In June, I set up a standing desk at work.
My neck and back had been hurting, and I’d read enough about the scary health consequences of spending the whole day sitting that I was convinced my life would be better overall if I got rid of my chair.
For the most part, I hated my standing desk. My feet hurt; I developed even worse posture from leaning on the desk for support when I was tired; and my mother sealed the deal when she warned me that I’d get bloated veins in my legs from standing all day.
I dismantled the standing desk in September.
But the experience was hardly a total failure — in fact, it taught me one key lesson about getting stuff done. Toward the end of those three months without a chair of my own, I’d wander the office in search of places to sit — the kitchen, the roof, the couches near the reception area — and do my work there instead.
Sometimes I’d bring a laptop; other times I’d bring a book or a scientific paper I needed to read; still other times I’d simply bring a notepad and pen for brainstorming.
And I learned that I’m more productive when I leave my desk and work from different locations.
When I spoke recently with Ron Friedman, a psychologist at SUNY Rochester and the author of “The Best Place to Work,” he said my experience makes sense in the context of his research on workplace design and productivity. In fact, it’s a strategy he personally uses often.
If he finds that he’s procrastinating on a certain task, he’ll leave his laptop behind at his office desk and bring the work to a library or a cafe. That’s effective for two reasons, he said.
The obvious reason: “I don’t have access to the temptations that are blocking my productivity.” Think social media rabbit holes.
The less obvious reason: “Now I’ve made this gesture of investing time in doing an activity that I’ve been having trouble making progress toward. And so simply being invested in trying to achieve the outcomes I’m looking for puts me down the path toward getting started.”
In other words, when you make the effort to move to a different setting, you signal to yourself that it’s time to buckle down.
Friedman said this strategy of switching up your environment works best for tasks that require focused concentration, like deep thinking or learning new information. It works, too, for activities that aren’t inherently enjoyable.
So if you’re checking email, sitting at your desk is fine. If you’re poring over a research paper, consider going elsewhere.
In “The Best Place to Work,” Friedman writes about the importance of giving your employees different spaces, so they can calibrate their environment to suit the task they’re currently working on. That’s the ideal — but even if your office is short on space, you can still tweak your surroundings in order to boost your productivity.
One tactic Friedman suggested is scheduling a “meeting with yourself” at a nearby coffee shop. People are often afraid, he said, that they will be seen as slackers if they’re not in the office all day, but he predicts that if you start producing better work, perceptions of your performance will improve.
Another option — especially if you need a computer to do your work — is to change your computer screen or web browser. You can have two different browsers, one for work and one for personal use. On the work browser, you might not be logged into Facebook, so it’s more difficult to access.
Perhaps the most important reason why we’re more productive when we move around between spaces is simply that we’re moving around, Friedman said. Sitting at a desk all day makes you tired; physical activity gives you energy, gets your blood flowing, elevates your heart rate, and boosts your mood, all of which helps make you more productive.
Now that I have my chair back and I’m physically more comfortable, I have to remind myself to get up every so often. I’m trying to make a habit of leaving my desk anytime I don’t need a computer, like when I’m reading or thinking creatively.
It’s harder than it might seem — most of what I do requires internet access and I do feel a bit like a slacker sitting on the roof reading a book. But I imagine I’ll get over that second obstacle once I see how much more efficient I am when I’m not chained to a desk all day.
NOW WATCH: There’s actually no clear-cut evidence that standing at your desk is better for your health than sitting
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