Standing Desk Experiment and Experiences

Round 1, 2007

Back in 2007 I read a few articles about the merits of stand-up desks, in regards to health and productivity. According to the New York Times and other sources, standing desks have been not quite common, but neither terribly uncommon, for many years. Sitting all the time is apparently quite unhealthy. Famously, Donald Rumsfeld used one, and maybe it helped him come up with this?

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.

(This quote got a lot of chuckles, including from me; but it is actually a good and important point. I wish someone less politically charged had popularized it. Many commentators suggest that Rumsfeld’s phrasing and concern for unknown unknowns came from Werner Erhard, himself a very smart but somewhat odd fellow.)

Inspired to try out standing up at work, I set up perhaps the world’s ugliest standing desk:

2007 Standing Desk

I took an old and already-ugly normal desk, and put it on primitive stilts constructed in about 30 minutes for about $10. This was marginally acceptable for the out-of-the-way room I was using as a home office at the time. To make the most of things, I took the photo above with plenty of semi-obsolete technology and ample wiring in view. Looking back at this photo, I observe that my wife is an amazingly tolerant and loving woman.

In spite of the poor aesthetics, I enjoyed this desk for many months, and noticed an increase in my productivity and focus, discussed more at the end of this post. At the same time, some minor backaches and pains went away, and I slept better. (Be warned though, that it takes some getting used to, the first couple of weeks are tough.)

Functionally speaking, the only weakness of this arrangement was that the monitors were not high enough relative to the keyboard height.

This first-generation experiment fell into disuse when I set up a new home office with tasteful solid wood furniture and other decor, in a prominent front room of my home, at “only” 10x the cost of my old home office. The desk above went to the offices of my old firm where a couple of people tried it out, then eventually discarded it. (My new home office is not pictured here; it looks approximately like a page in the catalog of a furniture store – nice, tasteful, boring. It also contains much better hardware.)

Round 2, 2010

Inspired again by further press coverage, I’m trying out a standing desk again in 2010. I looked around at various power-adjustable desks from GeekDesk, Anthro, and Relax the Back. These have several problems:

  1. While I’m willing to spend what it takes, power adjustable desks are a bit costly for an experiment. None of them are a model of desk I’d want anyway for sitting.
  2. They only solve the keyboard height problem (the main desk surface height), they generally don’t address the height of the monitors at all. (However, Anthro has solutions for this.)
  3. They are much deeper than I need.

Instead, at the beginning of May I set up another homegrown (and slightly less visually offensive) arrangement:

2010 Standing Desk

This setup is also quite cheap, around $150 total. It is a metal shelf/rack, with an extra protruding MDF shelf screwed on to form a keyboard/mouse surface. The shelves are all adjustable, so I moved the top (computer/screen) and middle (keyboard/most) shelves up and down a few times to find the most comfortable heights: I look straight ahead at the screens, and my elbows at at 90 degrees (wrists straight) while typing.  (Update: Jeremy, a reader, set up something similar.)

I wired up some leftover accessories (display, keyboard, mouse, etc. – my good stuff is in my home office, try not to laugh at the use of a spare low-end Microsoft mouse and small monitor with my MBP). This includes a very old printer that I pulled out of storage, partly as ballast and partly to just see if it still works. (It does, but an HP LaserJet 1100 is terribly slow by today’s standards, and I may replace the whole thing when my toner on hand runs out. A personal printer at my desk is more convenient than the better printers a short walk away.)

I located this at my “work” office away from home, so as not to re-test the tolerance of the above-mentioned wife. My time is split between home and work offices, and occasionally cafes, so I stand perhaps 20 hours per week on average. Even when at the standing desk, I’ll grab a nearby chair to make a phone call.

The Standing Experience

Relative to sitting, I’ve noticed a number of benefits:

  • I focus more completely on my work, with less tendency to become distracted.
  • More specifically, I write more (text, code) and read less.
  • My back, and whole body feed better, aside from that first week.
  • I move around, shifting weight, standing on one foot for a moment, etc.; I experience no stiffness or aches that sometimes result from hours of sitting.
  • My urge to go buy a new chair went away; I already have a good chair in my home office, and rarely sit while at work.

In summary, this seems like a fairly substantial win, one month in to the experiment. I’ll report back later this year.

A bit of commentary: lots of people talk about their standing desks with some degree of bravado. That is entirely unjustified; outside of office workers, a large portion of the workforce spends most of every day standing and working. It’s the traditional sitting office worker who is doing something unusual.

16 thoughts on “Standing Desk Experiment and Experiences”

  1. My solution from 25 years ago was a matter of an odd hardware combination. First was a 3’X4′ GTCO digitizer and second was an industrial french factory mono-pole chair. Imagine a largish padded bicycle seat mounted on a pole that both tilted and swiveled in all directions. This compromise from the standing only situation proved to provide even more combinations of position that pretty much eliminated long standing (sorry about the pun) back problems— when I wanted I could stand, when I wanted I could sit or pretty much any position in between! Bad news, the desk was pretty much prohibitively expensive and I’m pretty sure that the chair was a one shot design idea that didn’t catch on. Even so, I’ve never had better and I’ve looked at and used every thing you’ve mentioned, excepting your DIY solutions— note, I liked the design of the first better than the second 😉


  2. Interesting experiment. I’ve been hearing about standing desks for a long time and I’ve always been curious to try one. surprisingly I’ve heard very few negative comments about them.

    How do your wrists feel typing on the keyboard while standing up? since I assume your wrists are tilted quite a bit.

    Also, don’t knock that Microsoft keyboard. It’s amazingly comfortable and a joy to use 🙂

    I look forward to reading about the followup in a few months.

  3. Hugh – I’ve thought about having a stool handy, to occasionally half-sit on, for variety.

    YKM – Good question on the wrists. I added a bit of text to the article to answer it: no tilt, straight wrists, no problem at all. Thanks

  4. Interesting. I’ve been ‘hanging’ in pretty good office chairs for the past few years (HR, Herman Miller, etc.) but I always felt something wasn’t right.
    It never occurred to me that I could get rid of the chair entirely.

    Have you ever tried or considered something ‘in between’ like the HAG Capisco chair? It’s something I would really like to try one day.

    I know for certain that sitting in a normal chair for another 30 years really isn’t healthy 🙁

  5. I have an adjustable desk. It took some getting used to standing after many years of sitting. Typing took some getting used to, but it forced me to quit the bad typing habits I had while sitting. But, my back pain has gone away and my legs and back do not feel so stiff anymore.

  6. Although this would be a great idea to execute personally, and I have a feeling I would be more productive – Im not sure if legally it could be distributed to other staff in the company.

    Also, is there any particular reason you sit to answer phone calls?

  7. Great article. I have been thinking of doing a similar experiment myself, so thank you for the kick in the seat of the pants 🙂

    Quick question – You say “This setup is also quite cheap, around $150 total. It is a metal shelf/rack … ”

    Where would I go about acquiring a shelf like that? It’s nice that it’s adjustable so it definitely fits my needs.

    Thank you, and good luck with the experiment. Hope to hear more about it.

  8. I am also trying the same experiment for a month now. My setup involves pieces of spare cardboard box. I cut a spare box in a shape that sits on top of my regular desk and creates an elevated platform for putting keyboard and mouse. I used remaining pieces of the box to rise the level of monitor so that it shows just above the keyboard platform. It cost nothing.

    Although I don’t know how much it has affected my productivity, it certainly is better than whole day of sitting around.

  9. Maybe Rumsfeld was trying to quote Mark Twain, who said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

  10. Barry – if my standing experiment fails, I might consider various oddball chairs. At the moment, simply not having a chair at my desk is the option I am testing!

    Raju – I got my adjustable shelf at The Container Store, but they are also available at typical big box home-improvement stores like Lowes and Home Depot. That is just for the USA though – if you are elsewhere, I have no idea where to get this sort of thing.

  11. Kyle – Thanks for responding. I am in the US. I went ahead and printed out the image you posted on your post and showed it to a few friends. Hope to head out to Lowes/Home Depot this weekend.

    Thanks, and good luck. Keep us posted on how it works out for you.

  12. Nice article and pictures, Kyle.
    I am 25 and was introduced to standing after reading Christopher McDougall’s “Born to Run”.
    I now both at work and at home.
    My stiffness, cramps, discomfort, severe lack of productivity have all disappeared.
    I’ve realized that after more than 10 years of sitting instead of standing, my body associates sitting with feeling comfortable because my muscles have become used to this position.
    Most of us sit and only stand when needed and we count down the minutes until we can sit again.
    The bottom line is that the first 2 weeks or so difficult because your constantly compelled to sit back down. So you’re retraining your body to associate standing as the “new norm”.
    After that, smooth sailing.


  13. Hi Kyle, good luck with your experiment. I am in day 2 of mine and my feet hurt!


  14. Kyle – I appreciate your article, as a long time IT worker I’ve thought about trying an approach like this. At my current place of employment we’re getting ready to move into a new space, and the high cube walls would allow something like this. My boss has OK’d me trying it out and gave me a catalog to look through, but I’d rather just raise the surface of the desk in the cube to a comfortable typing height, and then adjust the height of the monitor from there. This is how an old co-worker had things setup years ago and it always made me wonder if I’d like it. Over the years I’ve only read positive things about standing desks (and more than once using Rumsfeld as a model!) so this continues that trend. Looking forward to your long term analysis, I’ll let you know if I take the plunge!

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