Standing desks increase productivity (but you have to do it right)

sitting-smoking

“Sitting is the new smoking.”

It’s an increasingly common and playfully snarky phrase coined by Dr. James Levine, director of the Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative. For anyone who’s slogged through a long, sloop-shouldered day at a desk, the dangers of sitting are intuitively easy to believe. Standing desks are becoming an iconic symbol of personal wellness in the workplace. However, it’s worth understanding the pros and cons of life on foot before throwing out the office chair.

Why stand?

Levine and like-minded researchers are inspiring a growing revolution of students and workers to stand up and shake free from the dangerous shackles of our chairs. In a 2014 interview with the L.A. Times, Levine addressed many of the dangers associated with sitting, ending with a statement that we are quite literally “sitting ourselves to death” with our modern, sedentary lifestyle.

Health concerns aren’t the only driving factor behind the move to standing desks, however. A recent study of school-aged children shows that standing students are both more attentive and more engaged in the classroom. Researchers at Texas A&M gave groups of students standing desks for a year. The results showed that students at standing desks were 12 percent more engaged than their seated counterparts. If you’re looking to eliminate distractions and increase productivity, wringing an extra 7 minutes out of each hour sounds like a pretty good place to start!

So … now my feet hurt

It might seem like any suitably tall counter or tabletop can replace traditional desks. Do we just throw out our chairs and soldier on without them? That’s a possibility and will probably work for some, but we’re seeing that a more balanced, less all-in approach might be warranted.

Standing still is not a cure-all replacement for sitting still. Our bodies are complex physical structures capable of and designed for a dynamic range of movement. The sedentary aspect of standing or sitting for too long creates stresses on the body that accumulate over time. Those physical strains can result in fatigue, and – if not managed properly – potential injury.

Additionally, not all activities are particularly well suited for standing. A February article from the U.S. News and World Report looks at situations where the move to a standing desk provided frustration rather than increased productivity. Certain fine motor skill tasks are more difficult to perform when not seated. In these situations, a standing desk might still be a good idea, but maybe only for breaks or associated support tasks like email and phone calls. For some high-concentration or physically precise jobs, the chair may simply remain a necessary evil.

Which desk is the right desk?

Standing desks can be easy and affordable to make, but if the Cadillac approach is more your style, there are fancy motorized options with programmable settings, notifications, and even fitness data tracking(Around the RescueTime offices we’ve used everything from a $1000+ GeekDesk to a pile of creatively stacked computer boxes.)

Treadmill or walking desks are also becoming increasingly common and commercial options are available. However, as with standing desks, budget options are also completely legitimate. For reference, here’s the total overall investment in my own walking desk:

$50 treadmill from Craigslist, $9 in beer for the buddy that helped me move it, $16 for a  pre-fab shelf from the local DYI store.

$50 treadmill from Craigslist, $9 in beer for the buddy that helped me move it, $16 for a pre-fab shelf from the local DYI store.

Voilà! A walking workstation for less that a hundred bucks.

Despite the potential benefits and relative ease of making the switch, it’s probably a good idea to figure out if a standing desk is right for you before committing big bucks and lots of office floor space to a pricey option. Here are some ways RescueTime can help:

  1. Measure your productivity during work for one week sitting and one week standing, and see if there is a noticeable difference. If you end up being more productive with a hacked together standing desk setup, it probably makes sense to invest in a more permanent setup.
  2. Set a RescueTime alert to prompt movement between sitting and standing, or to step away to stretch for a few minutes after each hour of work. This may help you to avoid investing in an adjustable desk only to have it languish in a sitting position all the time.

Have you had a good or bad experience with a standing desk? Please share your tips in the comments!


15 Comments on “Standing desks increase productivity (but you have to do it right)”

  1. Robby Macdonell says:

    I’ve been bouncing back and forth between a standing desk and sitting for a couple years. Standing is great for most things, but I have noticed that I enjoy sitting for designing in Photoshop or Illustrator. This jives with the comment you made about fine motor skills. If I’m mostly just typing, standing is way more enjoyable.

    I haven’t tried a treadmill desk, but seeing how cheaply you can throw one together, I just might have to give it a shot.

  2. Joe says:

    For me, the key was easing my way into a standing desk. It was important for me that I had the ability to quickly switch from a standing to a sitting desk when I got uncomfortable. I’ve setup my home office that way and find myself switching quite often, depending on the type of work I’m doing.

    • Andy Rogers says:

      I definitely had to ease into mine as well. I started with an enormous, swanky automated desk that I could raise and lower as I saw fit. That was almost ten years ago. At first the novelty of it had me changing height all the time. Frankly, it was probably more distraction that anything else for the first few days.

      After it became the norm for me, I found myself getting “stuck” in one position or another. Usually sitting. Eventually, what worked best for me was a much smaller standing desk at a fixed height, with an option to work seated nearby. Sometimes just the change in location gets me moving again if I get stymied on a project or something.

      I have to think that the frequent change in position is better for my feet, hips and back, as well.

  3. I won’t bother sending the bug report but your log in with Google functionality is broken as it’s based on the Legacy method.

  4. Slipp D. says:

    I’ve experimented with standing desks a few times in recent years, and the conclusions I’ve come to regarding my own productivity are that:

    Standing makes me both more motivated to do things, and to be done with them. When I’m feeling amibitious, standing helps me take on lots of tasks, but leaves me with less desire to work on the tougher tasks— and when not ambitious, I’d rather just walk away from them and go enjoy some fresh air.

    Sitting makes me desire more to dig deep into tasks, learning new information and/or thinking thoroughly along the way. When ambitious, sitting gives me the patience to plow through detailed work and get every piece right— and when not, sitting doesn’t deter me from the work ahead; it just leaves me working at it more slowly.

    • Robby Macdonell says:

      Thats really interesting, and totally makes sense (even though my personal experience differs somewhat). I wonder if a big part of it is that learned physical cues help us get into a frame of mind that’s better suited for different tasks? So, where your sitting down gets you in a state of “I’m settling in to focus deeply on something”, for me it’s a cue that I’m lounging and the distractions seep in a lot easier. I’m going to keep this point in mind the next time I give some sweeping generalization about how standing desks are “better”. 🙂

  5. Nathan L'Heureux says:

    I have my secondary monitor set up as a stand up desk and my primary as my sit down screen. Initially I had difficulty focusing while using the stand up monitor, but after about a month I adapted.

    I now find that most of my tasks are better suited to me standing. I feel more alert and more fluidity in my thinking and problem solving.

    For some reason though, I like to be sitting while I’m taking in new information, or obviously when someone comes in to speak with me. It was pointed out to me very quickly that my standing while speaking to someone (even if they too were standing) was uncomfortable and intimidating.

  6. Ty Lorts says:

    I’m a furniture manufacturer in Phoenix and we’ve been making a higher end, electronically adjustable height desk for the last few years and have had great success. Don’t mean to be like spam but it came up in my Facebook feed so I thought I’s tell people about it, if you’re interested:
    http://www.trancosofitness.com

  7. I was spending 12+ hours a day sitting at my desk. So I made the investment in a motorized desk and bought a expensive chair that also rises and lowers but has this ball balance in the center.. I don’t know – but sitting on it is like sitting on the back of a horse. My first day after about an hour of work – I was walking weird. So its been a few weeks now and I’m realizing that I no longer work in my office! I work on the couch, at my kids’ desk, on my bed…. anything but going back to the up/down, sit/stand, this hurts that hurts “damn I’m outta shape/still look good though” new workspace. I may need to revisit the situation soon. Thanks for the info.

  8. Safi says:

    I do boring stuff while standing (+ music) and do interesting stuff while sitting.

  9. Brandon says:

    I have a standing desk with a padded barstool… I still like to sit about 20% of the time but hate waiting for the desk to lower and then raise. So voila… Brought a barstool in and I can keep my desk at standing height.

    Standing when talking to customers on the phone gives me much more confidence. Our company has provided us with padded standing mats ad well, so rarely are my feet tired at the end of the day.

  10. Matt K says:

    Would love to hear from people that have experimented with blocking up their desk and using a chair with foot rest that can raise and lower. I imagine it would be a much cheaper and more practical option than a motorized desk for those with a larger L shaped desk and who need the space. Most of the “hacks” I’ve seen are for smaller desks with a single screen and not much space required. Thanks!

    • Phil says:

      I bought two small end tables from Walmart and clamped them together to put on top of my large desk, creating a decent-sized work area. I have one monitor stand on the raised desk area and a second one attached to a floating arm on the original desk. I keep my chair a few feet behind me to pull in when my legs get tired and then adjust my second monitor (the one on the adjustable arm) so I can see it while sitting.

  11. arogers907 says:

    I’m loving all these creative, standing solutions!

    For those of you who are trying out standing desks, do you find it having an impact on your productivity? Or your creativity?

    For me, I felt like I’d sometimes lose hours of my day to sitting, hunched like a lump, in my chair. The move to a standing desk helped me to feel focused and on-task. I also found that I was more likely to leave my desk to complete tasks or have conversations that were “too much trouble” to leave my chair for.

    After more than a decade with standing desks, things have changed again. I find now that I really benefit from changing positions. For long-form, technical or mentally rigorous work, walking away from my desk to hunker down in a chair somewhere is often the most productive path forward for me.

    Are you folks seeing something similar with your productivity and motivation? Something different? Health implications aside, how is your workspace impacting your work product?

    -Andy