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Ask HN: Does a good desk setup make you more productive?
78 points by RingwormOne on Oct 24, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 72 comments
I recently bought a very large desk and a comfortable work chair where I had previously been using a small cluttered desk and a very uncomfortable chair. I think the increase in available space and comfort will make me more productive but I wanted to get other people's take.

Yes it does. There is a lot of research that suggests desks in the future need to be larger. One to accommodate more monitors, and two because people like to work with paper and computers. Paper you have to spread out, which requires a big desk.

A big desk made me much more productive, but it took a very long time. I’m not saying it’s not worth it, you learn a lot, but it’s a massive amount of effort. Once you get a bigger desk, you’ll find that you don’t use it a lot because you keep getting up to get things. You’ll eventually figure out standardized locations for everything, but then because it’s so standardized you’ll find yourself stealing from it because you know what you need will be there.

You’ll probably also need an extra keyboard, special mouse, desk lamp to help with the overreaching that causes lots of physical strain as well as the low light (or too much light) that can cause eye strain.

Next you’ll constantly fidget and get up for a drink of water, some food, a snack...so you’ll have to think about how you eat, how you space out meals, set locations for water bottles, and so on and so forth.

Once you’re done with all that, you’ll then sit down to work...and you’ll actually have to, for once in your life, confront your demons of inattention, task switching, and pure laziness. This is what finally got me to start meditating as well as eliminate the mental pollution of entertainment disguised as news.

We spend around 14 hours a day, maybe more, at our homes, so all in all I think it was worth it. But realize you’ll be building so many skills from the ground up that our culture just never teaches you.

In my experience, the solution to everything being out of reach on a too-big desk is to use an L-shaped desk instead. That allows a ton more surface area that you can reach just by extending an arm or at worst swiveling in your chair.

It also provides as many as three separate work zones that you can use comfortably by swiveling instead of moving the chair or moving your other work out of the way. For instance, reference material on one side, computer in the middle, and note paper on the other side.

Never thought about this.. I have never had a huge desk, but I had a tiny desk for my last year of university - with my laptop on it, I could only write on half a sheet of paper - and my productivity was definitely at its lowest point.

this really hits me at the core of my existence right now. I just built my "big" desk and the real-estate I have now is revolutionary but the struggle of being AT my desk still remains my primary foe.

    > There is a lot of research[...]
Mind linking to some of it?

Main text is probably this, it goes into a lot of other stuff though:

Architectural Robotics: Ecosystems of Bits, Bytes, and Biology (MIT Press) https://www.amazon.com/dp/026203395X

For me personally, it makes a huge difference. I recently installed a 600mm deep worktop in my office, lasted maybe 2 months before I ripped it out and replaced with a 900mm deep desk - much better, more breathing space and I can spread out over paper or just get some space around my monitor. On my PhD I managed to one of the few corner desks and guarded that thing with my life.

I assume it dates back to when I was studying for A-levels (UK school exams 16-18 years old). I would do all of my evening's prep (UK boarding school name for homework) on the largest table in the old library, I'd set up a sort of defensive wall of papers and folders that took up a 1-2 meter radius from me and sometimes more if I was working on a particularly large mind map. People soon got the idea and, since the school wasn't lacking for places to work, no one seemed to mind me bunking down for 2.5 hours (yes, we had enforced prep in silence from 7-9:30pm) every weekday evening and giving me all the space I needed.

Enjoy your new desk!

I find it interesting that you measure your desk in mm and not cm. Is that common in metric countries? For me, here in the States, I would say I moved from a 24in to 36in desk (which incidentally is also 2 feet to 3 feet, but I wouldn't use feet).

For units less than ~2 metres, and particularly with any trade related measurements, millimetres is the common unit. There is some overlap into metres - for example 300mm, 600mm, 900mm, 1200mm/1.2m, 1500mm/1.5m, 1800mm/1.8m, 2100mm/2.1m, 2.4m, 2.7m etc. Centimetres are used in clothing but very little else (this is NZ/Aus/UK, I don't know about elsewhere).

particularly with any trade related measurements

This is the key thing, i think. There is a convention in some technical disciplines - mechanical engineering, architecture, civil engineering up to a point - that things are measured in millimetres even when they're on the scale of metres. So you get a ceiling that is 2400 mm high, or pilings on a 1500 mm spacing, etc.

I'm not sure why. I suppose it means that the large things are directly comparable with small things that are more naturally measured in millimetres (if your tiles are 300 mm, you need eight courses for your 2400 mm bathroom wall), and you can use single unit on drawings taking in large and small things (the engine block is 900 mm long, the bolts are 12 mm across, on 150 mm spacings).

It probably ties in with preferred numbers somehow:


Ha, yeah good spot. In the trades (builders, joiners, plumbers, electrician etc) everything is done in mm in the UK. I’m not a tradesperson (degrees are in electrical and electronic engineering so equally happy talking in nano and micro metres as I am anything else) but have renovated houses and now run a factory that I spec’d, manufacturing a physical product that I co-designed and mm is now my unit of choice. I was measuring the internals of a van I am converting into a camper the other week and wrote everything in mm, even the length at 4050mm!

My assumption is that it is a. more accurate and b. allows you to talk about a 22mm pipe (standard plumbing diameter pipe) in the same unit as a 2400x1200 sheet of plaster board, without having to worry about what to do with the decimal point - pure speculation though.

Ironically people will say “twelve hundred” in this context which is deemed to be of American influence, but in any other context they would more likely say “one thousand two hundred”. Given that the US is imperial this can’t be a trade influence - must be for speed and ease of pronunciation.

After entering engineering full time, I had forgotten cm is much more common in casual use (at least in the US), vs mm in engineering.

This is speculation on my part, but I consider mm better because it allows greater resolution than cm without fractions and makes more sense when you consider cm is the only non-thousandth metric prefix we use for common units (mL,kg,km - dB would be an exception). cm on the other hand is closer in scale to inches and generally easier to estimate because of this.

For some reason, in the UK at least, desks do seem to be measured in mm, yes. It's not a particularly common unit for measuring other large items though, more generally we'll use metres and centimetres (with the correct spelling ;-)

You know that weird "re" spelling on your words, as well as the "ou" in "colour" for example, are borrowed from French. The spelling of those words (and many others) did not include those letters in those orders until someone in England thought that "maybe France wouldn't hate us so much if we adopted some of their spelling."

Source: I asked someone who has a Masters in English and forgot most of what she said, so don't hold my feet to the fire on details.

My point is that non-American English spelling is wrong in many cases, intentionally. So don't go around saying you're correct. You mutilated your own language to appease the French.

Hold on, though. "Metres" as a unit is a French word, because Napoleon invented the metric system during the French revolution as a break with the feudal past (source: i asked someone who has a PhD in the history of science and forgot most of what they said). For devices which measure things, we use the proper spelling - i have a gas meter, an electricity meter, and an iambic pentameter.

If we're going to talk about the deliberate sabotage of orthography, then surely Noah Webster's "thru", "catalog", etc are the most outrageous?

That said, as with metre/meter, we have at least salvaged some Websterisms as adding nuance to the language. In the UK, i write computer programs, but pretend to enjoy opera programmes.

Most people outside the states and Great Britain use metric for everything.

But do you happen to know the answer to the question you were replying to? The one you answered wasn't the one that was asked.

Right, my bad.

Although when building and working with practical sizes feet and inches are more natural

Only when you're familiar with it. If someone says "150 cm" I know exactly and immediately how much that is. If someone says "5 feet" (which is equivalent) I have to convert it to metric manually.

This image [0] of the setup used for "The Mother of All Demos" [1], [2 - video] reminds me that the way we currently use computers and desks may not be the only way.

The keyboard and mouse controls are on a panel that is connected to the chair so they stay in the correct position relative to your body even if you turn one way or the other.

Just thinking about this video sometimes gives me shivers.

[0] https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Willi...

[1] http://sloan.stanford.edu/mousesite/1968Demo.html

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJDv-zdhzMY

I find ergonomics is the most important factor for me. My desk is a bit cluttered but it doesn't affect my productivity (I think?).

A comfortable chair, keyboard, mouse and monitor setup is almost critical for working an extended period of time. I also work from home and realized I needed a dedicated room/area for my workspace. Before this, I was in a smaller apartment and my desk was in the living room area. I noticed my morale deteriorating after a few months in that environment.

Yes. I recently updated my home setup to include a cheap standing desk [1], an external monitor mounted on an arm, and a desk chair with a firmer seat and back (that a friend gave me for free). It's been night and day in terms of what I can get done when working from home or working on side projects.

Your desk doesn't need to be that big. I had a larger desk before and aside from not fitting very well in my room, it tended to get cluttered with random junk. Having a smaller desk forces me to keep it clean. Also using a monitor arm helps you claim back some space.

On the chair, comfort is important but like I mentioned above firmer is better if you're going to be sitting for a long time (and again, standing desks are not that expensive so you should consider one).

[1] $240 from IKEA http://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/products/S49084965/. It's cheap because it's manual (you turn a crank to adjust the height) but it works fine.

Standing desks are for people who like to get up early, and drink Soylent. This is more my style:


Although as ever, The Onion was way ahead:


The Onion also had some decent advice on standing at your desk:



Is the altwork a real thing or a satire? (I honestly can't tell).

Looks uncomfortable, like a dentist's chair (but maybe is amazing once you get in it).

I feel way better at a stand up desk than a sit at desk. I think I’m pretty tech conservative and don’t drink soylent.

Is it bad that I wish I had that first desk setup? Looks so comfy :(

I can personally recommend oristand[0], if you want to get started really cheaply. Got it as a gift from a friend, and it did its job very well in an office space where we couldn't replace the existing desks.

[0] https://oristand.co

The answer is yes.

Since a lot of people are chiming in with monitor suggestions, I'll add my own:

   32" 4k main
   27" 2560x1440 secondary 
32" has your IDE and misc dev tools, consoles, etc

Rotate the 27" monitor to portrait mode. Use it for your browsers (however you need them).


If you go the 4k route, absolutely make sure your hardware can drive it at 60hz. HDMI will typically only give you 30hz and you will go mad.

Is it really that useful to have a large secondary monitor? I have a 28" 4K and it can already show 2-3 files side by side. I just use the secondary monitor to display code.

In my experience, a desk is a reflection of your mind: cluttered desk, cluttered mind. Empty desk, empty mind. I need to strike a balance with ordered things on the periphery of my desk, and a large empty zone to bring work in to.

Desk hygiene cannot be overvalued- if that is the way your mind works best. I find I am often a product of my environment- wthats why working from home is so difficult; home is "relaxation and projects" space, not work space. Same deal with clothes. I try to dress in a buttondown and slacks to go to work, whereas a lot of my coworkers just do a T-shirt and jeans. Like the stanford prison experiments, it is all about the environment.

This is a very personal thing. In my case, it's the complete opposite. I find that when I'm productive, I focus less on my environment and more on the work itself. From a purely aesthetic viewpoint, I obviously prefer a clean desk over a dirty one, but in my experience, my desk is messiest when I'm doing my best work.

Seems highly personal. I have mostly the opposite of what you write. Each his/her own.

There are a few things where I, as a software developer, would almost always go for as big and as many and as high quality as I could get. Desk space, shelf space and chairs are all on that list.

These days I think my perfect work space would probably have a good chair with desk on three sides. I'd like the central desk area reserved for my main workstation screens and other peripheral devices. I'd have one side for all the organisers and phones and gadgets and chargers. And until someone invents an electronic version that beats good old pen and paper, I'd have the other side include a large, comfortable writing/drawing surface, a magical unlimited supply of paper and different colours of pens, all the writing/drawing aids like rules and compasses and so on, along with a good printer and a good scanner.

I have a huge desk, an oversized "executive" office chair, a foot rest, full size keyboard, and plenty of open space around me. My sitting position is highly optimized towards what I consider comfortable, both physically and mentally. My desk rolls between pristine and cluttered with lots of papers.

Compared to working on a laptop, literally on my lap, the difference in productivity is infinite as I can't get anything done in a cramped environment.

There is no question it a proper desk makes an improvement. starting with 4-5 feet wide, and about 30" deep is a good place to go.

The key thing a desk enables is ergonomics, productivity, and avoiding fatigue through allowing a variety of work configuration.

I have had a standing desk for almost 5 years, and while I don't religiously stand or sit for any period of time, I just stand when I'm feeling restless, and sit when tired. Works great.

A desk isn't a desk without what you do on it, mine also has:

- A table top of your preferred size, attached to a standing desk, with a quality desk is invaluable. Prime Cables sells standing desk legs for under $200. - I run three 24" QHD monitors, replaced 2 27" QHD monitors. Less neck movement, and way more pixels. It's not just about screensize, but number of usable pixels. - MS Sculpt ergonomic keyboard that i switch with the freestyle - MS Sculpt mouse

All attached to a MBP.

I wasn't a fan of the keyboard and mouse, but once I got used to it in a few weeks, I can't type on my laptop anymore with pain. Don't feel like you need all of the above, I've arrived at what I have one piece at a time, trying different things.

Yes, absolutely.

I recently purchased a very wide, standing desk, and boy, do I regret not doing this before. It takes up a healthy portion of the room, but it has increased my productivity immensely. Another, added bonus is the fact that my body feels a whole lot better after a standing day's work than a sitting day's work.

Definitely look into it!

For me, enough desk for my computer, a book on the left and an A4 notebook on the right is important (another commenter posted about not having enough room for the paper -- really rang home for me). I either work at a long table on the laptop (but don't use most of the space) or at a desk with an external monitor. Either way I don't have a lot on the desk. Good if chair is the right hight.

More important to me is QUIET and lack of distractions. Either silence or white noise. No random things moving around (as I would have in an open plan office even with headphones).

Otherwise it doesn't matter much. I've written a lot of code on planes (in cabin white noise is great) as long as I can switch off the seatback monitor.

In general I don't like to have a lot of specialized tools (multiple monitors, fancy keyboards, unusual pens etc) -- the cognitive burden is too much.

not having enough room for the paper

I wonder if having a small desk has a kanban-like effect. No, you don't have room for the computer, and a phone, and your notebook, and that book, and those printouts. Pick one and get on with some work.

Interesting thought. Your idea suggests a theoretical basis I might be unwittingly embracing.

I don't use a multiple monitor setup, though I do like having more pixels than I get on my laptop so do have a single external monitor at the desk. I mostly code in a text editor with command line debugger.

I haven't used printouts in a very long time, in part because they are clumsy and overwhelming(!!). The notebook is only to keep temporary state. But anything smaller than A4/8.5x11 paper is too small in the occasional case where I want to draw a picture / graph.

I have never thought of myself as trendy. Hmm. :-)

My work space is very clean, tidy, and I feel productive for hours. Skipping breaks because I'm in my mode, but I also try to get work done at home and it doesn't feel the same level, and it's much harder to get into the zone, it's like your original small cluttered desk/chair.

I have a fixed chair (no adjustments) with fixed legs (no wheels). I found over the years of home office that an adjustable/movable chair is a big distractor.

I quit using a second monitor too. That was a big productivity gain. I am a project manager, so I have no need for two screens.

I have 3 27" plus my laptop screens at my desk. It's definitely one too many as it creates clutter on my screens.

When I really need to get something hacked out I will unplug my laptop and just work on that.

wut. I find the more monitors the better. Do you do software development? How do you reference code/documents why writing software? I'm very confused.

I forgot to comment that I'm a PM. Alt+tab on a single monitor does the work for me.

In general yes, though at my home office when my desk is clean my cat walks across it and takes liberty in lying on my keyboard or jumping in my lap whenever he wants. My clutter defends against him :-)

A chair should be comfortable enough to not be distracting, but not so comfortable that you'd like to sleep in it.

A desk should be large enough to support your work style. For me, that means space for a few large monitors, keyboards, and mice (I have a desktop and laptop, and sometimes bring the latter in for maintenance.) I also like space for notebooks of written notes, and area for someone else to work at if they're "visiting" while we collaborate.

Without a large enough desk, I tend to start taking over other furniture for paper storage.

I think about it this way: a bad desk setup certainly won't help you. Since, relative to all other expenses, a good desk setup is not too expensive, why not choose a good one?

I personally don't value it that much; a good chair is important if I sit (but I try to stand mostly or sit on a couch outside) and I have no use for large monitors, mice or keyboards other than built into my laptop. I am more productive with clutter (I have tested this many times) and I don't really like desks that are too large. It's very personal though; I know people who agree with me and I know who wouldn't be able to work like I do.

Large, too comfortable desks do not work for me well. Instead I prefer to use a smallish desks that impose limitations on available space. In this way, I get in the zone.

I also tend to care about my customers more when I bound to some physical restrictions. In simple words, I become more empathetic to other people's ups and downs when I feel the pain of this world. Even when such limitations are artificially imposed on my working environment.

In the short term yes, but in the long term no. After a while your cognition will become accustomed to your "good desk" and what was once a fresh new desk will become just an ordinary desk. Your production will return to what is was before the "good desk." You will have to eventually update the "good desk" to maintain that level of productivity. Its a cycle..

And herein lies the problem of man

Unless one train one's mind to see the constant renewing freshness of contact with objects of perception from moment to moment.

It was an everlasting beginning. Boehme

Look at the desk of the most high-performing researchers or developer at your business (if you have any). It doesn't matter for most people.

Usually, it's large, comfortable, and cluttered.

Absolutely. Clean and free of any discomfort is not just desired but required.

After looking at expensive office chairs I ended up making one out of the seat of a wrecked sports car ($70 and they removed it from the car for me. Leather, very comfy). I used the base from an old swivel chair. Best chair I've ever had. The only downside being that it reclines enough to nap in.

> The only downside being that it reclines enough to nap in.

Sounds like a feature, not a bug. :)

No, a good vim setup does ;)

Only if you use the `standup` plugin. ;)

Any work area change makes a difference. Depending on my mood it can be a couch, cafe, kitchen table, office desk, etc... Regardless of locale, having my things organized and laid out comfortably is always important, and if a bigger desk helps you accomplish that, you'll be more productive.

I really just need a good chair. A comfortable chair allows me to focus on whatever I am working on. Stuff on the desk in the way? Put it on the ground. A big desk is good, but when I want to get something done I'll work on that one thing very hard --- for that, I need maximum comfort.

I think it does. Personally, I found a stand up desk at home to increase productivity. I like a monitor at the appropriate height and an ergonomic keyboard. Chair is optional. I have a somewhat uncomfortable chair to help me remember to stand. This mimics my at work set up.

I would have to say yes. The more comfortable you are at your desk, the more time you are going to spend there. Also having a clean, tidy desk will lead to a clean, tidy mind.

Despite knowing that, my desk is still incredibly messy...

For me, absolutely. I need a desk where my arms don't feel forced up to get to the keyboard, so a low desk and a high chair without arm rests. I also like having a vertical monitor and a mechanical keyboard.

A big desk doesn't make much difference to me. I'm happy anywhere with my laptop and a pad of paper. A comfortable chair is important though. Cosy lightning helps too.

I have to say, I feel productive in a clean setup. It helps me not get distracted by the mess, and also makes it easy to find stuff

Unequivocally yes.

I'd also highly recommend using multiple larger (>20") displays for a notable productivity boost.

On a related note:

Any monitor arm recommendations? For a 32" and a 27" monitor which I keep in portrait mode.

I really like my Ultra Wide screen monitor.

I had an 34" ultrawide at a previous job. I liked it, but the 32" 4k has a little more screen real estate. Probably just a personal preference, one way or the other.

Definitely get a mechanical keyboard. A nice Model F or Model M will do. :)

Good desk and comfortable chair makes you more fat, that's all.

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