September 5th, 2011

computer typing

Working while walking

Question: What do Abby Sciuto (the forensic specialist on the TV show NCIS) and Henry James have in common?

Answer: They work standing up.

Well, Henry James sometimes wrote standing up, as it says in The Maker of the Omnibus: The Lives of English Writers Compared...

Henry James accommodated himself in various ways. He had a desk by a window at which he could write standing. There was a day bed, with a swivel-desk attached, on which he could write lying. In front of the window was a large knee-hole desk at which he could write sitting.

Though most writers actually wrote their stories sitting down, many of them did their thinking while walking, so walking and thinking have always been linked. Until now... Nowadays it's possible to sit all day at a computer because it's not only a writing tool, it does just about everything else you might need, apart from make cups of tea. Computers are for communication and entertainment as well as work. Whereas in the past a writer (or worker) would leave their desk and do something different in their leisure time, people now spend their day working on the computer and often spend at least some of their leisure time on the computer too.

Anyway, I don't know whether there is a general buzz in the air about standing desks and treadmill desks or whether I'm just noticing the debate because I've become increasingly unhappy with my sedentary lifestyle and expanding waistline, but it finally got to the point where I decided to do something about the way I work.

For those who aren't familiar with the idea, this treadmill desk is an example of what I'm talking about. Custom made desks are horrendously expensive and you still need to buy a treadmill, however, some people are building their own much cheaper versions.

Initially I was intrigued by the idea, but it soon became apparent that it wasn't going to work for me and I also have more serious reservations, which I'll come to in a minute.

As far as using one myself, the first problem is lack of space. My office is tiny. There is no room for a treadmill. Even if I rearranged everything and got rid of an item or two of furniture, I decided it was too much of a gamble to buy even a second-hand treadmill. What if typing and walking didn't work for me? I would be stuck with a useless treadmill and would have wasted money -- and I can't afford to waste money. Also, I don't want any more clutter, I'm trying to get rid of stuff, not acquire it! Besides, even the enthusiastic users say that fine mousing is impossible, so I would have to just stand on it or somehow balance a chair on it while using PhotoShop or anything else that required precision. So that ruled out a treadmill desk for me.

Now to those reservations about them being a good idea for everyone. It's fine for the odd enthusiast to have one, but what if everyone wanted to adopt them? In practice, it's not going to happen because businesses are certainly not going to want to spend money on buying and installing new desks and treadmills for their staff. There is the space issue (each employee would take up more room) and the ongoing financial costs to consider. Not only will these treadmill desks cost money to install, they'll also cost money to run. They'll use electricity and also need maintenance. I'm sure all would be fine for a month or two, but in say three years time, would they all still be running properly and be as quiet as when first installed?

More importantly, they can't be good for the environment. They're using electricity needlessly. They'll generate heat, which will mean in hot weather, the users will turn the air conditioning up higher, which wastes even more electricity.

I therefore don't think that treadmill desks are the answer. They'll only be suitable for the few people who like innovative solutions, who either work from home or for some other reason have control of their own working environment (eg they're the boss!). They'll also need to be able to afford to risk £200-1000 UK pounds to experiment with equipment and they also mustn't be bothered about the size of their electricity bill.

But, if I wasn't going for the expensive innovative idea what did I do? (To be continued...)

[Because LiveJournal still sometimes seems a bit wobbly, this was posted to Dreamwidth http://heleninwales.dreamwidth.org/7647.html and then crossposted to LJ. If you want to leave a comment, please use whichever site you find most convenient. Comments so far: comment count unavailable.]
View from study (sunny)

Working standing up

So, in my last post I explained why I don't think that treadmill desks are the answer -- not for me, anyway and probably not for the majority. If it works for you, that's fine. There is no One Size Fits All.

However, standing up to work did seem to have a lot of potential and has a respectable history. Thank you readthisandweep for this list of other writers who regularly worked at standing desks:

"...the fact is, several well known writers wrote standing up: Lewis Carroll, Winston Churchill, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway & George Sand all wrote standing up. And apparently, Philip Roth does today."

What is more, I remembered that for quite a few years as a young mother, I wrote standing up too. It wasn't actually for exercise and health reasons in those days; my job involved plenty of standing and walking. No, I did it because if I sat down to write, the children and cats would make a beeline for me because I was plainly off duty and thus should be attending to them. If I was standing up, on the other hand, I was working and they left me alone, by and large. So, back in the early 80s, I improvised a standing desk by putting the typewriter (yes, pre computer!) on an upturned washing up bowl on the kitchen work surface. This worked surprisingly well, so I started looking around the house to see what I could improvise now. And I came up with...

From Illustrations for blog posts


Yes, it is rather Heath Robinson :) but it works absolutely fine, didn't cost a penny and is quickly and easily assembled and dismantled as required. Basically it's the middle sized table from a nest of three standing on a basket chair with the laptop sitting on a lap-tray on top. I've been using this set up for a couple of months and did the last batch of marking mostly standing up.[*] I find that I can shift my position slightly even as I type and also when thinking, I can take a few steps back and forth, which is not exactly giving me any exercise, but it is keeping the circulation moving and stops me getting stiff from sitting or standing in one position for too long.

If my back or legs start to feel tired, I just pick up the lap-tray, take a couple of steps to the right and sit on the sofa for a while. When I feel rested, I simply move back to the standing desk.

From Illustrations for blog posts


Voila! A little movement introduced to my working day. Of course the laptop doesn't have all the programs I use and no Internet, so I had to think about the desktop too, but I'll post about that tomorrow...



[*]The other thing about the laptop is that it is that rare beast a standalone computer. It has no connection to the Internet. We don't have wireless and so I can work without being distracted by checking LJ/Google+/Twitter just one more time to see if anyone has posted anything new and interesting.

[Because LiveJournal still sometimes seems a bit wobbly, this was posted to Dreamwidth http://heleninwales.dreamwidth.org/7899.html and then crossposted to LJ. If you want to leave a comment, please use whichever site you find most convenient. Comments so far: comment count unavailable.]