When I got back home after my own winter break, I found 2015’s first edition of the ITI Bulletin waiting for me. In it was an article called A world of change, compiled by Ros Schwartz, about how freelance translators’ working lives have changed over the last 30 or 40 years or so. The article featured some mini-interviews with translators, and the last of these cited two regrets about how his work had changed. The first concerned exercise levels, and the second switching off from modern technology.
Now, I’ve already dealt with the second of those issues, so let’s tackle the first. I think it’s worth giving a longish quote here:
In the “old days” I kept my dictionaries in a bookcase on the other side of the room and had to get up every time I wanted to consult one. In-depth research into a subject involved walking across the park to the National Library, and dispatching finished translations meant a trip to the post office.
This is not a philosophical post about how more physical interaction and less of the virtual kind will help you get in touch with yourself. I’m not going to tell you that going to the post office is good for you, or even that being healthier will make you work better. What I am going to say is that modern conveniences mean we get less exercise than we used to, that exercise is good for us and that most people in developed countries don’t get enough of it.* Although the article that got me thinking about this was in a translators’ magazine, it applies to all of us, not just translators and not just freelancers.
I haven’t been self-employed for as long as the people featured in the article: I turned freelance in 2007, so definitely post-broadband, even if social media hadn’t quite taken off yet. At first I often spent two or three hours solid at my computer, and back in the bad old days before I discovered the Gokhale Method my sitting posture was often appalling, especially if the work I was doing was boring. There I’d sit, gently morphing into the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Not that this is unique to freelancing: it hadn’t been any better when I’d been a company employee. I’ve always found supposedly ergonomic chairs uncomfortable, and I remember in one company the seat of my chair was a good couple of inches higher on one side than on the other – hardly a recipe for a healthy, comfortable back.
When I turned freelance I decided to take a half-hour break every morning, to stretch my legs and make sure my day wasn’t completely dominated by work. In practice, though, I often spent a lot of that half-hour doing odds and ends around the house, and the walk itself sometimes only lasted a couple of minutes.
Fast-forward to 2015, and what a difference! I’ve put a lot of work into my posture – sitting and standing – over the last few months, and I take a quick break every 20 minutes so that I’m never sitting down for too long at once (although I haven’t participated in the Great Standing/Walking Desk Experiment). These days my neck, back and knees no longer ache, I don’t slouch all the time, my back isn’t hunched by the end of the day (I notice the difference when I’m dancing) and my silhouette looks much healthier. To be fair, I’m not comparing like with like because I also stopped working full-time a year ago, but these improvements are there even when I’ve spent a whole day at my desk working, studying and blogging.
Of course, not everyone’s self-employed, and not everyone who is self-employed works from home. If you’re a company employee or a freelancer working in shared office space, it’ll be harder to be more physically active at work. I can’t imagine better posture would cause a problem with your boss or colleagues, but maybe it’s not so easy to take breaks: perhaps you’d have to disguise them as trips to the little girls’/boys’ room or the watercooler. In most cases there’s probably some way around these things, though.
The thread running through all this is that frequent, low-level exercise that we used to take without realising it, to consult a reference book or run an errand or whatever, now requires us to take the initiative ourselves. In theory people who are self-employed are good at this: we’re self-disciplined and establish our own routines. And in theory all adults are independent and in control of our lives. In practice, though, very often this isn’t true. But this kind of low-level exercise is so important to your health and how you feel. So make a point of incorporating a bit of it into your routine, rather than slumping at your desk with your back gradually deteriorating and your heart function declining. This is nowhere close to being all the exercise you need, but it is important. The lives of most adults in the Western world are dominated by work. That’s sad enough as it is, but if you must spend your waking life working at least do it in a way that doesn’t harm your body.
*I do realise it’s possible to do too much exercise. However, I also know that most people in the developed world don’t do nearly enough, and we’re at far, far more risk of doing too little exercise than too much.