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Things I've quit doing at my desk (justinjackson.ca)
277 points by mijustin on Sept 16, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 96 comments

I would add "Eating" to the list.

I eat at my desk all the time, and I really need to stop. When I eat at my desk, I'm generally eating things that aren't that healthy to begin with, snacking unnecessarily, and/or eating too quickly, and doing it in some misguided notion that I'm able to work and eat at the same time. I'm not actually productive at times like that, it just lets me deal with some illogical guilt I feel when I get up to go eat at a table with other people, or out by myself in the park near the office.

When I get up and go to lunch instead of eating at my desk, I'm taking a real break, I'm socializing, or taking time to think.

I gotta stop eating at my desk.

Interesting. A couple years ago I started ALWAYS having homecooked lunch at my desk, resisting the temptation to stay and socialize in the kitchen after heating it. Since then, I've not felt the need for snacks of any kind at the desk except the piece of fruit I eat late afternoon.

I have always disliked this practice; in myself and others. Too often people think they're being more efficient, but in reality they're NOT working while eating, but using this time to do non-work that should be done elsewhere to begin with. (And I'm waiting for the downvotes by the same people who think, "Yeah, I know it says not everyone can multitask, but I'M not in that group...".)

Also, it smells. I know people don't think it does, or that it's not objectionable, but it's just another sensory input for everyone around them. People wouldn't give a second thought to asking me to turn my radio down; why should I not ask them to keep their smelly heated-over Lean Cuisine in the eating areas?

I also would like to add that hygiene may become a problem, to see cockroaches on your desk isn't a pleasant sight.

Funny enough: I've found that eating at my desk is HEALTHIER because it forces me to pack healthy food, and then eat whatever I've brought (as opposed to eating out).

I describe this further here: http://justinjackson.ca/8-habits/

You could always keep healthy snacks are your desk. Right now I'm munching on some plain, unsalted almonds that I keep right next to me, along with some fruit and other healthy things. Let's me keep going without thinking about being hungry.

It doesn't fix your punctuation, though. http://public.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/lets.html

Get over yourself.

agreed. i've forced myself to eat lunche outside every day even if there is no one to go with. I get lunch and eat it somewhere on a bench while catching up on hacker news (things i used to do at my workstation) etc. i find that just having a HN tab open in my browser is distracting enough so i totally eliminated it.

To me this is an important step to help get rid of mindless eating.

That kind of eating, where a hand goes reaching into a bag of fried shit to grab one more piece of something you never wanted to eat in the first place.

I'm not great at it yet, but I try to stop myself before every bite and ask "Am I hungry?" in my head. I stop way earlier in meals, I eat more frequently with much smaller amounts, and I honestly have happier meals because I have more time to sit and enjoy my company.

I'm trying to do a water-only desk thing. I can have coffee, but only on a coffee break, etc. Not sure if it will make as big of a difference, but we'll see.

I have this problem and will mindlessly eat anything in arm's reach while working. I used to buy mints for anyone passing by to have, but would eat them myself... and they would go fast. I put on about 10kg before I realised that it was because I was essentially eating a bag of sugar every day...

For a couple of weeks my wife bought me chocolate-coated coffee beans once a week. These lasted about 5min once I remembered about them at work, due to (a) yumminess, (b) tendency just to mindlessly eat at the desk.

After that, because chocolate-coated coffee beans are expensive, I figured I'd cut out the middleman and I bought a 5kg bag of coffee beans and just munched my way through that.

DO NOT DO THIS, even though it sounds cool.

After a couple of hours the increased caffeine made me jittery, my heart rate was up, my head hurt and my skin was dry and scratchy.

After a few weeks I quit that. It was hard. I'm a water addict now.


Often when I think I'm hungry, I'm actually thirsty. A glass of warmed water (surprisingly) quashes the need to snack. Cold water is no good. Does anyone know why that is?

Not sure why is that, but I think it temporarily fills your stomach and makes it 'relax'. In my experience the same meal if hot makes me feel much more full.

I've heard that fast food joints intentionally try to serve the coldest possible drinks to make patrons feel they are hungry for another burger.

The fraction of visits that involve seconds is vanishingly small.

Actually, I have opposite preferences, so I can't really help, but I don't enjoy drinking water that isn't cold. I wind up having four or five water bottles that I cycle through refrigerating/drinking/refilling. It's kind of annoying.

I remember reading somewhere once that warm drinks are more easily absorbed by the body than cold drinks. Maybe it's something to do with that?

I was expecting to find this item in the list before I opened it, more so was I disappointed when it wasn't there. I only keep a very small amount of (mostly) "healthy" food, such as grapes, a pepper, a tomato, an apple or a lemon, for refreshment.

Yeah, this is high on my list too. Often I fool myself by thinking that I need to eat to concentrate. Of course it ended up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy (if I don't eat I can't concentrate).

I think a lot of times, what we do at our desk are some sort of "rituals" that we think help us to get into the zone. Most of the time they just get in our way of doing things.

Chewing is scientifically known to help thinking. Swallowing is a side effect.

> Nobody does their best thinking sitting at their desk. When you reflect on your biggest “Ah-Ha!” moments, how many of them occurred while you were staring at a screen?

My biggest ah-ha moments are seldom staring at a screen*, but quite often it's at my desk with a paper and pen.

(The big exception is when doing profiling; the highest ah-ha-per-second ratio of all activities)

Agreed - that or a white board.

A lot of times it helps to get out of the office if you hit a rut/wall.

Just getting in a new environment and re-approaching the problem with a fresh perspective makes all the difference.

I like to take long walks with my dogs and try to let my mind wander. Usually, I'll end up thinking about work or a personal issue that requires a solution to be addressed.

+1 to white-boards

I've found that my screen is just too darned distracting. ;) For me, pen and paper at a coffee shop is perfect.

I knew before I clicked that there was going to be something about a standing desk. I feel a subtle smugness coming from the standing desk crew that irks me a little.

But, as far as procrastinating I have definitely been slipping lately and need to lay off facebook, reddit, and (gulp) HN as well. Wait... what am I still doing here..!

Ha ha. I only mention it because it's really worked for me. There are other strategies that could work well: one is to sit for only 30 minutes at a time, and then get up and go for a quick walk. The challenge for developers is that they often need 2 hours of uninterrupted time to focus.

I tried a standing desk, and got horrible blood flow pains on my arms when typing.

I quit working at my desk.

It's uncomfortable (despite considerable investment), takes a lot of space, has terrible lighting, is too hot or too cold and is eerily quiet. It's quite depressing really.

I tend to sit in the garden when it's not raining - good lighting, relaxing ambient noise and great air (which is really important). Plus you can get up and walk around regularly and focus on stuff that isn't right in front of you.

The only downside is bird crap and my neighbours think I'm insane.

This is great! I think we need to keep exploring new models for how people get their best work done. This guy built a desk in a tree: http://variationsonnormal.com/2011/09/15/tree-branch-work-de...

That's fantastic - thanks for posting this.

I used to camp in my local woodland as teenager, sometimes 80+ days a year. Perhaps I should go and work there as well (seeing as there's a massive great big 3G mast in the middle of my local woods now).

#1 (thinking elsewhere, especially while taking a walk) is definitely true for me, but it does require being in a setting where you're allowed to leave the office for a few hours in the middle of the day to go for a walk in a nearby park. In academia or at your own startup, probably not a problem, but many companies aren't very accommodating of people leaving the office for hours at a time.

I find that too - much of my best thinking in the past has come to me during the walk to the office or back home again. I once took to carrying a dictation machine so I could capture these thoughts because I used to find that the process of arriving at the office, making a coffee, booting up and logging on used to distract me and I'd forget what I'd thought of while walking.

My theory about thinking and walking is that it gets the blood flowing round the brain more than just sitting at a desk does. I think that was the thinking behind having table tennis tables in offices as well, to get the blood moving around. There's also something about the action of walking that seems to let the mind wander off as well though...

I suspect it's a mental context switch more than anything physiological.

For example, I'm pretty bad at creative tasks when at a keyboard (this was also true in pre-internet times, so it's not a matter of distractions), but sit me down with a pencil and paper and the juices start to flow. It just creates a different state of mind.

For me, often just looking out of the window (we have a nice view on our office) helps a lot.

I combine both by walking near a blackboard.

I tried to replace pencil & paper with minimalist emacs buffer but .. paper is non linear, just like thought trails so it's a better fit for now.

There actually is something to the idea of getting blood flowing to the different parts of your brain -- there's also a study showing a correlation between the nostril you're currently breathing out of right now and which nervous system is dominant (you have two). There's a breathing meditation exercise where you try to alternate nostrils -- it's a bit trippy once all of that O2 starts hitting both sides of your head at once.

It's really unfortunate that, for many bosses, if you're sitting, staring at your screen you "must be working." To really increase productivity we need to give employees the flexibility to reach "true productivity". True productivity isn't sitting in a desk all day: it's achieving a good measure of quality work.

And some bosses, like mine unfortunately, are so uptight about it that if I stop and stare at a wall / ceiling / close my eyes for even 30 seconds trying to solve an issue, I get the ok get to work speech and 15 things added to my already too long list.

Dude, get another job. Seriously. I've been in this kind of environment before and there is nothing good about it. That kind of garbage creates stress that is going to shorten your life.

Back in the pre-smartphone days, I used to take some code printouts and a legal pad -- whatever I needed to reference while I was thinking, and space to write down my thoughts -- and go out to lunch solo at a sit-down restaurant. Going to a separate space where I didn't have either my IDE or any distractions like a web browser seemed to give me better space to think through a problem.

Lunch dragged on for a couple of hours sometimes, but I generally had a flexible enough schedule that it worked ok.

I've got the same habit with code, taking it offline with a pen in hand and stepping through it. Found it much more effective for working through logical issues in code because it strips all of the syntax checking, typing, temptation to execute out of the way and forces you to slowly evaluate the program flow.

With IDE's, Photoshop, Word, I think it's important to remember that they have activities and workload in themselves that isn't relevant to what you're trying to achieve. Separating this load out from the core task has some value.

This has made me wonder: a tablet app that took a codebase and let you sketch notes and reference anchors to other files in a transparent canvas layered over the code (a stylus would be required, though).

Something like mindmapping over a code printout that could be exported back to your IDE or text editor via a plugin, maybe.

hmm I am most creatively intelligent in a state between sleeping and waking. Everything just flows. But sadly, it only lasts not more than a minute. Then I am awake and wistful about the sudden drop in what feels like 10-15 IQ points.

Ad procrastinating: I remember someone (Paul Graham?) reporting that he configured a separate machine for procrastination-inducing activities so as to avoid the "just quickly check my feed while this is compiling" syndrome.

It was Paul Graham. He later noted that it didn't really work.

Interesting. While it's not a panacea, I do think it's an important part of creating separate work and non-work environments.

Making a separate user account just for work really helps me stay focused. Same computer, but still a different environment.

Thanks. I have found the article: http://www.paulgraham.com/distraction.html

Where did he say it didnt work? It seems like a great idea.

The "Note" on top. PG says: "The strategy described at the end of this essay didn't work. It would work for a while, and then I'd gradually find myself using the Internet on my work computer. I'm trying other strategies now, but I think this time I'll wait till I'm sure they work before writing about them."

I developed this method independently, and I've gotten it to work (more or less).

The trick is that you need to make it more difficult to access your "time wasting" sites on your work station.

I do this by adding entries into my hosts file and redirecting certain sites to, this way I need to use another machine when I want to browse these sites.

This helps maintain the separation, and keeps you from mindlessly entering in your favorite urls in a browser while at your desk.

For me it's looking for the reason behind the procrastination that works. If I'm procrastinating because I'm tired; my best bet is to get some rest. If I'm procrastinating because I'm trying to solve a problem; I need to think get away from the computer and go for a walk.

Matt Might suggested something similar for distractions and gaming :


Yes, I hate distracting chat popups when I am gaming, especially ones from coworkers.

We should declare our desks sacred, and define a set of rituals to perform at those desks, to calm the Gods of Creativity and ask their forgiveness for all those sins we committed in their temple - the Desks.

The "writing hut" part reminded me how Wallace Stegner's house / writing hut will be torn down in order to build a multi-million dollar monstrosity of a mansion [1]. :(


edit: apparently the writing hut will be preserved, though inaccessible to the public


And switch laptop for desktop computer. Reason is - you shouldn't do work at social station, at rest station and at sleep station. You should only work at work station.

I think it's handy to have both, actually. Use the laptop for email and the like, and reserve the desktop for real work.

I like the ideas put forth in the article, thanks for the write-up. For me, it's really sometimes just finding what works best for the situation I'm in. I've found that sometimes the solitude of a library study desk can be the best place to get work done. At other times, sitting in a busy area (a cafe, a park, even public transit) can be invigorating and creates enough background as to allow me to focus more. The recliner in my living room has seen more than its fair share of use while sitting at my laptop typing away.

There are times when my mind races and I can't focus. I turn the lights off, close the shades and the only light and thereby focus becomes the monitor.

I look at this article and others that offer advice on finding that working place for yourself, or that motivation to ignore distractions and I see them more as tools than as rules. A man with a well supplied toolbox is more likely to find the one he needs when the time comes.

Sitting: for the past 18 months I’ve been using a standing desk. I’ve realized that the best part isn’t that I’m standing all day; it’s that I’m not sitting.

I actually got a GeekDesk a while ago, and I think it's a better solution: I wouldn't want to sit or stand all the time.

Yup, I'm the same way. I use a barstool for sitting and leaning. I probably stand 50%-75% of my day. I also try to get away from my desk more often.

I would also add "drinking" to this list. It's never good to drink anything at your desk.

I disagree - I keep a 24 pack of bottle water by my desk, which helps me stay hydrated. I also have a few cups of tea per day, which I find pleasant and not distracting.

(Unless you mean alcohol, in which case I don't disagree, but it doesn't sound like you do.)

What are the issues with drinking things at your desk?


I disagree about the socializing part, in part because so much of our socializing is driven through the same mechanism we might otherwise do work at. Perhaps Justin might have two desks, one that is the communication/socializing desk and one that is the execution/work desk.

Of course a number of people would love to do that where the TV ends up the display for your socializing function.

I think it is good to clearly separate working and socializing activities. Working in an open work space where anyone can socialize with you at any time can be very distracting for work that requires you to focus. In my opinion having a private office and separate watercooler/coffee/socializing space would be ideal.

That said, having that separate desk to indicate that you're working on something that is not so susceptible to distraction might be enough.

I wrote an article very similar to this a few months ago. I make a similar argument: we need defined workspaces, and when we're there we shouldn't do anything but work.


Loved your post! I especially identify with "not actually working from your home while you’re working from home." I too found that working from a coffee shop on my remote working days was way better than being in the basement at my house. The coffee shop was nice, because it still allowed me to work outside of the office (without the distractions of the office).

I've been experimenting with getting away from my desk at home more often and taking breaks to play games and such. I use RescueTime to track what I end up doing and how much I end up working and if anything my productivity has only increased.

It's not a perfect measurement but it helps me to realize its not at all expensive to unchain myself from my desk.

Exactly. I think we need to experiment and see where we're actually productive.

Too many times we "lie" to ourselves, and think that if we're at our desk, we're working (and being productive).

> Even better, I’ve felt more freedom to just walk away when I’m faced with a problem and need to do some thinking

I don't have a standing desk, but this is possibly my biggest incentive to consider getting one: if you're already standing, there's a lot less inertia to keep you from just walking away from your desk.

Best thing I ever did was move away from the desk unless working. Get a tablet for web browsing and keep your desk for work. I'd guess it's added 10 years minimum to my expected lifespan.

I couldn't agree more regarding using a standing desk. The ability to stretch and move around makes working for long periods of time much more productive.

That desk seriously needs a nice 27" monitor before it can be a proper "workstation".

I had a large external monitor, but I haven't set it up in my new office yet. I'm actually enjoying the limitation of the smaller screen: ensures I'm only working on 1 thing at a time.

Has anyone else switched to a standing desk setup? Do you like it?

Yep. I first switched to a standing desk at work, and later got one for home as well (built from IKEA parts). I've found that I'm a lot more productive with a standing desk, mostly because I procrastinate less.

Adjusting to working while standing is difficult. Adjustable desks that can go up and down, especially at the push of a button, only make it harder to actually get used to it. You'll get tired quickly from standing, switch to sitting, and then forget to stand back up (because sitting is a habit, whereas standing is not yet).

I've built a standing desk that does not adjust. When I get tired of standing I'll grab my laptop and go to the couch for a bit, and then get back to standing. This might not work for every setup, but it's great for me.

My solution for when I get tired of standing is to sit on a bar stool. I have an Ikea Sebastian bar stool which is the perfect height to sit at my standing desk. It is uncomfortable enough that I switch back to standing after a while.

You'll get tired quickly from standing

Agree. Not to be overlooked. Standing ~8 hrs non-stop requires athletic fitness and good posture. One would be surprised. Your shoes, etc. need to be supportive. Any lack of support or posture will make itself known. =D

For those who type have you had issues with your posture standing? I've never used a standing desk but would be concerned that putting weight forward and looking down would be tiresome or fatiguing?

For long periods, it's usually chest out shoulders back and head level (like the army). As off balance element in the spinal column requires a lot of energy to keep upright, otherwise.

Standing desks are amazing. It def made me more productive, felt better during the day because of not sitting and the fact that you can walk off whenever you like is a great thing.

I built one (from Ikea parts, inspired by a posting on ikeahackers) very recently.

I use it far too short a time (2 weeks now) to say whether it really helps, but it's definitely a change that makes me happy _so far_.

I feel more awake (no 'slumping'). I move a lot, walk in circles and just move away from the machine, when I feel I need to think about something.

Will I keep using it from now on? Only time will tell.. It _is_ definitely less comfortable than reclining in a good chair.. :)

Is typing comfortable with a standing desk? Every time I've used a computer at standing height, it's been a little uncomfortable, but they certainly weren't tailored to my height.

You really need one customized for you. It's probably worse to have a misconfigured standing desk than it is to have a correctly configured sitting desk.

I use this one that I built for $22: http://iamnotaprogrammer.com/Ikea-Standing-desk-for-22-dolla...

Love it. Use it every day at work, and days when I have to sit all day (Traveling, in meetings, whatever)... I feel AWFUL at the end of the day.

Typing at a standing desk is comfortable if you get the height correct for your body. And for me it is important to have a riser at the front of the keyboard, like this [1]. My arms are angled close to 90 degrees, but pointed slightly downward, a keyboard flat on the desk would put far too much stress on my wrists.

[1] http://cdn.asia.cnet.com/i/r/2008/pp/43776845/sc003.jpg

I tried at home for a few month and couldn't adapt to it. It hurts my legs too much after a few hours. I'm really not athletic so that's part of the issue.

What annoyed me also was that I couldn't do creatives things while standing, only simple repetive tasks were ok. So I stopped.

Did you consider a standing-mat?

"Standing on a hard floor for prolonged periods without anti-fatigue matting can cause pain and discomfort in the lower legs, feet and back." - some website selling them.

Two things really helped me when I was transitioning to a standing desk:

1) a standing mat 2) a bar stool (for sitting and leaning when my feet get tired)

I made the switch by having two computers: a sit down desk where I disabled most websites, and a stand up desk where I could freely browse the web. After a week or two, I was fine standing up and made the full transition.

You will definitely want to relax from time to time though.

I use one at home (so, 2-3 hours a day) and I quite like it. Get comfortable shoes, though; in my limited experience, they are crucial in how enjoyable the experience is.

imho; if he's talking about the desk in the picture, its positioned wrong, he needs to stare a wall all the time he is behind the desk.

You don't use a mouse?

Are you referring to the photo on my post? The photo is a little bit of a lie: I'd just moved into this office, and my desk is not normally that minimalist. ;)

I do use a mouse. And normally my laptop is elevated on a box, with a keyboard in front. I also have a external monitor that's normally beside it.

Yes, I was referring to the photo. Glad to hear I'm not crazy for still using a regular old keyboard and mouse.

I still prefer a mouse, but these days MacBook touchpads are good enough that I no longer bother bringing a mouse with me for serious work away from my desk.

I call BS. Nobody has a desk that looks like that.

You're right; the photo in the post is a bit of a lie. I had just moved in, and I snapped a photo while everything was nice and clean.

Here's what it looks like now: http://bit.ly/S8o7Ju

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