Tag Archives: Workspace

Why a Standing Desk Didn't Work for Me

Standing Desk Leeman

I spend a lot of time at work... probably more than is really healthy for me.  In an effort to mitigate any harmful effects that working has on my health, I decided to try the standing desk idea.  We've all heard about how sitting all day is very detrimental to your health (example).  Recently our department has been renovating offices and giving people the option of a small motorized adjustable height desk.  I was very excited about his until I found out that my office was not going to be renovated.  I looked at the standing desks that professors had purchased, such as the Geek Desk, but realized that those commercials desks are out of the graduate student budget.  I also had never used a standing desk before.... what if it didn't work for me?

After reading lots of articles online, I decided to build something like a standing desk on-top of my existing desk.  Following the advice over at "Only a Model", I made the IKEA pilgrimage and bought the required parts (a coffee table, a shelf, and two brackets).  I got back, cleaned off my desk, assembled the parts, and had my very own standing desk!  It was slightly shaky under the weight of two 27" monitors, but overall useable.  I thought my health problems had been successfully avoided.

I noticed that my feet began to get sore, walking down the hall at the end of the day was painful.  Reading more, it appeared that I needed a foot pad.  I bought the best that I could find, in fact it cost more than all of my standing desk parts!  The mat was incredibly comfortable and thick enough that I could take my shoes off and dig my toes in.  It still didn't solve the problem though.  I continued standing for weeks, brought in a stool to sit a few hours a day, but no gain.  Standing felt great, but not for 10-12 hours a day.

I noticed that doing tasks such as filling out paperwork that required focus, but not creativity were helped.  I wanted to get it done! Tasks like writing and coding suffered.  Not being able to lean back and think of the right words or the correct function call slowed me down.  Reading and absorbing papers was also difficult.  At the end of the day, it just wasn't working (another example).

Maybe if I only worked 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, things would have gone differently.  An adjustable height desk may have helped as well, but I doubt that I would take the time to change configurations more than once a day.  I ended up back at my sitting configuration with a new coffee table at home.

There are other options out there.  Several people in the department have recently purchased a FitDesk. These cycle desks look good for computer tasks, but are not intended to replace a full desk with their small surface area.  Probably the best option is to have multiple work spaces.  One standing position, one sitting position, and possibly something else as well.  That's possible if you have a larger office/cube, but a small office with 6 graduate students just doesn't have the room.

So what do I do? I've been trying to be better about getting up every hour or so and taking a short walk/refocusing my eyes at a long distance.  Maybe something like a foot roller would help as well.  What is your workspace setup like? Remember to make sure it is ergonomic!

The Scientific Workspace

Today I'd like to discuss the evolution of the scientific workspace, but before that I need to address a few comments and recent happenings.  The fluxgate magnetometer project is done, I decided to not build a bandpass filter in the unit.  Hopefully I can get the schematic drawn up nicely and post a PDF on my website content section.  Website, oh yes, there is a new website for my academic life.  I'll still be doing blog posts here, but the website will have all my static content, research, etc.

Awhile back I read an interview with Adam Savage of the popular discovery show Mythbusters.  This interview was mostly getting at how Adam works and the productivity tools he utilizes.  The question/answer that caught my attention was the following:

Q: What's your workspace setup like?

A: I have several desks: One at home, one at work, and one in my own shop. I spend little time at any of them. My workplace is wherever I'm making something, which could be in a field in gold country, or in an abandoned warehouse on a military base.

The part of the statement in bold is what I want to discuss.  Scientists are often viewed as working hard in their lab with test tubes, beakers, and bunson burners (as evidenced by a colleague asking his geoscience intro class to draw a scientist on their first day of class).  This view is really valid for only a small sector of the sciences; as geologists we are often making a workspace in the field on an outcrop of rock, working on a laptop in the office or at a coffee shop, or doing an experiment in the lab. So what is the workspace and how has it changed? 

First: Do people (not just scientists or geologists) view the workspace differently than they did in the 1960's? I think so.  With the advent of mobile computing and being able to walk around with 1000+ PDF files and books on an iPad the office is becoming less and less important.  Until the late 90's the office was the place where all your paper lived, without this support it was impossible to do much work.  Now that this isn't the case, I believe the office is becoming occupied more infrequently and being replaced with the mobile office.  The internet is also making telecommuting easier each year.  While in Houston I could occasionally see updates to spacecraft flight software coming into the repository from a colleague who programed at a Starbucks frequently.   Just a few years ago that was impossible and during the Apollo days out of the question.

Next, can the creative (yes, scientists are creatives that won't admit it) work in a single workspace like an office or lab? While they could this is a severely limiting strategy.  There are several times I've found it useful to go into the shop or lab and tinker with things and setup a laptop and work there.  Sometimes I spend the majority of the week at the desk, but sometimes I'll setup for a paper reading or programming marathon in another building or at a restaurant.  

Why would you want to work somewhere that doesn't have the big monitor and files you enjoy at your desk? Chance encounters.  While working in the traditional office should still be a component of our days, some of the most useful conversations I've had occurred with people in other buildings on campus or at a coffee shop.  

For example: in December of last year I was working in a tea shop near Denver programming an image analysis code (for the laser cave mapper).  While coding away the owner of the shop (Damon) came over to refill my glass and noticed I was writing software on a Mac.  He inquired about what I did, asked if I could answer a Mac question for him, and then from the view of an outsider to the geosciences made a comment that ended up making me think a lot about other applications for this technology.  These kind of chance encounters have happened several times and even ended up in some good professional relationships being formed.

The physics rock star Richard Feynman would have loved this notion of many workspaces I believe.  Feynman loved new ways to look at things and could be looking at a complex problem from a new angle while in the outdoors, at a blackboard, or submerged in a tub of water on hallucinogenic drugs (to see Feynman's unique mind I highly suggest his book Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman).  

I suppose the biggest point I want to make with these examples and from the quote is that as scientists it's easy to get comfy in our office surrounded by a couple of giant computer screens and full of distractions.  We shouldn't throw that office out, but be sure to go into the lab (even if you're not an experimentalist) and tinker, go into the field and observe connections, or go to a coffee shop and make that a temporary office.  Anywhere can be your workspace and it's enriching to switch between them and look at the same problem with another set of tools and surroundings.