from vertical

Everyday Laptop Use

If you are using your laptop every day for work, it’s a different story. As we have seen, laptops aren’t meant for this kind of use. Ideally, you would hook your computer up to an external monitor and set up a docking station mimicking a desktop setup. Barring that:

Full-time Users – if you use your laptop at work as your main computer you should:

  • Position the computer on your desk/work surface in front of you so that you can see the screen without bending your neck. This may require that you elevate the laptop off the desk surface using a stable support surface, such as a computer monitor pedestal, or the classic reams of office paper
  • Use a separate keyboard and mouse. These days, you can easily get USB or even wireless setups for ease of connecting and transport
  • Use the freestanding keyboard on a negative-tilt keyboard tray to ensure a neutral wrist posture
  • Use the separate mouse on an adjustable position mouse platform
  • Use good workstation posture; you can read our longer article on office ergonomics for more

using a laptop at a table