The Best Standing Desk
The standing desk has become the most controversial piece of office furniture in modern times. Like any other “health” trend, with each passing day, there’s opposing research stating that standing desks are good for you, but that they are also bad for you. The evidence seems to suggest that sitting is bad for you, but the jury is still out on standing, it seems.
Despite what the “experts” have to say, there’s one important expert you should listen to: yourself. You know your own body best. Through trial and error you can figure out what works and what doesn’t. Personally, I knew my body was tiring of sitting for long stretches working on a computer all day, despite every effort to make my setup as ergonomic as possible. Several years ago, I decided to run an experiment to see if working at a standing desk would work for me.
The Famous $22 Standing Desk
Not wanting to commit too much financially, I wanted to take baby steps into the standing desk world. The main consideration was that it had to be something I could place on top of an existing desk surface – there was no brand spanking new adjustable height desk in my future. So I took to the interwebs and discovered the now famous $22 standing desk.
Made simply out of readily available (and cheap) parts from Ikea, with a little help from my handy boss who has a full woodworking shop, I was able to get this up and running without too much hassle (I’m close to an Ikea, this may be more challenging for those who live further away and can’t get all the parts delivered).
I used it off and on for about a month before giving up on it.
Why I Ditched the DIY
- This particular setup creates a “permanent” standing desk structure that you have to deal with when not actively in use. It doesn’t fold up or fold down in any compact way, which means that when you want to sit for a bit, you have to find someplace else to store this fairly large contraption.
- It’s not really “adjustable” – as soon as you determine the position of the keyboard “shelf,” and screw it in to the main table, that is the height at which it shall remain. So according to ergonomic principles, you have to get it just right, accurately taking into account the height of any standing desk mat you use. It also becomes difficult to share this with anyone else who might want to use it when you’re not there (unless they are the exact same height as you, with the same body proportions in terms of arm length, etc.). Another challenge in the adjustability camp – it’s almost essential to have an adjustable height monitor because you may need to raise or lower it depending on where it hits. Obviously raising is not an issue for fixed position monitors, just throw a book or box underneath – the bigger challenge is lowering it, which you may need to do for ergonomic reasons.
- What I didn’t fully appreciate during my first go was that the desk itself was only half of the equation; a quality standing desk mat is just as important, if not in some ways, more so, than the desk itself. Again, in a silly attempt to minimize my investment in this experiment, I simply brought in some interlocking exercise mat tiles that I had lying around the house (originally bought for doing P90X workouts at home), and stacked a couple together, creating my improvisational “anti-fatigue mat”. It felt pretty “good,” nice and squishy. What I learned later is that squishy is bad – you want firm support. My pick is the Topo by Ergodriven standing desk mat.
Rising Up to the Next Level
Fast forward a few years – new job, new office, still lots of conflicting evidence on the efficacy of standing desks. But after getting tired of sitting all day, I was ready to try the standing desk thing again, this time taking into consideration the lessons I had learned and hoping to apply them here.
The restrictions were the same – the company wasn’t footing the bill for an entirely new sit-stand desk, nor was there space for it in our cube farm layout. So I once again turned to the interwebs to see what was out there in terms of what I could place on top of my existing desk surface. To Amazon I went!
Of course, the biggest name in adjustable standing desks are Varidesk, which look excellent, but I was working with OPM (other people’s money) and needed to be as frugal as possible. After combing through the options, I finally landed on the Stand Steady Flexpro Hero Two Level Standing Desk.
Will the Real Best Standing Desk Please Stand Up?
For me, the biggest game changer and improvement over my previous $22 setup is the fact that I can leave all of my stuff on the unit itself and continue working, whether it is raised or lowered. This includes my Dell UltraSharp 34-Inch Curved LED-Lit Monitor, my Apple Magic Keyboard, and Apple Magic Mouse. Previously I would have to completely remove all my crap from the top, the biggest pain of which, of course, was the monitor. Then I’d have to put everything back in place and get the monitor height right again. No longer! My whole setup is flying up and down quickly without hassle.
Let’s look at some of the specific features that makes this one a winner over some others out there. The biggest attraction for me was the large keyboard tray. I’m the kind of person who likes a lot of space at my workstation. I like freedom of movement for my mouse – I don’t want to feel claustrophobed, like I’m constantly going to run into my keyboard to the left or fall off a cliff to the front, back, or right side. This large tray gives me plenty of room to play, including lots of space on the left side of the keyboard, where I sometimes put my phone.
“Down Mode” that Doesn’t Get You Down
Also, when in “down mode,” i.e., when the standing desk is completely lowered and is just resting on the top of the existing desk surface, this large keyboard tray adequately simulates the experience of the original desk top, in terms of size. So it’s not like I’m sacrificing functionality whenever I want to actually sit my butt down.
It is possible to remove this keyboard tray, although I don’t know why you would. Ergonomic principles state that your keyboard should be on a different level from your monitor and this supports that perfectly.
Pump Up the Jams
Another great feature is the “hydraulic pump lift,” which is the mechanism for raising and lowering. The advantage here is speed – raising is as quick as grabbing a lever on the right and pulling up on both hand hold cutouts until the desk is raised to your desired height. This takes a couple seconds max, and you’re in business. Lowering is similarly quick, if not quicker: just press the lever and a combination of gravity and the weight of objects on the surface speedily brings it down to rest on some foam pads on the underside of the unit, and then you’re ready to start working again.
But wait, isn’t an electric motor-powered system better? Meh. Not in my opinion. Here’s the challenges with electric standing desks as I see them:
- They’re slower: of course we’re talking about dozens of seconds, not minutes, but still, depending on how many times you raise and lower throughout the day, that adds up.
- Their failure rate is inevitably higher: more mechanical parts means more potential failure points. The longevity of a simple hydraulic pump system seems much more reliable to me.
- You have to plug them in: ok, not a huge deal, but still one unnecessary complicating factor.
A note on where to put your various screens – I’ve found it best to just have my monitor centered on the top. Yes, it’s massively wide so I don’t need another screen up there and can do everything I need to on it, but I would say even if you don’t have an ultra wide monitor, for ergonomic’s sake I don’t think it’s great to work with your head constantly turned slightly to the right or left. I’m not a doctor so try for yourself, but I would start with just the one monitor centered and see if that works for you.
Are there any downsides to this standing desk? I would call it sturdy, but not COMPLETELY sturdy. There is a little bit of give every now and again, but for the price, it’s not unreasonable to expect this. It’s not something I worry about, just something to be aware of. The only other downside I would mention is that depending on how tall you are and how high you need to raise this, I do find that to get it to its maximum height, it does require a certain amount of upper body strength to do this. The hydraulic pump does most of the work until about 80% height, but that extra bit takes a little extra. Again this is all based on your height and preference for keyboard tray height – just something to keep on your radar. I guess a last downside might be aesthetic – it’s not the most beautiful piece of office furniture you’ll ever come across, and could certainly spoil the look of a beautiful mahogany desk with matching bookshelves containing many leather bound books…you get the idea. It’s purely functional. But it does the job, and does it well.
I would be remiss if I didn’t once again reiterate the importance of a quality standing desk mat to the whole working at a standing desk equation. It really doesn’t matter what kind of standing desk you buy if your mat is crap. You will quickly feel fatigue and give up on the whole thing – I know from experience.
Staying Productive Through the Ups and Downs
Finally – a note on how I use it throughout the day to stay productive. It really just depends on the day and what I’m working on that day, and other factors such as how much I’m sitting in meetings, etc. On a typical workday, I try to start the day standing, my reason being that I’ve just been sitting in my car for a bit during my commute. I’ll typically try to stand for as long as I can during the morning, but eventually might feel a bit tired of that and then sit for a while. Then after an hour or so I’ll get tired of sitting and raise it back up. This is really just personal preference. I know people that try to stand all day or only stand for an hour or so.
Many of the articles on the health benefits (or ill-effects) of standing desks I feel to be too extreme one way or the other. We can all agree that sitting all day is probably bad for you – from an evolutionary perspective, I can’t imagine you’d survive very long in prehistoric times if you just sat in one place for most of the day and didn’t hunt, gather or farm. Similarly, however, I can’t imagine our prehistoric ancestors just standing in one place all day either. As in most things, the golden mean of moderation is probably best here too. Sit when you feel tired of standing, and stand when you feel tired of sitting. It’s not that complicated, and this standing desk makes it super fast and easy to switch between the two positions.
Is This Stuff Adam Likes?
Absolutely. Not only does it beat the $22 DIY option, it also beats my more expensive IKEA standing desk I have at home. Yes, it’s visually not that nice, but it’s functioned well during over a year of daily use, and I love the convenience and speed of switching from standing to sitting and back again. Plus it’s much easier to convince your employer to get you this add-on than completely retrofitting your cubicle with a fancy new desk. It’s also great for working from home because you can, again, place it on top of any tabletop surface and be off to the races.