(This document contains excerpts from Part III of my book, Cognitive Productivity.)
- Consider alternating between working standing up and sitting down, a transition which needs to be rapidly effected.
- This calls for
Ergonomics for cognitive productivity
It is very important to configure one’s physical environment properly to optimise one’s productivity and enjoyment, while minimizing the physical and cognitive drawbacks of working long hours at a desk. I recommend routinely noting, researching and resolving problems in your physical work setup. The United States Department of Labor: Occupational Safety and Health Administration issues guidelines for working at computer workstations (“Computer workstation evaluation checklist,” 2013). It is also useful to consult with an ergonomist, colleagues and other professionals (e.g., physiotherapists).
About monitor sizes. There are studies on the impact of monitor size on productivity (Robertson et al., 2005). Because there is an interaction between monitor size and task, one cannot simply say that a particular range of monitor sizes is optimal for productivity. In particular, there is no research that examines the impact of monitor size specifically on delving productivity or meta-effectiveness. I will simply state that it’s important to ensure that your computer monitor is large enough but not too large. It is useful to be able to see, side-by-side, the resource you are annotating and your meta-doc. In my experience, this calls for a high-quality monitor that is at least 24″ (on the diagonal) but not more than 27″. Using multiple monitors is a popular solution but it poses challenges.
It’s important to be able to adjust the height, position and angle of your monitor. The most significant change it should support, as described below, is between working standing up and sitting down. You also need to be able to lower your monitor slightly during the day. (People shrink as the day wears on.) It should also enable you to shift your position at your desk and adjust to new task demands, such as working with a tablet or paper. If, like mine, your monitor is not adjustable but conforms to the VESA standard, consider purchasing an adjustable VESA-compliant monitor stand. I use a Neo-Flex® Widescreen Lift Stand. The promo reads “five-inch (12.7 cm) height adjustment, tilt, pan and portrait-to-landscape rotation for optimum viewing. Embedded with patented motion technology, this stand enables light-touch adjustments without any knobs or levers.” (Ergotron, 2013). Thanks to this, it’s a cinch to raise and lower my (otherwise heavy) 27″ Apple® LED display–using two fingers does the trick! The stand is on wheels, so I can easily move my monitor around on my desk.
I place my notebook computer to the right of my monitor on a WorkEZ® Light adjustable monitor stand from Uncaged Ergonomics®. It’s an extremely versatile, light and inexpensive stand is a spectacular piece of engineering! It leaves plenty of desk space underneath it for writing and storage.
More on the WorkEZ® Light adjustable monitor stand
Of all the equipment in my setup, the WorkEZ® Light adjustable monitor stand from Uncaged Ergonomics® piece is my favourite. Being a productivity geek, I’ve studied and owned many monitor stands. None matches this one’s versatility. Check out their videos. It’s worth owning one at the office, and a couple at home. It’s useful for reading recipes in the kitchen. It can be used as a stand on the couch. Or on a coffee table for watching movies. (No, I don’t watch TV standing up yet.) It’s a great gift idea! (I’ve purchased several.)
John Failing of Uncaged Ergonomics explained to me that, historically, the WorkEZ Series started with a concept for an adjustable height & angle reading stand to hold textbooks and hence make studying more comfortable. When their creators realized the multifunctional nature of the WorkEZ stands and they quickly morphed into laptop stands, then to standing desks & even ergonomic keyboard trays!
Why work standing up?
Winston Churchill, Jacques Brel, Pierre Berton, Virginia Woolf and Thomas Jefferson all wrote standing up. When I interviewed David Francey, a Juno award winning Canadian singer songwriter, he attested to the importance of physical exercise for his cognitive productivity. He wrote many great songs while on construction jobs. The construction work was mindless and the exercise released his creative energy! (Stay tuned to our Productive Minds series to learn from other professionals.)
Consider how unnatural it is for children to spend hours a day sitting down in a chair. It’s a testament to the power of culture that most children and adults submit to spending hours this way. Evolution has certainly not optimized our physiology, including our brain physiology, for such inertia.
Several years ago, I broke free from the culture of sitting. I now feel physically uncomfortable after spending more than 30 minutes sitting down at a desk. That, I believe, is as it should be.
A chair is indeed a psychological tether. How often do you get up from it? If you’re already standing, it’s easily to move around. I sometimes pace when I need to solve a difficult problem. It seems to help. I say seem because there is no experimental data on the impact of working standing up on problem solving, to my knowledge. I do know that ever since my undergraduate days, when I have a very tough problem to solve, I like to walk on it. Walking is how I, and many other people, have discovered creative solutions. Standing at a desk is not walking; but it is certainly more akin to it than sitting.
It’s quite clear that being in good physical condition is good for the brain. That in turn helps one think and learn better. It’s easier to spend a lot of time standing if you’re fit. Working standing up is consistent with an active physical lifestyle including: jogging, cycling, hiking, walking up and down stairs, walking and aerobic weight lifting (all of which I regularly do).
The amount of time people spend sitting down is associated with increased adiposity, the metabolic syndrome, abnormal glucose regulation, and mortality (Beavers et al. 2010; Yates et al., 2012). A study of 71,000 women found that those who reported sitting more than 10 hours a day had a greater risk of heart attack, stroke and other cardiovascular events (Chomistek et al., 2013). Exercise did not attenuate this risk except for the most active women. This and other studies suggest that exercising doesn’t fully compensate for spending a whole day sitting down.
These findings are correlational not causal. The data are, in particular, linked to body-mass index. Moreover, there is no indication that simply standing provides the same benefits as more strenuous physical exercise, such as walking and jogging. Chronic low-grade inflammation is a significant risk factor for several diseases. It is not yet clear that exercise can attenuate such inflammation; however, it is an important research target (Beavers et al., 2010). The Just Stand web site is worth consulting if only to induce readers to investigate the possibility that working standing up is healthier and more conducive to productivity. While on the one hand my scientific mindset and lack of rigorous data have restrained me from outright advocating working standing up, consider, on the other hand, that there is no data or persuasive argument to the effect that (other things being equal) working sitting down is conducive to productivity, health or well being.
Progressively improving one’s workstation
What is the best way to arrange one’s workstation for this purpose? Whether they are expensive or cheap, most of the arrangements I’ve seen on the web are disappointing. A progressive problem-solver’s first solution to a significantly new, multi-variate problem is unlikely to be his best. So don’t get discouraged if your first attempt at designing a working standing up solution is not satisfactory. Besides, the following information may significantly accelerate your learning.
Here are a few historical examples of standing desks. None of them handles all the requirements I deal with here.
The importance of quickly switching positions
Designing a workstation at which one works standing up may seem very simple, but there are several factors to consider. For example: one should not work standing up all the time. One needs to alternate between sitting and standing. That means one needs to be able to rapidly switch from standing to sitting position positions, and vice versa. Yet one’s monitors must remain at the right level relative to one’s eyes whether one is standing or sitting. In both positions, one’s arms need to be at an appropriate angle with respect to the keyboard and mouse (or trackpad).
It took me several months to perfect my system for working standing up, a process I began in 2009. At first, it would take me well over a minute to switch between sitting and standing positions. Through many small improvements, I gradually got to the point where it takes me less than 5 seconds! That’s important because who wants to interrupt their train of thought just to change their working position?
How long to sit and stand?
One of the variables I tweaked over time is how frequently I would alternate between sitting and standing. I often change this number; but generally I try not to sit for more than 20 minutes at a time. I sometimes use OS X’s Dashboard timer program by Bald Geeks to notify me when my sitting time is up. But normally the discomfort of sitting is enough to cue me to stand. I normally remain standing for at least an hour, often up to 3 hours.
Here is my setup, FYI:
- A bar table, i.e., my “computer desk” (for my monitor, mouse and keyboard ), 102cm tall.
- A drafting chair (from Staples®), always completely extended.
- WorkEZ® Light adjustable monitor stand from Uncaged Ergonomics®
- Neo-Flex® Widescreen Lift Stand from Ergotron
- 27″ Apple LED Display
- IKEA Galant desk (160cm wide x 80cm deep) raised on cement blocks. Same height as bar table. My “side desk”.
- Two footstools (old speakers).
To work sitting down, I merely need to push the monitor down several inches (with two fingers), pull the chair towards me, and sit-down. With my feet, I also flip the footstool over to make it tall. To work standing up again, I just need to stand, push the chair behind me and raise the monitor. Note that I never need to adjust the height of my chair, desks, or WorkEZ monitor stand.
Whether I am standing or sitting, the top of my monitor is approximately at eye-level. (The figures above are taken from an angle that makes it look otherwise.) When I type, whether standing or sitting, my forearms are as they should be: nearly parallel to the floor.
At a right angle from my computer desk, on my left, is my side desk. I raised this desk on cement blocks such that it is at the same height as my computer desk. At 195cm wide by 110cm deep, my side desk has plenty of room to read books, write and draw. There are two dual-shelf book cases on it for frequently accessed resources.
To the left of my computer monitor I keep a copyholder for reading (paper and tablet). It’s at just the right height for me.
(I will update this post with a video that demonstrates the rapid transition between sitting and standing.)
Some people claim to work on treadmills. I doubt that research will indicate this is a good idea for cognitive productivity.
Of course, everyone is unique. Not everyone can stand for long periods of time. required desk space and height will differ.
Still, I hope this post has helped you to consider the importance of having a workstation that promotes cognitive productivity. If it’s not optimal yet, with progressive problem-solving it may yet become so.
Beaudoin, L. P. (2013). Cognitive productivity: The art and science of using knowledge to become profoundly effective. CogZest, Port Moody BC. https://leanpub.com/cognitiveproductivity/
Beavers, K. M., Brinkley, T. E., & Nicklas, B. J. (2010). Effect of exercise training on chronic inflammation. Clinica Chimica Acta, 411(11-12), 785–793. doi:10.1016/j.cca.2010.02.069
Chomistek, Andrea K and Manson, JoAnn E and Stefanick, Marcia L and Lu, Bing and Sands-Lincoln, Megan and Going, Scott B and Garcia, Lorena and Allison, Matthew A and Sims, Stacy T and LaMonte, Michael J and others (2013), The relationship of sedentary behavior and physical activity to incident cardiovascular disease: Results from the Women’s Health Initiative. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 61(23), 2346–2354. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jacc.2013.03.031.
Robertson, G., Czerwinski, M., Baudisch, P., Meyers, B., Robbins, D., Smith, G., & Tan, D. (2005, July). The large-display user experience. Computer Graphics and Applications, IEEE, 25(4), 44–51.
Yates, T., Khunti, K., Wilmot, E. G., Brady, E., Webb, D., Srinivasan, B., et al. (2012). Self-Reported Sitting Time and Markers of Inflammation, Insulin Resistance, and Adiposity. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 42(1), 1–7. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2011.09.022