illustration of a woman looking out a window from her desk

As an award-winning TV and video editor, Ben Pollard is used to long hours spent in front of a screen. 

“We can put in very long shifts while editing footage, just staring at monitors,” says the Londoner. “You get into a zone where hours pass by and you don’t even realize. Then, when you finally emerge, your eyes are incredibly dry and red; you’re blinking in the sunlight like a confused caveman emerging into the world, absolutely exhausted.”

When you finally emerge… you’re blinking in the sunlight like a confused caveman emerging into the world, absolutely exhausted.

Ben Pollard, film editor

It’s a scenario that’s becoming increasingly familiar to many of us as we navigate the ongoing coronavirus crisis. Whereas work days used to be punctuated by commutes to offices, lunch breaks and face-to-face meetings, now almost everything – including our social lives after working hours – involves staring at a screen, with little or no respite. While video chat software is helping us to stay effective, connected and employed, it’s also turning many of us into a version of the red-eyed, frazzled troglodyte that Ben describes. 

Across the world, digital exhaustion is setting in. Experts have even given the condition a title – “Zoom Fatigue” – though of course the symptoms apply whether you’re using Google Hangouts, Skype, FaceTime, or any other video-calling interface for long hours. In simple terms, the problem is staring us all in the face, all day long. 

So what exactly is it about this upsurge in online activity that’s tiring us all out?  

“Staring at screens for hours on end obviously isn’t great for your eyes, but it’s more than that,” says Ben, who has worked for British networks like BBC and ITV, and now runs his own company, Big Hair Films. “It’s about your overall physical health and your energy levels too – as well as your ability to focus mentally.”  

The good news is that there are plenty of people like Ben who are already adept at long, grueling marathons in front of their screens. And they – alongside health and vocational experts – have a number of tips for the rest of us. Read on for the top six ways to combat screen fatigue.

1. The eyes have it

“One trick I’ve learned over years of long edits is that taking a few seconds to glance away from your screen and focus on a specific object on the other side of the room or outside the window really works,” says Ben. “Changing that depth of perspective seems to help your eyes feel less tired – and to increase your concentration levels.”

The experts agree. One of the best ways for putting this tactic into effect is the “20-20-20 Rule”, devised by Californian optometrist Jeffrey Anshel. Put simply, every 20 minutes you should stare at something about 20 feet away, for 20 seconds. This relaxes the eye muscles responsible for focusing, reducing overall fatigue. It sounds simple, but it works like magic – and both the American Optometric Association and the American Academy of Ophthalmology now officially recommend it as a way to reduce eye strain.  

2. Find yourself in a good light

“When I’m doing color-sensitive work, I need the room to be darker for the edit, but that puts a bigger strain on my eyes,“ says Ben. “I find myself needing to take breaks in a lighter environment, just to give my eyes a rest.”

This is a common problem, and getting your “outer” lighting levels right is key to minimizing the effects of screen fatigue. The bigger the discrepancy between the brightness of your screen and the brightness of the surrounding room, the bigger the problem – because your eyes have to keep adjusting between the two. If you can strike a closer balance, you’ll find it far easier to work without issues, so reach for those lamps, turn on those lights and raise those blinds. 

3. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate

Like others spending long hours in front of screens, one of Ben’s main complaints is – predictably – dry eyes. Fortunately, the solution is equally predictable. 

“It took me a while to work this one out, but your secret weapon during a long editing session is not a big cup of coffee – it’s a big bottle of water,” says Ben. “I don’t work without one now.”  

It’s a smart move for anyone facing serious screen time: our eyes are surrounded by fluid and they need it to function properly. Gulping down plenty of water during the day will protect you in the short term from red, itchy eyes – but also in the long term by maintaining your levels of glutathione, an antioxidant that helps guard against eye disease. Aim to drink eight 8oz glasses of water as a good daily target. 

4. See the bigger (physical) picture

Expert tips for setting up an ergonomic home office your body will love

“Eyestrain, exhaustion and headaches might be the most obvious symptoms from too long spent in front of a screen, but there are plenty of others too,” says Ben. “Common complaints among video editors include recurring back pain, ‘tech neck’ and repetitive strain injury (RSI) in the hand and wrist.”   

Ben’s own remedy – an ergonomic chair and a wider, deeper desk – is backed up by the experts. According to the American Optometric Association, many of us position our screens too close to our faces. Instead, they should be between 16-30 inches from us, slightly below horizontal eye level, and tilted away at a 10 to 20 degree angle. The ergonomic chair goes without saying too – look for one with generous lumbar support or add a separate lumbar pillow yourself to protect your lower back, one of the most common fall guys of excessive screen time.  

5. Harness the power of the Pomodoro

One of the best productivity hacks out there, the Pomodoro Technique will also serve to reduce exhaustion after a heavy day of screen time, ensuring you can work longer and more efficiently while minimizing the effects of screen fatigue. Designed in the 1990s by Italian office guru Francesco Cirillo, its premise is a simple one: you work in short 25-minute sprints (called ‘pomodoros’ after the tomato-shaped kitchen timers that gave Cirillo the idea), followed by strict five-minute breaks. After four pomodoros, you take a longer break of 15-30 minutes. Not only has this been proven to improve your concentration and creativity levels, it’ll also mean you can work better for longer, without the tired, red eyes or mental exhaustion that are the hallmarks of screen fatigue.       

6. Snack smart

Man cannot live by water alone – and he cannot beat screen fatigue over an entire day that way either. The smart move is to complement your eight glasses of daily H2O with handfuls of carefully targeted snacks too. And when it comes to nibbling away at the edges of screen-spawned exhaustion, your best bet is to get nutty. Among the very best options to have on hand are Brazil nuts and cashews – both of which are resplendent in omega-3 fatty acids and Vitamin E to strengthen your eyes. But the undisputed best of the bunch are walnuts, which do all of the above and were recently found to improve working memory by 19%, according to a Spanish study. Screen fatigue? Just say nuts to it.     

Is it time for a change of screen?