Here’s a sobering statistic: With a 40- to 45-hour work week, many Americans spend about 25 percent of the year on the job. For those of us who stare at computer screens all day, that amounts to more than 2,000 hours with our keisters glued to chairs. In less technical terms, we’re practically married to our desks.
For as many hours as we whittle away at our workstations, though, most of us put surprisingly little thought into optimizing our offices. Quick: When’s the last time you actually stopped to think about how efficient your physical workspace is? If you’re anything like me, the answer is probably “never.”
Workstation optimization can make a significant difference in your ability to get things done. Believe me: I’ve slowly but surely been making changes to my own humble office, and with each adjustment, I’ve noticed more productivity and less time wasted (unintentionally, at least—my midday YouTube-browsing habit shows no signs of subsiding).
The best part: It doesn’t take much to do a workstation tune-up. Here are five simple tips to get you started.
Take a comfortable seat, then get out of it
The hot trend du jour is ditching your chair and turning your workstation into a standing-room-only experience. But while standing all day might burn more calories, it’s not going to help you get more done, according to Dr. Alan Hedge, director of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory at Cornell University.
Sitting is more conducive to productivity, Hedge says—it uses 20 percent less energy and allows you to type and mouse more effectively—but that doesn’t mean you should park your busy buns all day. Just ask the folks from NASA.
“We haven’t evolved to sit or stand all day,” says Dr. Joan Vernikos, a former director of NASA’s Life Sciences Division who researched the effects of gravity on the body while working at the space agency. In her book Sitting Kills, Moving Heals, Vernikos argues that regular movement is the real solution.
“What’s important is the change in position,” she says. “We need to routinely be moving, and we need to be moving every little part of us.”
Vernikos and Hedge both recommend finding a comfortable chair and desk setup (make sure the chair is adjustable and offers good lower-back support), and then standing and moving regularly throughout your day. Hedge suggests a quick two- to three-minute stretching break every 20 minutes, and then a longer break once an hour, in which you actually walk around and do something different.
Your brain is busy enough, so why not let your computer remind you when it’s time to take a pause? Numerous apps can handle the task free of charge. Check out Time Out Free for Mac or Gimme a Break! for the Chrome browser. Each program allows you to configure regular reminders for getting up, stretching your legs and giving your brain and body a well-deserved break. No more excuses!
You might be thinking: If I stop working to stretch or walk around, people will think I’m slacking. That’s why it’s important to educate your boss and co-workers about the productivity benefits that come with mini-breaks. Or, better yet, have a qualified scientist do it for you.
“The studies that have looked at these frequent little breaks show enormous improvements in productivity as well as improvements in health,” Hedge says, citing research conducted at the University of Connecticut in 1997. “You’re looking at people doing up to 15 percent more work when they work like this, and it doesn’t cost the company anything.” That approach will serve you far better than any type of complex and costly sitting/standing combo workstation, Hedge believes.
As for those zany treadmill or exercise bike desks—fuhgeddaboudit. “When you’re walking or cycling, your productivity goes down and your error rates go up,” Hedge says, referencing 2009 research from Australia’s Curtin University. “It’s like trying to walk down the street and write War and Peace on your iPad. Why do that?”
While we’re on the topic of exercise, you can leave those giant fitness balls at the gym, too: It’s fine to sit on one for a few minutes here as a change of pace, but the Cornell Ergo Lab has found they have no ergonomic value when used as a primary chair. “Without good back support, no chair is an ergonomic chair,” Hedge says, “and poor ergonomics will cause anyone’s work to suffer.”
Control and shift your keyboard
The keyboard may be the centerpiece of your work environment, but there’s a good chance it isn’t placed in its most effective position. Ergo experts say a keyboard on the desk puts your forearms in an unnatural position and causes unnecessary tension and muscle fatigue, which in turn can decrease your productivity.
“So many people make the mistake of having their keyboards too high,” says Linda Weitzel, a senior ergonomist with Xerox. “You don’t want to be raising your shoulders to get at the keys.”
The better setup: a keyboard tray that attaches to the bottom of your desk and slopes slightly downward away from you. It should sit lower than your elbows, allowing your forearms to rest in a position that’s parallel to (and just an inch or two above) your thighs, according to Hedge and other experts.
Another tip recommended by many ergo experts: Rather than centering the entire keyboard unit in front of you, as most of us tend to do, place the keyboard so that the spacebar is the central point. Odds are you spend most of your time tapping on the letter keys, not the number and arrow keys on the far right; if the entire unit is centered rather than the letter-key portion, your body isn’t actually aligned with the part of the device you’re using and typing will be more difficult and strenuous as a result.
Make the most of your display(s)
Speaking of alignment, let’s take a moment to check up on your monitors. You want your computer’s display to be centered in front of you, about an arm’s length away when you’re sitting back in your chair, according to the Cornell Ergo Lab. Hunching over or to the side to see your screen won’t help your comfort or your ability to focus.
In terms of height, the productivity experts I spoke to for this article agree that most monitors sit on the low side. If you visualize a line going from your eyes to the screen, the line should hit about two to three inches below the top of the monitor.
“If the monitors aren’t all at eye level, you’ll end up making sudden head movements that’ll distract you from your work and hurt you over time,” Vernikos explains.
What about screen size? While studies sponsored by display manufacturers such as Apple and NEC naturally conclude that using a bigger monitor means you’ll get more work done, not all experts agree that getting a giant display is the best way to boost productivity. Some say that using two or more monitors may bring better productivity gains.
“The ideal is to have the multiple monitor setup [where] at least one of the monitors is larger-sized,” says Peggy Duncan, a personal productivity consultant in Atlanta.
If, like many multiple display users, you rely on one monitor for the majority of your work, you’ll want to keep that primary monitor centered in front of you. Then make sure the other monitors are the same distance from your face and positioned at the same eye-level height.
“A lot of people end up having one monitor much lower and off to the side,” says Xerox’s Weitzel. “You need to elevate the secondary monitors and get them closer so they’re at the same height and position as the main monitor.”
Get a document holder
If you deal with documents—the physical kind, not the .doc variety—get an upright document holder and put it next to your monitor. Constantly looking down at your desk to view a document and then back up at your monitor can cause neck strain and take a toll on your eyes over time. That’s obviously going to take a toll on your work as well.
Think about where every object is placed and why
Whether your desk is clean or cluttered, it probably holds a certain amount of stuff that you need for your job. I’m not talking about your Mark Zuckerberg bobblehead, mind you, but rather things like your phone, notepad and stapler.
Take a minute to consider where these objects are and how their positioning helps or hinders your day-to-day work. If you hold your phone in your right hand, for example, does it sit on the right side of your desk? If you use a stapler, is it close enough that you can reach it without straining? All these little details add up to a big difference.
“You should think about your desk like you think about your car,” says Cornell’s Hedge. “You want to create a little envelope around you that has everything you need in a comfortable location.”
Just don’t get so comfortable that you accidentally doze off. I’m no scientist, but I’d say that could have an adverse effect on your productivity.
JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.