I’m not sure where I first heard about standing desks. It was probably about a year ago in some online article, but it didn’t have much of an impact at the time. Since then, the benefits of standing (or rather, the dangers of sitting down for prolonged periods of time) has been appearing in the news more often. Some people even went as far as setting up treadmill desks!
Initially I dismissed it for me because I’m reasonably active: I either run or bike 5 or 6 days per week, and the rest of the days I go for a walk around the neighborhood. It was the combination of increased studies on the effects of sitting, some people in my social circle finally making the jump and raving about it, and me developing some problems in a hamstring that finally made me consider it more seriously. And trust me, if you’re a cyclist or a runner, the last thing you want to have is hamstring problems.
It turns out that my 5-mile morning runs weren’t making me immune to the dangers of sitting. It’s not how much exercise you get per day, but how long do you sit on a chair continuously. And no, buying an fancy, expensive chair might help with your back, but it’s not going to do one bit of good with all the other problems.
One of the many advantages of working from home is that I can try weird things that would be much more difficult in a regular workplace. I also have a track history of liking to experiment on myself , so it didn’t take much convincing to give this a try.
After some initial research, it appeared that the way to go was an adjustable-height desk. That way you can work standing, but you still have the flexibility to sit down whenever you need to. I also found out that apparently this is not all that uncommon in Europe. The only drawback is that adjustable standing desks are not easily available here in the US, and the ones that are out there are aimed at offices and big companies, with matching eye-popping price tags. Even though Flower Garden continues to do well, I wasn’t quite ready to plop down several thousand dollars on something I might end up hating.
So I decided to start cheap and work my way up from the bottom. First I had to decide if I even liked this whole working-while-standing thing. I wasn’t even sure I would be able to type! I thought about raising my desk with cinder blocks, but I would have to raise a lot and would make it very unstable. So instead, I created four stacks of books on top of my desk and put a board on top. Then I was able to put the keyboard, computer, and monitor on the board and give that a try.
Let me tell you: It was weird.
At first I didn’t know how to type. My fingers were constantly off to the side. It turns out my initial height was too low. You really want to have the keyboard at a height that puts a 90 degree bend on your elbows. That’s what they say about the sitting position, but somehow I can manage to have less. However, standing, I really needed that height.
Even once I adjust the height, the first day was kind of rough. After an hour, I was definitely feeling it in my feet. I think I did half a day the first day and I felt totally exhausted. All that running wasn’t helping that much standing at my desk apparently.
Fortunately things got better very quickly. In a few days, I was able to work for hours without much problem. I would find myself constantly shifting my weight between my feet and moving around a little bit. I was definitely liking that whole standing thing.
At this point I decided that the stack of books was too annoying, but I wasn’t quite ready for an expensive desk. So I picked up a Fredrik Ikea desk from Craigslist for $50. The nice thing about this desk is that it can be assembled so the top of the desk is almost at any height. You can’t change it on the fly, but at least it serves as a standing desk.
Finally I was able to work standing and be comfortable at the same time now that I had space for more than a mug along with the keyboard. The extra shelves on the desk were also very handy (one over the table top and one underneath).
After spending a couple of weeks with the desk, I decided that I definitely liked standing and it was something I wanted to continue doing long term. I felt more focused while standing, and my productivity was up. An unexpected side benefit was that when someone else comes into the room, they can walk right up to the desk and we can look at the monitor together, or look at some papers, much more easily than if it was a sitting desk.
However, it was also clear that I needed to switch things up a bit. Spending the whole day standing continued to be pretty tough on my feet, and it even made it so I didn’t want to work any longer than I had to. I really had to combine the standing with some hours of sitting down, which is probably a healthier thing to do anyway.
At this point I had two options: I could go full out and get a motorized adjustable desk, or I could get an adjustable draft chair which are tall enough to sit comfortably at a standing-height desk. Since I already had a nice office chair, and the Ikea desk was a bit wobbly set up like that, I decided to spend the money on the motorized desk.
Again, after a bunch of research, it seemed that one of the best options was to order a (very appropriately named), GeekDesk online. They have them in two sizes, Classic and Mini. It turns out I wanted something more in the middle (around 60″ wide), so I ended up ordering the Mini frame and a desk top from Ikea for $80. It wasn’t cheap, but it was way cheaper than the alternatives and all the reviews and experiences I read were very positive.
It arrived very quickly and it was a breeze to assemble. I did have a scary moment that it looked like one of the wheels didn’t fit in the metal opening, but I eventually managed to coerce it. Hopefully this kind of manufacturing problems aren’t common.
I can only describe the final setup with one word: Awesome. The desk isn’t wobbly at all, and it takes just a few seconds to change heights with the push of a button. Not just that, but I can fine tune the height at any moment in tiny increments. And in the sitting position, I can put it low enough to make typing very comfortable (most desks are set up too high to type really comfortably for me).
My daily work routine has settled into working standing in the mornings, sitting for an hour or so after lunch, standing all afternoon, and then sitting in the evening I have have to do some work. With the wonderful weather here in Southern California, I’ll often take my sitting work time outside in the back patio in the shade. So all in all, I probably spend one or two hours sitting down at the desk.
Yes, it was a significant amount of money, but it’s something I’m using every day and it improves both my productivity and my health. Definitely worth it.
Standing desks have one downside though. This situation happens embarrassingly often. Good thing I work home alone!
 A few years ago I gave polyphasic sleep a try. It was actually really great for gaining extra hours, but eventually I gave it up because I was constantly out of sync with the rest of the world. I’d do it again if I were spending months alone in a research station in the Antarctica.