Observations from a few months with a standing desk

standing desk illustration

Late last year, after seeing one too many studies and infographics about the dangers of sitting all day, I decided to push back my chair and give a standing desk a try. It was a little rocky at first, but once I got used to it, it actually feels pretty great. I initially tried to hack together my own standing setup, but eventually I went all-in and got a GeekDesk adjustable height desk. It was pricey, but luckily we were moving to a new office and I had to get a new desk anyway.

Here are some things that I’ve learned during the process

The first few weeks were a roller-coaster

The first week I worked totally standing up felt great. I couldn’t figure out why everyone wasn’t doing this. I couldn’t see a downside. Well, maybe my tendency to pace back and forth a bit, which lead to hilarious situations like this:

The second week, however, was a nightmare. My legs and lower back started hurting really bad, and I was completely wiped out by the end of the day. I wasn’t really prepared for it, and started wondering if I had made a huge mistake.

Things sort of evened out in the third week. I didn’t feel quite as rickety at the end of the day, and it slowly got better over the next few weeks to the point where it started feeling pretty natural.

A good mat is super important

One of the things I did to make standing easier was invest in a good mat. I got a Wellness Mat, the thickest one I could find, and it made a huge difference. Pretty much all the discomfort I was experiencing went away within a few days after getting the mat.

I’m focused, more alert, and I’ve been sleeping better at night

I never have to fight off mid-afternoon drowsiness anymore. I’m alert and energetic pretty much all day. It’s a pretty amazing shift. I feel great when I get done with work, and according to my FitBit, I’ve been sleeping on average an extra 20-30 minutes a night. Also, my RescueTime productivity score has never been higher, but I’m doing a few things to boost my productivity, so I’m not sure I can pin that entirely on the standing.

I found I do some things better standing, and other things better sitting

This was interesting, and something I hadn’t expected. It turns out coding, writing blog posts, and email all feel really natural standing up, but doing any design work just feels wrong. I have to sit down for that. That’s great though, because it presents the opportunity for a pretty neat mind hack. By raising and lowering my desk, it’s just enough of a physical change to get my brain to switch gears and fully get into the zone on what I’m now working on.

Verdict: It’s awesome (but a little expensive)

All things considered, I love my standing desk. The biggest drawback was the price. That made me really nervous about it. I mean, what if I spent all that money and ended up not liking it? Luckily, I love it, but I really hope the price comes down. I see that being a pretty big barrier for people who are curious to try a non-sitting workstation. That said, there are several lower cost options, but they’re not adjustable.

If standing all day doesn’t seem right for you, consider some other ways to reduce the amount of sitting you do at the office. Maybe get up from your desk to check emails or take phone calls? Or, consider trying walking meetings? There are lots of ways to get creative.

Have you tried a standing desk? Are you considering it?

Show and Tell: My super-productive Gmail inbox

Your email client should support good habits, especially since email itself can lead to so many bad ones.

Over the past few months, I’ve been tweaking my Gmail inbox trying to find a configuration that makes it easy to stay focused and productive while I’m using it. Here’s what I’ve come up with. The best part is, it ended up being really easy to set up.

My lean and mean Gmail inbox

My lean and mean Gmail inbox

Here’s how I did it

Set up Gmail’s priority inboxes: I followed the instructions described in this comment (the instructions are in the comment, not the actual article itself.) If that’s not clear, here’s a screenshot of what my Gmail inbox settings look like. Basically just divide your inbox into three sections; one for unread email, one for starred email, and one for “Everything else” that will stay collapsed by default.

Use a Google Apps Script to deal with Starred email bloat: I fell into a bad habit of letting starred emails linger in an expanding “I’ll deal with it later” pile. I ended up fixing this by writing a Google Apps Script to automatically label any starred email in my inbox older than two weeks with a big red “DEAL WITH ME” label. It gives me an extra push to not let things pile up for too long. When I’ve unstarred or archived an email, the label gets automatically removed by the script.

The Google Apps Script was pretty easy to write. If you want to, just copy and paste mine. I’ve posted detailed instructions here.

I think this setup is great because…

It reinforces good habits. It’s now more work for me to keep an email in my inbox than it is for it to disappear after reading it. That automatically keeps things tidy. No willpower required.

It doesn’t break other displays. I can have this display in my browser, but my phone still gets the “everything” view. That fits the way I use email on my phone a little bit better. There is nothing automatically removed from the inbox in a way that might make things difficult to locate on other devices.

It’s easy to set up (and easy to undo). Once I had everything like I wanted it on my work email, applying the same settings to my personal Gmail account took about 2 minutes. If I ever decide to switch to something else, or go back to the Gmail defaults, it’s really just a matter of hitting a “reset settings configuration” button to get things back to the default state. I don’t think I’m going to do that, but it’s good to know I can.

Do you have any good inbox hacks?

This setup is working really well for me. I’m really curious to hear what other people think of this approach. Also, if you’ve made any other productivity-boosting modifications to your inbox, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

Automatically label lingering emails with this Google Apps Script

I try to keep my inbox clean, and for the most part I do a pretty good job at it. There’s one bad habit I have, though. I star emails in Gmail so I’ll remember to follow up with them later, and then I never get around to it. Emails just keep getting pushed further down the list and piling up. I can’t deal with all emails right away, but after a while they just stick around because I’m avoiding making a decision on them. What I need is a way to automatically to something give myself a little nudge after a certain amount of time. A little push that will remind me that those emails aren’t going to just answer themselves.

After looking at a lot of solutions (Gmail filters, IFTTT.com, etc), I finally discovered Google Apps Scripts. You can write javascript functions to do all kinds of automations in your inbox. You can then set the functions to run on a timer. It was exactly what I was looking for.

I was able to write a couple of functions to automatically add a label to any items that were in my inbox that also had a star label. When I remove the star, or archive the email, the label is removed. Here’s what the output looks like.

deal with me label-1

Here’s how I set it up

Go to script.google.com, and create a new project. I called mine “Add nagging label for old starred items”

Paste in the following code

[updated 4/23/13 to fix a bug that was causing un-starred threads to not have the label automatically removed]

Save the script, then test to make sure the scripts are working by selecting the “addNaggingLabels” or “removeNaggingLabels” functions from the dropdown in the script editor toolbar, then clicking the arrow to run them. You’ll be asked to allow the script to be run on your inbox before you can test it out. You should only have to do that step once.

When the “Deal with me” label gets created, it won’t be red by default. You’ll have to go find it in the left sidebar of your Gmail inbox and click the arrow next to it to manually change the color to red (or some color you really hate. Whatever will be the most motivating).

Finally, click the “triggers” icon, and set up the following triggers so both functions run every hour.

Deal with me gmail label

That’s really all there is to it. Now, I get a nice big red label automatically added to any stale starred items. It doesn’t totally prevent things from piling up, but it helps give me that little prod to make an effort to keep things tidy.

Cultivate a hacker mentality to improve your workplace productivity

“Progress isn’t made by early risers. It’s made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do something.” – Robert Heinlein, American science fiction writer

In the course of doing our day to day work, we have to spend lots of time doing repetitive tasks. Over time, the inefficiencies can become really obvious (not to mention annoying). Usually, we put up with it. But there are a bunch of good reasons not to. Many processes evolve organically, and you shouldn’t assume that there’s a rational reason for why you’re doing something the way you are. Sometimes a small change will make a big difference, and you, as the person having to put up with the painful tedium, are the perfect person to think of it.

One of the best pieces of professional advice I ever got was:

“Get good at looking for ways to get 80% of the work done in 10% of the time. Not to drive company efficiency, but to preserve your own sanity.”

That may sound like cultivating laziness, but it’s actually the opposite. There’s always going to be more to do, and that mindset that encourages you to be protective about your time, which is a really strong motivator to minimize the things that feel like a bad way to spend it.

So, learn to look for the simple and clever hacks in your day to day routines. Here are a few links to help inspire you.

Employee driven innovation

This slideshow from Prachi Gupta at LinkedIn does a great job of illustrating why a hacker mentality is important, and showing how LinkedIn nurtures the habit on a company-wide level. They have monthly “Hackdays” where everyone in the company gets to work on anything they want. They even take the best hacks and give people months to work on making them a more solid, scaleable solution.

Among many gems in the presentation is this definition of what exactly is meant by the term “hack” in this context:

“A ‘hack’ is a quick and dirty solution to a real world problem. It’s never perfect or complete, but it’s almost always clever and insightful.”

A “Kaizen” Improvement at a Wine Bar – Is it “Lazy” or Smart?

This post focuses on the Japanese concept of Kaizen, or “change for the better”, and explores the sometimes blurry line between “lazy” and “efficient”. He makes the good point that laziness can get a bad reputation, and should be looked at as a more positive attribute. He also provides some great examples about how the person doing the day-to-day repetitive tasks is often the best person for innovating on the process.

A culture of lies and laziness

Don’t get too carried away with the shortcuts, though! It’s great to find novel and clever solutions to problems that save you time, but be careful you’re not doing it at someone else’s expense. This explores where the line is and what happens when you cross it. In short, hack, but have a conscience about it.

99 Life Hacks to make your life easier!

Finally, here are a bunch of ridiculous, and ridiculously clever life-hacks for making everyday tasks a little bit easier. How can you apply that type of thinking to the things you do every day?

Weekly Productivity Links: How what we hear affects our work


Last week, we were having a discussion about how to break out of a rut, and several people mentioned that having the right music helped them get focused and productive. So I did some research, and it turns out noises of all kinds can have a big effect on your productivity. Auditory information can enhance your state of focus, or it can completely derail it. Here are a few links exploring the connection between what’s going in your ears and getting things done.

Cellphones Conversations as a Modern Irritant

Hearing only one side of the conversation is way more distracting than the whole thing, according to a recent study. Your brain has to work harder because of a natural tendency to want to fill in the blanks of the conversation. Something you may want to keep in mind if you work in an office with other people who often make phone calls.

Coffee Shop sounds can boost your productivity

Not all background noise is distracting however. Sometimes, the bustle and commotion of a public space can be better for focusing than a quiet office, especially for creative activities. I personally use coffee shops as my email-office, but apparently you can get the same benefit by simply hearing the sounds of a busy cafe. Coffitivity let’s you experience the ambiance of a coffee shop from anywhere. You can even adjust the volume of the loop so you can play your own music on top of it, just like you would if you were there.

I’ve been trying coffitivity out while writing this post, and even though it feels a little bit silly, there’s something really comforting about the coffee shop soundtrack.

Workers, Put Those Headphones On

Sometimes, it’s not the music that helps boost your productivity, it’s the medium you use to listen to them. Wearing headphones, even without listening to music, can help you block out distractions. Even better, they can send a signal to those around you that you’re in the zone and aren’t to be disturbed.

The Power of Music, Tapped in a Cubicle

Of course, you probably aren’t going to wear headphones solely as a fancy do-not-disturb sign. And you shouldn’t, as there are many benefits of listening to music. Melodious sounds cause a release of dopamine, giving our brains the same satisfying reward as eating a fancy treat or smelling a pleasant aroma. Research shows that listening to music while working will help you complete tasks faster, and come up with more creative solutions.

Choose Unfamiliar Work Music for Better Productivity and Focus

I’m a creature of habit. I listen to the same playlists over and over (mostly 90’s punk rock with some instrumental metal thrown in occasionally, if you’re curious). Apparently that might not be the most productive strategy. Unfamiliar genres may ultimately be better for maximizing focus, according to the folks at Focus@Will. They are a service that offers streaming of productivity-optimized music, with what appears to be a pretty impressive amount of science backing them up. I’m not sure how much I agree with them, though. I think the concept sounds really interesting, but I kept finding myself distracted by the fact that I’d rather be listening to something I’m more familiar with. Old habits die hard, I guess. I do enjoy unfamiliar music within a familiar genre, however. Music discovery services like Last.fm, Pandora, and Spotify are great for that.

Follow RescueTime on Twitter or Facebook for more updates and links about staying productive in the modern workplace.

What’s your productivity hack for powering through the last 10% of a project?

Getting across the finish line

Everyone’s had that moment

You’ve been working on a project that’s humming along really well, and you’re nearing the point where you can see the end of it… then boom!  All of a sudden everything grinds to a halt, and you run smack into a brick wall that keeps you from bringing it across the finish line. Try as you might, you can’t seem get things rolling again. Distractions become more distracting, and the excuses and justifications start to form an unsatisfying pile where you’re finished project should be.

It’s a crappy feeling. I know because I’m in the middle of one right now. It’s frustrating and doesn’t make any sense, because I’m working on building something that I’m really excited about.

I’d like to pose a question to you

You seem like smart folks, and I know I’m not alone with this problem. How do you break down that wall that’s blocking you from finishing up the last little bit of a project? What are your best productivity hacks or strategies for breaking out of a rut?

Please share in the comments!

Breaking down the RescueTime productivity score

productivity-scoreThe RescueTime productivity score is a way of looking at your time based on the productivity level you’ve assigned to the various activities that you’ve logged time for. It’s a way to boil your time down to a single metric, so you can get a quick understanding of how you’re spending it without having to dig into the more detailed reports.

But, it sometimes generates a bit of confusion, so I wanted to dig into it a bit and see if I could clear up some of the misconceptions.

How exactly is the productivity score calculated?

First off, it helps to know exactly what that number means. RescueTime lets you assign any activity or category a productivity level. There are five options, ranging from “very distracting” to “very productive”.

If you assign a productivity level to a category, it will filter down to all activities in that category, unless you explicitly add a productivity level to an activity, in which case it will override the category productivity level.

Your overall productivity score is calculated as an average of the time spent on each productivity level. If you spent all day on activities marked as “neutral productivity”, you’d have a 50% productivity score. If you spent all day on something marked as “Productive”, you’d have a 75% productivity score. All day in activities marked “very productive”, you’d have a score of 100%.

Misconception: “My productivity score should be as high as possible, right?”

Some facts:

  • The average productivity score across the entire RescueTime user base is 67%. While obviously I haven’t talked to all of them, I can tell you these aren’t a bunch of slackers. They’re smart people who are very thoughtful about how they spend their time.
  • Around the RescueTime office, we’re averaging around 79%. We think about this stuff a lot, and I think we’re pretty well optimized for productivity.

Occasionally I see comments from users that suggest that they think they should be shooting for a productivity score of 100%. I can understand the sentiment, if you’re really efficient and getting all my work accomplished, it seems like the number should reflect that, right? Honestly, if we were rebuilding RescueTime from scratch, we might choose a less charged label than “productivity”. But the bottom line is that the productivity score doesn’t tell you anything about what you actually produce. It’s simply a number that can give you an interesting baseline of where your attention is, but doesn’t tell 100% of the story. It’s a way to understand your patterns, and not a prescription for how you should be spending your time. Moreover, there are some pretty compelling reasons why you shouldn’t shoot for a super-high productivity score.

Let’s look at another metric for context, shall we?

If you were tracking your Body Mass Index, you might want it to be lower, but you’d never want it to be zero! Through a lot of research, there are some accepted guidelines, but the scale itself doesn’t make an implication about an absolute measure everyone should shoot for. What it does, however, is give you a number that becomes important context for your physical activity. If you’re exercising more, you’ll likely see your BMI drop. If you’re eating a lot more, you might see it rise.

So, what’s the “healthy” range of productivity?

Since how you spend your time on the computer hasn’t received the same amount of scientific scrutiny as BMI, there isn’t such a clear recommendation. It’s really contextual. What may be the ideal mix of activities for you might not be for someone else. It’s also important to remember that just because something that’s classified as “distracting” doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. But it’s a good generic measure of where your attention is focused.

Some tips for using your productivity score

Change it to suit your needs: It’s important to remember that we try to make RescueTime as customizable as possible, so you can change the productivity levels to match what YOU consider to be productive or distracting.

Don’t think of it as a judgement. So many factors enter into your time that it’s impossible for a system to say definitively how you should be spending your time. The best we can do is give you a measure that you can use to make your own judgement. Work-life balance is different for everyone.

It will fluctuate, and that’s ok. The changes mean just that, something has changed. Not necessarily good or bad. See how it changes over time and you’ll have a better understanding of your natural patterns.

Downtime is good and healthy. No one should be expected to be 100% productive all the time. In fact, there’s a big pile of science that says it’s bad for the quality of your work, your creativity, and your well-being.

The score is a helpful metric when you’re trying new things. If you’re trying to optimize the way you work, the changes to your productivity score baseline can give you an objective measure of the impact of your changes. For example. I tried an experiment and turned off all notifications on my phone and computer. Just that change alone caused a 9% rise in my productivity score.

Hopefully that helps paint a clear picture of the productivity score and how we think it can be valuable. If you have any questions or thoughts, let us know in the comments!