Save Your Eyes

Illustration by Kirk Wallace

Illustration by Kirk Wallace

I experience eye fatigue while working on screens all day. The lights in my office don’t help. The mobile devices add to the fatigue. Even before lunchtime, I feel as though I must refresh my eyes any way I can to keep them from imploding. This feeling gets worse as I spend more and more time using screens.

I’ve found a few solutions that work well to relieve my eyes. Here’s what I recommend as a soft start to support comfortable longterm visibility.

Keep spotlights on something else

In my office I have three lights: one to the left of the door (which is five feet to the left of my desk), one right above the desk, and one by the wall to the right behind my desk. I keep the light above me off when I’m at my desk working for more than a few minutes at a time.

The reason is there’s a great deal of glare that the overhead light produces. Initially I didn’t think it was all that harmful or noticeable, but one day my eyes grew tired and I turned off the light to see what difference it would make. It made such a difference I’ve been tempted to take the lightbulb out of the fixture! I can clearly view the screen since the haze is nonexistent.

The ceiling lights that are directly overhead are the worst. It will help you a lot to turn off the ceiling lights that hover right above you. The indirect ceiling lights aren’t so much trouble unless also they manage to make glare.

Turn off the dark

It’s tempting to read my iPad in the morning with a cup of coffee in the dimly lit living room, just getting a hint of natural light from the window from a sunrise. It feels nice at first, but the results are maddening. The entire time, my eyes are trying to compensate for the bright screen and the dim room. They begin to water by the time I’ve read the fifth headline in my RSS feed.

Dark spaces with bright screens look visually interesting, like the screen at the cinema, but it wreaks havoc on your vision. Everything from dryness to watery eyes happens. It doesn’t matter if you’re at the movies, the library, or my living room. You’ll have a rough time the longer you read or work in dim lighting.

My living room has a light on the ceiling fan, canister lights along one wall to the side of the room, and indirect lighting from the kitchen. It’s best to use the indirect lights to maintain a warm, brighter atmosphere that doesn’t ruin the early morning mood.

Humidify the room, or get a plant

Naturally, dry rooms can dry out eyes, exacerbating whatever effect the monitor is having. Add a small humidifier to dry rooms, or if a room is only a little dry, get a large plant. Plants naturally add moisture to the air.

I don’t have this problem in my home. Here in Georgia, the climate stays nice and muggy. I have encountered dryness in some workplaces though, and if exposed for long periods in them I can tell the difference it makes on my eyes. A humidifier may look dorky, but if it helps you work then it’s practical.

Take eye breaks

My chiropractor recommends I take a walk away from the desk about once an hour. When I’m in the zone, this feels like a huge annoyance. I could work for four hours straight without standing up any day, but her concern is that my back needs to move around to stay in good shape.

The same is true about eyes, though most people don’t think of it this way. Eyes have muscles, and they need to stay in shape.

If I pick up my iPhone and extend my arm out holding it there for thirty minutes—arm outstretched—my iPhone will feel like the burden of a 500 pound steel safe. Muscles aren’t made to maintain themselves at peak conditions in ridiculously lengthy situations.

Your eyes have three sets of muscles that need to be stretched and relieved of duty frequently. Eyes literally need a break from constant demands on their ability to focus, adjust for brightness and color temperature. They shouldn’t stay in the same artificially lit environment for more than an hour or so.

I get up from the desk about once an hour to do anything besides stare at my screen. Mindful of it, I’ve noticed this actually relieves my eyes and has helped in other ways.

  • I feel less irritable the less time I spend uninterupted looking at screens.
  • I feel a little more energetic at the end of the work day.
  • I get to the little things during my eye break, like letting the dog out, getting another cup of coffee, and checking the mailbox.

Use computer glasses

A friend of mine at the office was wearing yellow-tinted glasses while working at his dual screen setup. I asked about the odd lenses which he explained were computer glasses. This struck me as odd—because they are still unheard of in mainstream culture—but I soon used glasses for the same reason.

This is a fairly unestablished convention that many people say helps their eyesight. I don’t know if there is legit science behind it, but it makes sense on the surface of the problem. Light from your screen is exposing you to a variety of artificial light rays. If you wear glasses, they act as a filter between you and the artificial light.

Some research suggests that AR coatings on well-made glasses reduce pain and vision problems due to glare. A considerable number of people that have fieldtested computer reading glasses have said they seem to help. If you agree that computer glasses are worth a shot, they can’t hurt.

You may feel silly if you don’t use prescription lenses. Then again, you are wearing them to protect your vision, which isn’t a matter we should take lightly. Computer glasses can’t hurt and they may seriously help.

A little effort goes a long way

I’m not talking about real eye vision impairments such as my wife experiences. She has 20–550 (nearsighted) vision and it’s awful. I’m just a blur to her five feet away when she’s not wearing lenses.

But eye fatigue, which I experience frequently, is something that you can treat with just a little effort. It’s especially important to treat it if you want to keep your overall vision more-or-less ideal, or if you want to prevent them from getting worse.

Joe Darnell

Joe is a UI and graphic designer with prior experience as the creative director for three media-based businesses. Joe’s passionate about web design and graphic design with about 15 years of experience in the media industry. Additionally, Joe is the host of the Top Brew and Techtonic podasts, both featured on iTunes.