My years with a standing desk

I’m not sure how long I’ve had a standing desk, I can’t remember when I converted, but I’m pretty sure it was over 5 years ago.

I sat at my colleague’s desk today for about an hour to help him with some code, and my shoulders were burning by the end of it. There are 2 ways I like to work on a computer

  • standing up at my enormous, multi-layered, multi-monitored desk at work
  • sat on the sofa, in bed or in my arm chair with my laptop warming my thighs

Sitting at a desk, or a table, or anything other than the 2 options listed above is uncomfortable, painful, less productive and just generally rubbish.

So I’m going to explain my full desk set up from my monitor height to what my feet rest on.

Once again, these are facts, backed up by me confirming them as the truth and definitely right. There are no contradictions to what I’m about to say and there’s no way that today I found all these different recommendations out on the internet:

If those recommendations did all exist on the Internet, and were all correct, then you would have to either be a mutant or put your body in some kind of head-stretching, back-breaking paradox to achieve them. Plus, your feet would get very sore. Oh, or maybe they just can’t all be right?

That’s really the point though – which is also something to bear in mind when reading this post. I probably go against the general rules of the NHS and other clever people who have studied stuff, and the entire office today discussed the correct height for monitors… well there is no “correct” height for monitors. It’s all dependent on you, and that’s an important thing to keep in mind when you go head to head with your managers about your bad back and RSI.

So here’s how I’ve got everything set up…

2015-11-30 21.10.19

… and an explanation of it all

  • Normal desk, so it fits in with the rest of the office. Same height, depth etc
  • Custom built riser, built from a matching desktop and set to my elbow height. This means my arms rest comfortably not angled up or hanging down,  about a 90 degree bend. I’ve not got anything like RSI working at this desk, my arms are super happy.
  • Monitor stand – I originally built this for my desk at home which was a little shorter. At first the stand felt a bit too tall, I thought the monitors were too high up and I had to tip my head back a bit, but I’ve adjusted now and have no complaints. My eye level is slap bang in the middle of the top row of monitors AND THIS IS FINE… all the content I work on is at the bottom of the code editors, or command line windows, or the console in Chrome. I don’t really need “File, Edit, Tools” etc… keyboard shortcuts mate. So it might not work for you, but move the monitors to THE HEIGHT THAT IS COMFY FOR YOU!
  • 3x 22 inch monitors. Some people say I have too many, I say I don’t have enough. I need 1, maybe 2 more. I don’t like switching windows and I’m often doing about 6 things at once, so it’s easiest to just see all those 6 things at the same time. I do have to move my head around a bit, so I have them pushed back as far as possible. Most commonly used stuff is right in front of my face.
  • My 4th monitor, the little on that sits on the desk, this is a problem at the moment. I used to have this on a shelf next to my desk, it’s currently in an awful position but it gets used a little less often. I need to get a wall bracket and hang it down above the others.
  • I’ve got my actual tower PC sat on it’s side on the lower desktop. All cables go out the back of the riser, and there is space for them to all plug into the extension lead. This keeps all my cables off the floor, the only thing I have dropping down is the plug and the ethernet cable. It’s tidy.
  • The little set of drawers I glued into the gap, mostly to keep chocolate in.
  • The cardboard box under the monitor stand uses up the space nicely and fits my emergency rations in it, the ones too big for the drawers…
  • I also tend to keep a stool under the desk so I can go and join colleagues at their old fashioned sitting desks, although like I said, I can’t stay sat down for long before my back and shoulders start to ache.
  • I stand with no shoes on, and currently the new office has a nice soft carpet so I’m quite happy just in socks. The old office had a harder floor, I just bought myself a 50cm square piece of chair foam to stand on. It’s fine, I can happily get through my 10 hour days on it. Apparently Judo crash mats work just as well, but the chair foam is cheap and does the job perfectly.

So that’s my setup, it’s gone through a few revisions but I love it, am very comfy in it and have done some 12 hours days there, quite happily.

There are a few things I’ve learnt as I’ve updated my desk and working style over the last few years:

  • You do need to sit down and pause a few times through the day. Lunch break, working with colleagues, going to the toilet. You can’t do a full day straight, but I find I don’t need to pause for long.
  • Don’t stand completely still when you’re at your desk and don’t stand with a 50/50 weight distribution. Basically move around, stay comfy, change positions – like if you worked in a shop, you’d move around a bit. Maybe 50/50 straight upright works for you, but I basically don’t stand in the same position for longer than a decent album’s worth of time, and that’s only if I have to do some headphones-on, ignore-everyone-else style coding.
  • Standing also burns more calories, this whole thing has helped keep some of those desk snacks off my waistline.
  • The being-on-your-feet-ness also encourages movement, so it helps with the previous 2 points. It keeps your blood pumping, keeps you awake in the afternoon lull, helps keep you alert. I find I move around the office a lot more and that helps my workflow in many ways – I have a little stroll to work over a problem in my head, I go collect stuff from the printer as I print it instead of letting it pile up, I fill a few minutes here and there with something that needs doing away from my desk. This gives my body a chance to flex a bit, and my mind gets to re-approach a problem slightly fresher.
  • Don’t wear shoes – just makes your feet sweat. Get a decent mat or pad, kick your shoes off, wiggle your toes.
  • Cover your desk in sticky back plastic! Ok, this isn’t directly related to the standing thing, but I’ve done this, got some whiteboard pens and I find it incredibly useful for sketching ideas, prototyping, to-do lists, reminders. It’s sort of related, my desk makes me move more, and clearing the keyboard out the way and jotting notes across the full width of my desk is much easier standing than it is sitting down.

Yeah, so this post has gone on for a while. I hope it’s genuinely useful for someone who is considering a standing desk or looking to improve the one they have.

I couldn’t go back to a sitting desk – my desk makes me more productive, keeps the edge of my beer guy, back and neck ache free and the talk of the town… ok, not the town, but people do come in and see my towering construction of monitors and be like “Mate, wtf?”.

It’s not for everyone, in the same way that sitting simultaneously at a 90 and 135 degree angle isn’t for everyone – but for those suffering with back/neck/wrist/elbow/knee/ear problems from their desk… try standing.

*note – most of this post is actually really good regarding standing desks, I just massively disagree with the standing upright, feet fixed thing. It’s all about the fidget and constant changing of positions (I love leaning on my elbows whilst reading, then standing straight to type, or standing on one leg… it’s never the same)

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