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Working while walking - Helen's journal and online home
In which an old dog attempts to learn new tricks.
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.]

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13 comments or Leave a comment
readthisandweep From: readthisandweep Date: September 5th, 2011 11:27 am (UTC) (Link)
Virginia Woolf often wrote standing up. Her sister Vanessa Bell, always painted standing up & Virginia & Vanessa were very competitive. If you can stand up to work, so can I, sort of thing.

Who knows, 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.

I can't find a picture of the desk Mrs Woolf worked at although I have seen one somewhere. Here's a link to some reproductions: http://standupdesks.com/podium.shtml

The modern desks look horrible! My hips are groaning at the very thought!
heleninwales From: heleninwales Date: September 5th, 2011 12:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thanks for the list of writers.

I knew there were more writers who wrote standing up, but I couldn't remember who they were and The Maker of the Omnibus is arranged in very idiosyncratic manner and I didn't have time to re-read the whole book.
birdsedge From: birdsedge Date: September 5th, 2011 02:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
BB has often said that having a pedal-powered computer would solve two problems in one. a) it would keep us fit and b) it would reduce power consumption from the national grid! Result!

But actually a machine that does an alternate up/down foot push that you can either work against (or let it work for you like those passive exercise machines) would be OK. Kind of like a recumbent bike, but up down, not round and round (for the sake of space under the desk). You would have to be able to pause it when doing a tricky fine mouse movement, but otherwise it should work reasonably well.

You could probably make both the electric kind or one that was purely foot powered. The tricky thing would be getting the angle right, so you could still keep your centre of gravity over your seat and so that it would work for us five foot shorties or strapping six-footers with long lean legs.
heleninwales From: heleninwales Date: September 5th, 2011 02:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
I have actually bought a mini exercise bike and put it under the desk. It's proving very successful even though I can't use it all the time because there's not enough height for my knees when peddling. However, I can use it when doing passive stuff like reading LJ because I just push the keyboard tray in out of the way.

I'm going to explain more in my next post...
birdsedge From: birdsedge Date: September 6th, 2011 09:53 am (UTC) (Link)
Is that one of thise that's just like a crank with two pedals or is it one of the posh ones with a computer & everything?
heleninwales From: heleninwales Date: September 6th, 2011 01:15 pm (UTC) (Link)
It's one with a "computer". I'm really pleased with it and I'll say more in another post shortly.
muuranker From: muuranker Date: September 6th, 2011 06:13 am (UTC) (Link)
Like a treddle sewing-machine?
heleninwales From: heleninwales Date: September 6th, 2011 09:25 am (UTC) (Link)
Yes, that would work!
birdsedge From: birdsedge Date: September 6th, 2011 09:52 am (UTC) (Link)
I never used a treadle machine (I had an old hand-cranked Singer) but I got the impression that both feet went up and down together rater than alternate? Is that right? I think alternate would work best to keep your upper body more unaffected (i.e. able to type better).
heleninwales From: heleninwales Date: September 6th, 2011 01:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
My mother had an old Singer treadle machine before she got an electric one. The flat treadle rocks back and forth across a central pivot, so you put one foot towards the furthest edge and the other foot on the near edge and then push alternately.

Once you got the hang of a treadle, you could guide the material easily using both hands, so I see no reason why you couldn't type or even mouse while using one.
muuranker From: muuranker Date: September 6th, 2011 03:42 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yes - it sounds odd, but the upper body isn't affected, and (from what I remember - and this was as a child, which was around 40 years ago) it wasn't a difficult movement, and one that you just 'got into the swing of'.

From: dsgood Date: September 6th, 2011 03:21 am (UTC) (Link)
I suspect there's at least one gadget which, attached to your computer, will enable it to make your tea.
heleninwales From: heleninwales Date: September 6th, 2011 09:34 am (UTC) (Link)
You could be right... There are various things that you can plug into the USB socket that will keep your beverage of choice warm.

Then again, probably not. I found this personal coffee maker and the designer says: “There’s not quite enough juice to run it off a USB port. There are quite a few USB mug warmers out there but to brew coffee correctly I couldn’t get the amount of power I needed.”

As tea needs hotter water than coffee, then you can't actually power the device from the computer.

However, I'm sure you could easily devise a computer controlled Teasmade that made tea according to what activities you were performing on the computer rather than just being controlled by a time set on a clock.

Edited at 2011-09-06 09:35 am (UTC)
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