Friday, September 23, 2011

Standing Desk

I spend a lot of time in front of my computer. A lot of time — there are days when I go from bed directly to my laptop; spend my morning commute, my entire workday, and my evening ride home staring at the same screen; then spend the rest of my evening in front of the machine, with only brief breaks for eating, showers and bathroom.

This is not exactly good for my body, needless to say. Hunching over a laptop hurts my eyes, hurts my back and neck, and ultimately hurts my ability to focus. I often take quick breaks where I walk down the hall and back again to think, have a drink water water and just get out of my chair for a bit. That helps, but it is not quite enough.

This July my back was hurting more than usual so I decided I'd try standing up rather than sitting down. I'd tried to stand and work a few times before but never managed to get comfortable. This time I've figured out how to make it work. Here is my setup:

Standing Desk
Improvised standing desk. Note my cool "Cup Noodle" coffee mug. I'm very proud of it.

I found a couple of cinder blocks in a storage room and added a thrown-away cardboard box on top (I don't have a Sony laptop myself). I now also have a cardboard wedge of sorts under the back of the laptop to tilt the keyboard forward. The mouse pad support is just a collection of suitably thick books from my bookshelf. A bit impractical when I want to look something up in one of them but otherwise nice and stable.

Both the laptop and the mouse are higher up than I first thought they should be. With my previous attempts I had the desktop at waist level, with my arms at a 90 degree angle when typing, but that quickly gave me worse back pain than sitting down. This desktop is much higher, about level with the bottom of my ribcage, and my arms angle upwards to reach the laptop. The mouse is midway between hip and chest.

It makes sense. When your lower arms stick straight out at 90 degrees it puts maximum load on the upper arm and shoulder muscles. Our muscles are much worse at keeping our joints in a midway position than close to either end. Imagine a heavy jar full of water in your hand. imagine holding it in your hand with the upper arm straight down and the lower arm sticking right out in front of you. Now imagine the same thing, but with the lower arm angling upwards, toward your chest. Which one would be easier to hold over time?

With a higher surface your wrists also find support on the front edge of the desk and mouse pad, while they're dangling unsupported in the air with a 90 degree angle. Also, the screen comes up to a comfortable viewing angle. It is important to get the height just right though; I really notice when I need a book in the mouse pad pile and replace it with another of a different thickness.

At first, I could perhaps stand one hour at a time. I'd stand up and work until my legs and knees started complaining, then sit down until my back started hurting again. But within a few days my body was adapting and after a week I was standing up most of the day. I do need to move about a bit as I stand, and I continue to take quick walks every now and again. And I do sit down when I read stuff, or write by hand.

Now, two months on, I probably stand about 80% of the time at work. My shoulders are still stiff but my back no longer hurts. My headaches have become much less frequent too; I think that may be because I keep varying the viewing distance to the screen as I move about, rather than due to standing itself.

On my wishlist is some kind of less improvised setup. Ideally some kind of small add-on desk I can put on a normal desk like this. It'd have fully adjustable height, a laptop surface with adjustable angle, a separate mouse pad shelf and a small surface to the left for a book or things like that. And it'd have to be decently inexpensive; my employer is not likely to pick up the bill for anything like this. I may have a go at building something myself at some point, for home use if nothing else.


  1. I have arthritis in my spine (genetic condition) which makes either sitting or standing for periods longer than 20 minutes very uncomfortable...additionally in the long term my spine would fuse if I didn't move. I just installed this at home after using jury rigged systems at work. I think they have laptop setup as well. It was around AUD$550, but I do like it. It rises and falls with a touch of a hand, and the monitors can be adjusted independently of the keyboard. Counterintuitively I now have more desk space for other things.

    Good luck convincing your employer to cough up though

  2. Looks like a very nice setup, I agree. But anything I do I will have to pay for myself. If I had an actual medical problem it'd be different of course.

    As it is I'm thinking of something like a low shelf I could put on the desk or something like it.

  3. Sounds like a great weekend project to build your own elevation shelf!

    I made a setup quite similar to yours a few weeks ago, mostly for fun and to try it out. It was a desktop machine, though, so only keyboard and pen tablet were elevated - and the viewing angle for the monitor in its usual position was terrible. If I remember correctly, all the desks in my coming group's offices are with elevation (nobody were standing, so either they are not fans of standing desk, or my memory fails me).

  4. I have a colleague who stands up the entire day at work too. She bought a mini laptop desk - the height is adjustible. Perhaps you can find something in Yodobashi Camera?

  5. Could check Yodobashi; that's a good idea. I'm otherwise more inclined now to see what I can put together myself from IKEA parts.

  6. I just came from
    but you setup is looking much cooler actually, especially wit your Cup Noodle coffe mug. :-)

    Thanks for sharing your setup!

  7. @Thomas, the embarrassing thing is, this was supposed to be a quick hack until I get a real set-up done. But my desk still looks exactly the same.

    The only differences are that the books have sorted themselves according to how often I use them, and the whole set-up sticks up from a deep pile of unread papers, administrative documents and other junk I should have thrown away long ago. ^_^


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