The Standing Desk Experiment, 5 Months in.

by jesse in , , ,


My original standing desk post - "Switching to a Standing Desk" has garnered a lot of attention - and a lot of questions. I've also seen a rise in the number of people trying out standing setups due to that post and the near onslaught of new articles and people converting to a standing setups in the months since. It seems to be quite the trend now. More studies have been coming out citing that sitting as long as we (programmers, writers, etc) do is fundamentally harmful - for me, switching to standing was less driven by those facts, than needing a change - leg pain, back pain - I needed something more. I sit enough throughout a normal day.

Studies and articles:

I figured since I'm rapidly approaching 6 months into the "experiment" - I should post a followup along with my current thoughts as well as even more information on how to setup your own rig, new studies, and other articles that have come up.

My original setup was a bit of a rig: I stole (borrowed) a table from one of the kitchens in our building and hacked together something that while serviceable, had a few obvious problems - the key one being it was wobbly (I'm not a light typist). Wobbly, while annoying, was still tolerable and preferable to the back pain, lethargy and other things that drove me to try it out in the first place. Other problems included not being at the optimal arm-height (it was close) and well - lack of desk space.

Several months ago, I was lucky enough to have my employer (Nasuni) notice my experiment and we made a deal - if I stuck to the rig for a month, and still wanted to stand, they would get me an official standing desk. I exceeded the goal a bit - not only did I stand at the setup for a month - I completely ditched sitting the first week. I haven't sat in a chair in my cube since I started standing months ago. So work pitched in and got me a GeekDesk 2.0 - victory!

Here's the "perfect" setup:

IMG 2784

The transition itself from sitting to standing was pretty easy for me - given the number of changes I've made in the past year in terms of weight loss, exercise, etc at this point I'm probably in the best physical condition I have been in my entire life. So ultimately I didn't have many of the transition issues people sometimes cite (foot / leg pain, tiredness, etc) with moving to a standing desk.

The minor issues I had mainly revolved around:

  • Feet: I had to find a non-bulky, well made pair of shoes. In my case, I started wearing New Balance Minimus Trail style "minimalist" shoes - they're form fitting (meaning no socks) and have almost no sole to them. Additionally, I had already picked up a good comfort mat to stand on - that way I had something more giving than the carpet covered concrete.
  • Getting things at the right height: I chose the Geekdesk because it's got hydraulic legs that allow you to set a perfect height - one where your elbows are at a 90 degree angle when your hands are resting on the keyboard, or slightly lower than that. This, plus my standard Microsoft Ergo keyboard means my typing posture is probably the best that it's ever been. Additionally, while I have a height adjustable monitor - I used an additional monitor stand to get my monitor position at roughly eye level (I prefer the horizontal center of the monitor to be slightly below eye level - use what's comfortable). This way I'm not looking down/tilting my head an extreme amount, in most cases I'm only looking slightly down.
  • Switching positions: When we hack/get involved in something we all have a tendency to hold dead still except for our hands - instinctually even though I was standing, I would sometimes find myself standing rigid, feet shoulder width apart with my back straight. While fundamentally not bad this can just cause your body to get tired/sore/whatever. I had to start letting my more rational brain allow my body to move, force yourself to gently shift your position. In my case I've even found myself dancing to music slightly, even when deep in coding or writing because my body now knows it can move freely.
    • I've actually found myself standing with one leg bent and my foot against the inside of the opposite knee. This means standing on one foot - I didn't notice it until someone asked me if I was doing yoga in my cube. Between this and the dancing at my desk, I think the weird-o-meter is maxed out.
  • Allowing myself a break: I set boundaries for myself - I'm no superhuman and genetic aberration. My body needs rest. My agreement with myself was this - if I stand during work sessions, I will sit during lunch and take an afternoon break of 15 minutes and sit, have a snack, something. This way I give my body a chance to relax.

Nothing groundbreaking, really. Allow yourself to move/change positions (my default is back straight, feet shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent) - get something nice to stand on / some good shoes and set expectations. Revolutionary science and advice, I know.

After just a few weeks I noticed a change - I had more energy, I felt more active and alive, I breathed better (not hunched), I was actually calmer, more reflective and able to focus when needed. My body felt great - my legs felt stronger, my back a thousand times better, my neck better, etc. I've had all the upsides and few downsides. I lost more weight/gained more muscle in my legs and back - good times!

I will say that people get confused - people walking by, when they see a programmer/hacker hunched over a keyboard in a chair, deep in thought see a giant "do not disturb" sign. When you're standing, hacking away deep in thought people tend to have the instinct that you're more approachable. And they like to pop in for a quick chat. Nothing bad in and of itself - a break never hurt anyone. But coworkers who don't notice your earbuds in your ears might get confused when they have an entire conversation with someone who is completely checked out, standing there.

No, I'm not being rude. While I do do yoga, I have not quite reached the level of being able to sense a disturbance in the force.

Approachability works both ways though: I find myself more approachable/less hostile to people dropping in to talk. I'm more relaxed, less aggressive and ultimately more at ease when someone interrupts me, or catches me in between things to talk. I enjoy white boarding with them more, I don't spin around in my chair and snarl at them because I was elbow deep in an epic yak shaving. I just take a breath, turn around and start talking.

I feel more refreshed; and switching "into work" and "out of work" (meaning, in and out of a task) is easier/more approachable. My body feels better - so much better that sitting actually feels awkward to me. Ask my wife, any time I work at home I whine because I end up sitting. Sitting has become something I do when I want to relax, or because I have to - not something I do automatically. Not to mention, you simply burn more calories standing than sitting still. It will help you pay down that debt you had for lunch!

Don't get me wrong - I like kicking up my legs with my laptop in my lap, and beating away on my keyboard. It's just those times are different now - almost more special and valuable to me rather than the default-of-lethargy that I had before sitting all the time. I can say sitting here on a plane typing this may quickly drive me insane however.

My two second review of the Geekdesk? It's awesome - it's the perfect height, and it can carry enough weight my four year old can ride it like something at a carnival. I've stacked my mac pro/books/etc on it and the hydraulic legs don't even flinch. I can set it at any height, or drop it down to sit (although I never have). It's well build, sturdy, and had a little cable runner thing attached to the bottom of the desk where I can squirrel cables away (but as you can see in the picture - I'm much to lazy for that). The desk space is enough for me to have my notebook to one side and my laptop to the other and keyboard on the center with room to spare. It really is great.

That said - is the Geekdesk for everyone? Yes!

Is it prohibitively expensive, hence why I don't have one at home right now? Also yes!

Most people (myself included) can't find it in our budgets to finance something like this - heck, it's the same thing with good chairs - they run serious cash. Most people will look to put together a more economical solution. In most cases, you can avoid building something yourself if you live anywhere close to an Ikea - the cheapest option I've found for something that comes close to a basic set of specs:

  • Decent amount of desk space
  • Doesn't look like crap
  • Can have the main work area set to the optimal height

Is the Ikea Fredrik desk - this used to be called the "Galant" desk, and its setup allows you to put together a standing rig approaching a rational price for your home. It's also ok for proposing to bosses who would beat you with a rolled up newspaper if you suggested spending 800$ on an ergonomic desk (although - why are you working for someone like that, Stockholm Syndrome?).

The Fredrick is the best option I've found that's "off the shelf" - there are plenty of plans out there that describe how to build one - and I applaud those who have the wood working skills needed. Here are some of the various plans and pre built desks floating around out there that I cite when asked:

Otherwise, if you're stuck in a cube or office where you can't chuck the existing decor for something more civilized (meaning, it's bolted to the walls or the cube farm would collapse like a hobo village built out of cardboard boxes if you removed your L shaped cube desk) here's a set of the best "hacks"  or attachments I've seen (feel free to share your own:

Now - remember, even if your stuck in a cube in most cases, the height of the main desk area can be changed/raised - you just need an office manager willing to listen. Most desks in cubes can easily be moved lower, or higher depending on needs. Sometimes you may have to get rid of your shelves - but what do you put there other than pretzels and books you don't read? Stability, stability, stability!

For the home? I'd start trolling craigslist for podiums or lecterns if you aren't good with tools or you lack an Ikea. Or, if you can forgo aesthetics you can go the home-depot-cinderblock route. This is the easiest if you just want to experiment. Just measure what height your current desk is, then measure the height from your bent-90-degrees and standing on a comfortable mat elbows to the floor. Subtract the height of your current desk and either go to Lowes or Home Depot and buy cinderblocks and a piece of nice, sanded and pre-finished or stained hardwood to stack on top of your current desk to raise your keyboard, mouse and monitor to the needed heights, or just buy the same to place under your desk legs to move it up.

In the latter case, if you have a desk with a keyboard tray, this works in your favor as you can get the keyboard at the 90 degree angle and give your monitor a quick boost. Cinderblocks or bricks, while not looking cool, are obviously sturdy and stable. Of course, if you have a glass-topped desk at home (as I do) I would recommend against putting it on top.

Me at my setup recently:

Jesse Aug 25 11  7 of 11

Fundamentally, it's just a matter of getting your hands and eyes at the right heights while standing. Everything else is aesthetics and noise. Switching has helped me immensely and for the better. Will I never be a "a sitter" again? Never say never. I will say that it's definitely not for everyone, and while I might sound like a card carrying cultist - even I realize it's a tough thing to swallow for most hackers.

As for the now notorious study that came out recently that stated that you would suddenly develop varicose veins and die if you stood all day? The data the researchers cited disagrees with them (take a look at the hacker news thread). While I don't disagree with the fundamental message: move regularly, stupid - I don't agree with the breathless results and reporting and age-old rehashing of "perfect keyboard angle and age old ergonomics". No one listens to ergonomics experts anyway, and most companies put +ignore on basic ergonomics. Standing while you work is a perfectly good way to improve yourself in a variety of ways, not just improving how long you can sit staring at a screen all day.

Try standing - seriously. It may not be for you, but you might be surprised. I didn't think I'd be doing yoga, didn't think I'd be standing at a desk, didn't think I'd be a dad, eating Paleo/Keto and listening to heavy metal. Sometimes a change or trying something out that seems crazy or daunting is just what you need.

Other good standing desk reads: