Are you sitting comfortably?
...then I'll begin, but you may not like it much.
I expect many readers of this blog already know they spend way more time than is healthy sitting working at a computer. For those who are solo freelancers, like myself, there is even less reason, or even opportunity, to move from our workstations as frequently as those of us working in communal shared office spaces. The swift evolution of my computer's capabilities has been matched by it's increasing influence in my physical world. My computer is now loaded with all sorts of software and can already do pretty much everything I need to produce a huge range of work. With most of my work also delivered digitally I don’t even have to go visit any supply companies, as I used to do with print projects. Of course the more efficient my computer becomes at doing almost everything the less reasons I have for moving away from it. I'm realising the old cliché 'chained to my desk' is taking on a whole new, and very unpleasant, meaning.
The legendary Kurt Vonnegut made a great observation on our increasing reliance on the computer to 'save' us from unnecessary 'work'. When Vonnegut tells his wife he's going out to buy an envelope...
Oh, she says, well, you're not a poor man. You know, why don't you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet? And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I'm going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying one envelope. I meet a lot of people. And, see some great looking babes. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And, and ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, and I don't know. The moral of the story is, is we're here on Earth to fart around. And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, what the computer people don't realize, or they don't care, is we're dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And, we're not supposed to dance at all anymore.
And 'So it goes'
The Daily Mirra
It made sense to me that if so much sitting is inevitable then I'd best get a really, really good chair, and one of my first blog posts years ago was about finding the best chair to work from. Knowing I was likely to be spending an insane amount of time in my work chair I bought one of the best I could find: a Herman Millar 'Mirra' chair. It was expensive, but it was money well spent as I soon gained almost complete relief from some truly horrible back pains I suffered when using a basic cheap chair at my desk. But even the best chair in the world is still a chair and growing medical evidence reveals that sitting down, even for modest periods of time, can cause swift and significant deterioration to our health. This is not just another trendy health topic, since for a while now I've felt a gradual, but noticeable, increase in minor aches and pains due to my own sedentary habits. Of course age will play a part in this too, I'm fifty-one, but on rare days when I'm away from my desk I'm a much more mobile, ache-free and happy fifty-one. Comfortable though my chair is then, I need to ensure that I'm sitting in it as little as possible.
The inevitable Info-Graphic
Thanks to recently discovering Dan Benjamin's excellent 5 by 5 podcasts I’ve now read Robb Wolf’s book, The Paleo Solution. This book compounded a lot of nagging thoughts I'd been having recently that could be generally classified under the ‘Getting your Shit together’ category. Robb's book covers a lot of health issues in tremendous detail; diet, exercise, sleep, etc., all important components of our overall good health, but his information on the effects of sedentary behaviour was particularly well presented - and truly frightening!
And then I found this:
(Thanks for those nightmares Twitter!)
If you take a look at this graphic you'll see the health risks resulting from 6.5 hours of sitting per day - but I can easily clock up 12 hours on a typical day, how about you? I knew I had to start reversing my descent into a slothful 'Millar-Chair' potato and the obvious first step for me is to...
Stand and Deliver!
For a start I'm making some changes at my desk which will oblige me to perform more physical activity, starting with creating a standing workspace. Although my main type of work is in visual design and the creation of images (normally requiring me to be seated with careful control of my mouse or Wacom pen) I can still work on the more 'admin' and project management type of tasks while standing and using a laptop (or iPad). There is a substantial amount of admin work like this in my day so I ought to be on my feet quite a bit.
A standing workspace is a relatively easy change to effect, but it should make an immediate noticeable difference to the detrimental effects of the endurance sitting sessions. This means finding a high-level working surface for the laptop, ironically for me this turns out to be a big drawing board on a floor stand - exactly what I used to work at before the Mac irrevocably changed the design world. As an added bonus I will once again have a proper angled drawing board for sketch work and rough concepts, I haven't enjoyed one of these in a long time, having made do with spare desk space around my keyboard for basic notepad sketching. I'll not be standing all the time I'm working though, but will certainly aim to stand more than sit during the working day.
I've seen that there is a trend (particularly in the USA) for using a Treadmill while working at a laptop, but I'm not quite ready for that yet, I think actively walking and trying to concentrate on a screen would not be very efficient, for me anyway. I've seen what appears to be the ideal solution: the Geek Desk a smart move by a company who have picked up on this trend and are producing motorised variable height desks. It's a great idea, you can either sit or stand at the same desk with all your tech in it's usual place, with the desk itself changing from sitting to standing height in minutes. Geek desks are expensive but I'd say a worthwhile investment, for now though I'll see how I get on with my desk/drawing board arrangement.
I've been following some interesting discussions on Conor O'Neill's blog too as he works on creating a standing workspace.
Onwards and Appwards
As the meme says: 'There's an App for that' and I've found a few that can help break the bad habits of the endurance sitting sessions. One of my favourites is 'Time Out', a timing application that dims your Mac screen at (your choice of) pre-selected intervals. To get the best from Time Out though you really have to respect the breaks that you programme into it - if you keep hitting the snooze button and ignoring those breaks (not that I'd do that!) you're wasting your time. This app is Mac only, although I believe there is a similar app for Windows.
The Pomodoro Technique: This is a useful for helping you 'Work the Dash', meaning you work diligently for a specified time, then enjoy a short break. The combination of hard work (in short bursts) followed by the guaranteed reward of a break (in which you are recommended to do something enjoyable) is a great motivator. For the purposes of this post though the real benefit here is in the breaks rather than the 'dashes'. There are Mac Desktop and iOS versions of this app.
There is also this useful site (now in my browser bookmarks bar) detailing a few easy exercises for the desk-bound. Bonus points if you do these exercises during the breaks prompted by Time Out ;-)
Hopefully by now you are suitably shaken and stirred to take steps (literally) to get out of your chair for more regular breaks. These simple preventative measures you can take while at your desk are important in breaking unhealthy habits, but a significant part of the overall solution to the sedentary trap is a good exercise routine. Such an exercise routine is beyond the scope of this post, but I highly recommend you look into it, soon - and preferably while standing at your computer!