My standing desk setup

· geekery · productivity ·

When there’s a problem to be solved, I often try to improvise a solution. Generally, I think that’s a good thing: better to try to make something yourself with resources you already have than to go out and buy something new. However, sometimes it leads to wasting time setting something up and then living with a solution that comes with too many compromises. I’ve been trying to sort out a compact, ergonomic desk arrangement for my home office for quite some time. I started with an Ergotron WorkFit arm (5 years ago), which worked well for me for some time. It allowed me to sit or stand to work, changing quickly between them. It bounced a bit, as I mentioned in my article, but I more or less got used to that. However, over time, things changed. My ‘home office’ is a small room which has to serve many purposes. As my sewing hobby has grown, my desk has to share the space with sewing machines and a fold-up cutting table, and the Ergotron WorkFit jutted out enough to cause an awkward obstruction. More importantly, the arrangement meant that I couldn’t write (with a notebook and pen) comfortably at the desk, as the arm covered most of the desk surface, and using the metal base meant leaning uncomfortably over the keyboard support. Finally, a variety of other changes to my working evironment meant that I started to think about whether I could improvise something else myself.

Sewing and my desk setup have more in common than they first appear, in that they are both strongly influenced by the fact that I’m short, so off-the-peg options don’t work well for me. Standard desk heights are too tall for me to use at the correct height for my arms to operate a keyboard ergonomically, while still having my feet flat on the floor. Over the years I have tried various foot rests (both bought and improvised) but it is never as comfortable or as flexible as being able to rest your feet on the floor.

When I got my new Ergodox EZ keyboard last year, I found that it didn’t fit on the keyboard shelf of the WorkFit. This was a problem. As a temporary measure, I removed the WorkFit arm and, using cheap shelf runners and a bit of plywood, made myself an under-desk keyboard shelf. I’m no expert with carpentry, and the best I can say is that it was OK. The heights of the iMac screen and the keyboard were more or less right if I stood the iMac on a pile of books, but of course I could no longer stand to work. Sitting for long periods is no good for anybody, but as I get older, I find that it exacerbates the feeling of my body slowly seizing up if I don’t move and stretch regularly. That’s obviously not a good thing.

Later, work-related changes meant that I had a MacBook Air through work which I needed to use when working at home. Getting an external screen with a Thunderbolt port would mean that I could use it to drive both the Air and a home computer and use both in an ergonomic way. I had been thinking about replacing my iMac for a while (and passing it on to someone else), so after a lot of comparison of specs and prices and thinking about it for far too long, I ended up getting a Mac mini and and LG UltraFine 23" display. The latter was the most difficult choice. You can get cheaper screens, but I found it difficult to find a model which had both a decent retina screen and a Thunderbolt port. I’m really happy with my decision in the end, and it will hopefully continue to serve whatever computer ends up succeeding my mini, 5 years or so down the line. I have my keyboard plugged into the display, and two Thunderbolt cables: one is plugged in to the mini, and the other is free-floating. When I work on my Macbook Air I unplug the mini at the display end, plug the free cable in, and plug the other end in to my Air. Then all I need to do is press the toggle switch on my Logitech MX Ergo trackball which switches the trackball between connecting to either my mini or the Air. It’s quick and pretty seamless.

So, at this point, I have my dream computing set up, but I am still unable to choose to stand or sit to work. The final part was getting a proper standing desk. Five years ago when I got the WorkFit, standing desks were prohibitively expensive and hard to find, but as more people have opted to use them, the price has come down and there is more choice. Once again, I did a lot of research and comparison of specs before deciding on a model. Suprisingly, many standing desks do not go low enough to accommodate the Hobbit-friendly desk height I need when seated. Many are also too large to fit easily in my tiny office. What I settled on eventually was a Fully Jarvis standing desk. Ironically, I had to get the extended range model, not for the upper limit of 125 cm (which is literally shoulder height on me), but for the extended lower limit of 60 cm, aka ‘Hobbit Height’. I wanted something which was going to last for years and look beautiful, so I got the curved bamboo top. I don’t regret it: it is a stunning surface, and being able to snuggle in to the curved part when sitting or standing is great.

I also got a Jarvis monitor arm while I was at it, as you get a discount when bundling it with a desk. I also debated this for ages, but again, I am very happy with my decision. You do need to have the screen at a slightly different height and distance from you when you are standing and sitting, and this makes it easy to pick just the right spot. It also frees the space underneath so that I can place the mini on the bamboo monitor stand (bought a while ago from Ikea, but it’s actually a good match for the desk), which in turn means I have a space underneath that to slide away my keyboard at night or when I am writing with a notebook and pen. The luxury of having a highly adjustable desk means that I can even adjust it slightly so that it is the optimimum height for writing with a pen and paper, which is slightly different from the height needed when using a keyboard. When I have my Air connected, I slide that out of the way under there too, unless I need the screen open to Skype.

It has taken a long time and a lot of trial and error to get the working setup that I needed 5 years ago. However, I am really happy with what I’ve got. I move between sitting and standing frequently using the convenient pre-set buttons. The desk looks comically low when I have it at sitting height (like walking into a primary school and looking at the tiny desks), but it is perfect for me: I can sit comfortably with my feet flat on the floor. Equally, when standing (at a lofty desk height of 93.4 cm!), my arms, wrists and shoulders are all supported and in a relaxed position, and I fidget from foot to foot while I’m thinking to keep the blood moving around. My posture has already improved, and interestingly I am no longer getting eye-strain, which suggests that being able to move the height and distance of the monitor easily is helping in that respect.