Hands Across America

A story about two hands doing work to support digital transformation in government

Mark Headd
4 min readMar 2, 2021

Pain is weakness leaving the body
— A quote often attributed to United States Marine Corps

I want to tell you a short story. it’s a story about my hands.

Image courtesy of Flickr user lamazone

Sometime in mid 2017, I woke up one morning with pain at the base of my middle finger on my left hand. For a while I attributed this pain to exercise or just general overuse. After a while I developed what’s called “trigger finger,” and the pain started to spread to other parts of my hands.

Not wanting to admit that I was getting older, I tried to reason why this might be happening to me. For many years I was a competitive gymnast and I regularly abused my hands. For a good portion of my younger life my hands were covered in thick calluses from wrists to fingertips. Finger jams and sprains were a common occurrence, and sometimes after practices my hands would hurt so badly I would plunge them into an ice bucket to reduce the pain and swelling.

Certainly the athletic endeavors of my youth had contributed to my condition, right? After talking with several of my former teammates, I found that none of them was experiencing the same symptoms as I was. And I gradually came to realize that the root cause of my problem was sitting right in front of me — my keyboard.

I’ve always been a hard typer and I’ve not always used proper form. After many years of undisciplined typing, I found myself in a place where every time I typed it hurt. After living with this pain for a while, I decided to get some help and change my habits.

Notes actually do mean something. They have power. I think of notes as being expensive. You don’t just throw them around.
— The Edge, Guitarist for the band U2 (emphasis added)

I think about this quote a lot. and I have come to appreciate how it applies to typing. Keystrokes are expensive, but you don’t pay the bill right away — the cost accrues over many years. And eventually the bill comes due.

Mine certainly has.

As civic technologists our hands are one of our most important tools, outranked in importance only by our brains and our hearts. But working in technology can create some unhealthy incentives. People become obsessive, almost religious, about the tools that they use. Giving up a cherished tool or adopting a new approach is often hard because the tools we use can get tangled up in our identity. (Am I really a developer if I’m not using vim? )

In addition, some of us may have turned down more lucrative opportunities in the private sector to work in government. We may view our time in government as sort of a sacrifice that we are happy to make to serve the public. With this mindset, it can be easy to rationalize other kinds of sacrifice. I mean, what’s a little joint pain if it will serve the greater good?

But the truth is that there is no nobility in pain, no heroic essence that we can distill from experiencing it. It’s just pain, and it hurts. The best thing we can do to do our jobs well and to serve the public is to take good care of ourselves. Digital transformation is the kind of work that can take many years. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

Here are some things that I have tried to do to change my bad habits, and reduce my hand pain. Hopefully, some of this will help others that are experiencing similar problems.

  • Talk to your doctor. Your doctor can share with you options for pain management and other interventions that can reduce your hand pain. I’ve received Cortisone shots in several fingers and it can really help.
  • Use proper typing form and an ergonomic keyboard. I recently switched to the Kinesis Freestyle2 Adjustable Split Keyboard, and have committed myself to returning to proper typing form.
  • Take time to loosen your hands, wrist, and forearm muscles at regular intervals during the day. I have a reminder set for every hour or two throughout the day to remind me to stand up, stretch, and loosen my hands. It’s a good habit to get into.
  • Make use of assistive technologies if you can to cut down on keystrokes. There are also lots of plugins and add-ons to your favorite IDE that can reduce the amount of keystrokes you need to write code.
  • Consider changes to your diet that may help as well. Over the past couple of years I’ve totally overhauled my diet, reducing my sugar intake and increasing consumption of other anti-inflammatory foods. Regular exercise to strengthen your arms and hands is good also.

If you have other tips, tricks, or suggestions please feel free to add a comment on this post.

Making change is never easy but if we’re going to do our jobs the best we can it’s important that we take care of ourselves for the long haul.