Monday, April 23, 2012

Standing Desks: Jefferson, Disraeli, Churchill and, Err, Dwight K. Schrute

Philip White

Stand up desks are becoming quite hip, even making it onto an episode of The Office. And speaking of hips (and, indeed, lower backs), I cured a persistent pain issue by standing to type for 2/3 of my day/night work hours. The evidence seems conclusive that sitting all day is terrible for your lumbar spine, increases the risk of heart disease and piles on the pounds like you’ve done on a Kansas City barbecue-only diet.  

One thing that’s also for sure, although often overlooked, is that standing to write is nothing new. Thomas Jefferson designed a six-legged standing desk, the extra pegs adding stability. The great British statesman Benjamin Disraeli, like many of his Victorian age, preferred to be on his feet when writing. And, though he far preferred dictation as his primary composition method, Disraeli’s countryman and fellow prime minister, Winston Churchill, followed suit when he picked up his fountain pen.

And elevated desks have not been confined to the offices of heads of state. Ernest Hemingway considered it soft to sit (OK, I have NO basis for that, but I can imagine him growling something similar) and, before him, Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf scrawled away at a standing desk. More recent proponents include Philip Roth.

Personally, I believe that beyond banishing my lower back/hip misery, standing to write has enabled me to work late into the night without feeling fatigued or needing the dubious pleasure of a late-night double espresso, a Faustian bargain if ever there was one. It is only in the past 100 years that we’ve been taught that if you’re writing, you should be sitting. Many older British and American universities still have standing desks in their libraries, and pictures of 19th century offices show sit/stand combo desks. Apparently we don’t get smarter over time, at least in this case. 

I’m interested to find out more about the sociological and workplace culture factors behind the move away from standing in the years between then and now. Why has it taken so long to rediscover the truth that hunching over at a desk for 40 hours a week (or, in the case of we few who toil into the wee hours on our books and articles, a lot more) is far from a good idea, and that standing can boost productivity and, arguably, longevity.


Dan Allosso said...

Standing here at my desk reading your post, Philip, I couldn't agree more.

PW said...

Dan, good enough for Dwight Schrute, good enough for us, right? In all seriousness though, as I stand here typing this note, I think a 2/3 stand to 1/3 sit work ratio boosts productivity, increases blood flow and keeps the old lower back from being so bloody grumpy - at least in my case. And the vintage standing desk pics are cool.