Stand Up For Greater Productivity

"I child-proofed my house" cartoonFor this month’s Word Carnival, we’re all talking about PRODUCTIVITY, and i’m excited to learn once again from the genius-tank of carnies. My context as i approach this topic is that i’m a full time parent and part time work-from-home graphic designer and social media helper. It’s EASY for me to get distracted…in fact, it’s a rule of the game. i started out trying to minimize and eliminate distractions, but…


So my productivity tip #1 is:

Plan For Distractions

That’s right, EXPECT to be distracted and interrupted, and decide as best you can ahead of time how you’ll handle those situations. Decide what’s worth being interrupted for (Is it bleeding?) and how much time you can devote to such distractions. As a creative person, i find that when i’m in a good artistic space you BETTER NOT interrupt me, because that flow can be hard to get back into. On the flip side, when i’m not feeling creative or inspired, i may need to initiate a creativity-inducing distraction in order to find that flow (and not waste the client’s or my own time struggling when it just ain’t happnin’!). There’s a lot already written about this (My neighbor David Allen comes to mind), so i’ll leave it at that. Kind of surface-level, i know, but my focus for this article is on long-term productivity.

i recently had the amazing fortune to purchase my first home, and it >GASP!< has enough rooms that i get my own office! Finally, i at least have a physical space that i can set up specifically to suit my working needs...and shut myself off in when needed. Just previous to that move, i had been reading about and experimenting with a standing workstation. There's a lot out there about this, and the spectrum seems to be from "Good GAWD, how could you stand up ALL day?!?" to "Sitting down is killing you!". As with most polarized issues, both ends hold some measure of truth, while the healthiest answer lies somewhere in the middle. My experience of setting up a temporary standing station (literally a stack of books and boxes to get the monitor to the right height) was that it felt great in my legs, back and shoulders...exactly where the strains are of the admittedly unnatural position of sitting. Mark Sisson of Mark’s Daily Apple has a really great article detailing why this is, and what to do about it. An excerpt:

But what chairs actually do is make sitting in a harmful, slumped-over position for a dangerously long period of time possible. We bypass our built-in feedback system (you know – pain, fatigue, a sore back) that would usually direct us to correct our posture (or even, maybe, stand up and move around) and we’re able to sit relatively pain-free for hours on end – but the damage is being done. We’re getting progressively weaker and more reliant on the backing of the chair, and when we’re in a sitting situation without added back support, we can’t handle it. Instead of sitting erect, shoulders back, back strong and straight, head held high, we just slump over and use the curvature of our spine to support our bodies. If you don’t believe me, start watching for it.

So i knew i wanted an actual standing workstation in my new office. The trouble was that my internet search for how to make this happen had just two results:

  1. Buy One for hundreds to thousands of dollars, or

  2. Make One by stacking boxes, books, and other discarded office paraphernalia.

modifying an entertainment centerNeither of those options appealed to me, so i designed my own and paid a carpenter friend to build it. Again, the solution ended up being somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. i started with an oak entertainment center that was no longer in use, and figured out the exact height it needed to be cut down to so that when my laptop sits on it, the screen is the right height – my eyes are even with the top of the screen, so that i’m looking ever-so-slightly downward when i’m working. [NOTE: this design is not adjustable, so the monitor is perfect for me only…not so great for my 5’1″ wife.] We also redesigned one of the existing shelves to slide in and out (which places my eyes at the correct distance from the screen), and placed it at the exact height so that when i’m using my keyboard my elbows are at my sides and close to 90˚ angles and my wrists are straight.slide-out keyboard tray

Clearly, all of this is better for my body, especially as i intend to make a career out of being in front a computer for most of my working time (i eventually invested in a good ergonomic split keyboard as well), but even after a full day, my legs and feet are still TIRED. So the real genius – that powerful solution between the two extremes – is that i ALSO have a sitting workstation. It’s got an older desktop computer at it, but that’s mostly the “family computer”. i sit there when i’m making phone calls or when i use the slide-out keyboard tray as a writing or drawing desk. The answer is to mix it up, to vary your body’s positions and levels of activity throughout the day. Now, i must make sure to acknowledge that this is a somewhat luxurious setup. Like i mentioned, having the proper space and resources and know-how to put this all together was not mine right out of the proverbial box…i definitely had to work my way up to it. But having acquired said resources, NOT choosing to make these valuable changes would have been foolish.

But what does all of this have to do with productivity?

There are two main ways in which using a standing workstation improves my productivity: immediate and long-term.

  • Immediate – As i mentioned, i have kids and i work from home…so i literally get called upon to leap into various types of action all the time. When i was sitting, i felt much more entrenched in my little work-pod, and getting up meant thrusting away from my desk on wheels that rolled less and less well over time, and hauling myself up into a new body position. When i’m standing up to work, i’m already more than halfway there when i need to break away to do something else quickly. My blood is already circulating the way and where it’s supposed to and i’m already nimble and limber. “Hey Dad, I just broke a glass!” I’m on it. “Dad, I need you to wipe my butt.” Bam, done. (My office is also adjacent to a bathroom. Nevermind.) Standing while i work minimizes the time that distractions and interruptions take, which in turn minimizes the amount of time and effort it takes to slip back into work mode.

  • Long-Term – i hope it seems obvious, but investing in healthy working habits and an office structure that supports my body’s needs means that i’ll be ABLE TO BE PRODUCTIVE for a longer time – not just during a given day, but over my working career. The standing station (and the sitting option) is not the total solution, and i’ve written about several other quick, easy tips for prolonging your body’s productive life HERE. Here’s to your health, and please let me know what ergonomic/productivity changes you’ve experimented with or even just pondered, or those you’ll make in the future!
    diagram of author at standing work station


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30 Responses to Stand Up For Greater Productivity

  1. I love this. It’d NEVER work for me, trust (my ass is permanently affixed to my couch it seems – but the reason — scoliosis and degenerative disk disease — ain’t going away any time soon, and standing is just not an option for more than 8-10 minutes), but I love how you used your own self-awareness to create a solution that works for YOU. Well done, amigo.

    • evan austin says:

      Thank you so much, Annie, for reminding us that not every solution works for every body, AND that a real, serious reason (not just “i don’t wanna!”) is needed!

  2. I like the idea of a standing desk but am not sure it would work, given painful knees and feet after long periods of standing. However, there’s no doubting the health benefits of being mobile. Thanks for the inspiration, Evan.

    • evan says:

      Thanks Sharon! Indeed mobility is the big takeaway, and the range of that will be different for everybody.

  3. Nicole Fende says:

    I loved this post because I am both a numbers geek and a power tool toting wanna be woodworker. I actually built the bathroom cabinet for a custom granite top because I couldn’t find one I liked enough. Being a numbers geek I spend a lot of time at my computer, but don’t want to always be sitting.

    My potential variation – something that would allow me to work while walking on a treadmill. I always seem to have excess energy to burn off!

    • evan says:

      Huzzah, Nicole…we’re an unusual blend, but perfect for this kinda thing! Treadmill desks are also becoming quirky-popular, but they’re currently crazy-‘spensive. In college (before i knew they actually existed…or would), i “invented” – on paper – a workstation that was a computer atop a stationary bike…and pedaling supplied power to the PC!

    • Jeff Fabian says:

      I just saw a picture of someone working at a treadmill desk yesterday, but I would never be able to find the link again. I like the concept too, and I also have a penchant for construction (I remodeled my house and moonlight as a small-time real estate investor), but I know from working my way through college in a sandwich shop that there’s no way I could stand up 8 hours a day.

      What works for me is taking breaks (which also increases my productivity) to do vertical activities–I definitely see the value in getting out of the chair.

      • evan says:

        Yes, breaks! i’ve written before about a unobtrusive program called MacBreakZ that i love for watching your activity level and suggesting breaks and stretches.

  4. Clare Price says:

    Plan for distractions! I love it. By acknowledging that we will have distractions and working with them and not against them, we can be more productive. Mine tend to be two vocal Shelties. I also like the idea of productive standing. I once had a manager who insisted all meetings be held standing up. Boy, were those meetings short!

  5. Evan,
    I like your idea, which takes a different approach to productivity, which is to change the environment to facilitate productivity. The posts in the blog carnival have approached the question from so many different angles that if we get one take-away from each one, we should all be productivity machines!
    Ilana Rabinowitz recently posted..Marketing is . . .My Profile

  6. Another quality piece of writing, evan! You never fail to amaze me with your brilliance. And your humor. I feel like I got an insider’s view into your work/life space that not many people do (oh, except now they can, too if they just read your post LOL). Standing up and moving around is fabulous for people who need to be creative. It helps our brain shift gears and think in new ways. I noticed this myself when I stopped smoking (no need to get up and smoke every hour). Had to make a point to get up, stretch, and take a short 10 minute walk outside. Amazing how much I needed that!
    Tea Silvestre recently posted..Get ‘er Done: Write Your Marketing Copy and ContentMy Profile

    • evan austin says:

      Oh Tea! Some day i will bow, but now i just blush. :) i was so glad for this topic (for those who don’t know, Tea is the Ringmistress of this here Blog Carnival) because i knew i’d have tons to learn AND it seemed perfect for sharing this “step into my office” post that i’d been wanting to do. So i’m glad that worked for ya! Great example from your own life too!

  7. Rob says:

    This. Is. Genius! One of the main problems I have working for long periods is my back starts to ache. I need to get onto designing something like this myself! I also think the abolity to walk around as I think would benefit me hugely. How well has it worked up to now? :)

    • evan austin says:

      Awesome to hear from you, Rob! Definitely even creating the (relatively) simple habit of taking regular breaks and moving around would benefit you hugely. One of my main takeaways from this whole productivity discussion is to almost never work more than 90 minutes at a given task (sometimes 25m). i’ve also written before about a program called MacBreakZ that measures your activity level and suggests breaks and stretches when you’re nearing at-risk-for-repetitive-stress-injury levels.

      So far i LOVE standing to work! While standing i naturally shift positions and weight and can take a few steps here and there without disrupting myself. My main problem is that i need to remember to sit down!

    • evan says:

      BTW, Rob, i can give you a jump-start by telling you exactly which points to measure on your body, and a few other tips if you’re really gonna build one of these. :)

  8. SandyMc says:

    Want to rush out with a saw and hammer and start attacking some old bookshelf right away to achieve this great solution to the numb derriere situation that many of us who have been computer bound for way, way too long suffer from.

    Brilliant solution Evan and actually so spot on in terms of productivity. Nothing like an aching neck, wrists, back, backside whatever to seriously reduce your concentration and your productivity. Love the photo of you at your work station and can almost hear the kids yelling for your attention just around the corner. Thanks- I might ask for a home made one for Christmas. I can hear the collective grown from my non handy-person family as I said that!
    SandyMc recently posted..Productivity: big picture, percentages, steel spine and a list of three!!My Profile

  9. Pingback: Productivity (or, How to Get Your Sh*& Done) | word carnivals

  10. Julia Hayes says:

    I love the top image – I need one of these cartoons for my wall.
    My naturopath highly recommends standing desks but I like having the wide desk will all the stuff spread out in front of me. I bought a Swiss fit-ball as a home office chair, which certainly keeps my back straight.
    Switching between sitting and standing has to be so good for your brain and body. Now I’m looking around for another place to perch my laptop for variety.
    I loved reading the story and ‘planning for distractions’ advice. Life happens when you’re making other plans.
    Evan – You must be a good copy typist to have the keyboard so below your line of sight?
    Julia Hayes recently posted..Think About This Before Choosing a Virtual Office PerthMy Profile

    • evan says:

      Hi Julia, thanks for your Comments! i do digital portraits like that, if you really want one… :)

      You brought up so many great points: i did want to mention the options of a fit-ball as a chair, and a Chiropractor friend of mine uses a backless stool to sit on at his office. One of my earliest ergonomic changes to my own desk chair was to remove the arms…they were not adjustable, so they kept my arms at an inappropriate height and my body in general too far from the work space and screen, so i was much better off without them. Matching the chair to the desk is important, and YES! the sitting/standing combo is awesome. Each one feels good after having done the other for a bit. Another great point of yours that i hadn’t considered: getting great at typing, because yes the keyboard must be quite low in order to get the ergonomic benefit. Fortunately i took typing class in high school.

  11. Julia Hayes says:

    Hi Evan,
    Since I started putting this idea into practice I’m really getting to like it. My masseuse told me it is common in Sweden to buy desks that have an adjustable centre. So you sit down, then stand up and the central platform on the desk rises with the laptop still in place. Cleve Scandinavians. I’ll check it out.
    After I tweeted the link to this post I received a follow from Mitch :
    “@workstandingup
    I’m a freelancer in NYC. I sit 12+ hours a day. My tweets are about my new goal to stand and live!”

    Is there a trend here ?

    Julia
    Julia Hayes recently posted..Think About This Before Choosing a Virtual Office PerthMy Profile

    • evan austin says:

      Good morning Julia! i’m very excited to hear that you’re trying and liking it! Clever Scandinavians indeed….i’ve seen desks like that for sale – definitely the high end, very pricey. i got that same Follow from @workstandingup too!…he must be doing a good job of keeping his social web radar on.

  12. Agile methodology teaches that you should stand whenever there’s not work being done, so you’re more likely to get your butt back in gear.

    Meetings – nobody likes standing, so you’re more likely to get your information out into the world so you can get back to work faster – if you’re standing.

    I love the thought of a standing work station, but I don’t think it would ever work for me. I love a good walk, though!
    Nick Armstrong recently posted..Steal Like an ArtistMy Profile

  13. Minerva Wiggins says:

    i’ve also written before about a program called MacBreakZ that measures your activity level and suggests breaks and stretches when you’re nearing at-risk-for-repetitive-stress-injury levels. You never fail to amaze me with your brilliance. Right on Ilana, I would love to spend the time taking one great take out from each post and making a poster of it.
    Minerva Wiggins recently posted..Swiffer MopsMy Profile

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