May 3, 2022
Way back in 2018, I posted an item-by-item breakdown of my workspace, which included everything from a stand-up desk to ergonomic chairs and stools, special keyboards, monitor lighting technology, a manual treadmill, balance board, standing mats, and more.
Shortly after publishing, like clockwork, the armchair experts on social media took time out of their lives to remind me how “needlessly complex” it all seemed and “why can’t I just sit in a chair at a desk like a normal person?” Despite the trolling, I still unabashedly love my desk setup and the way it helps me feel rejuvenated at the end of a long day, but alas, today I won’t be spilling any ink (err… pixels?) to defend it.
Instead, I’ll be showing you the most low-tech, inexpensive ways to take advantage of the same principles I detailed in that article (and still use) to optimize my workspace and routine for an insanely productive day of work that doesn't leave me feeling creaky, stiff, or sore at the end of it. In fact, you’ll be able to implement 95% of the strategies in this article without buying a thing!
Given that millions more of us are working from home in 2022 than when I published my previous article, hopefully this post is good timing in terms of helping you do better work in less time, end your workdays ready for another round, and start stacking up long-term benefits in mobility, energy, and longevity.
Speaking of timing, that brings me to the first principle of workspace ergonomics: your circadian rhythm.
Why Timing is Key to Hacking Your Workspace Ergonomics
Did you know that your productivity on a certain task is highly dependent on your circadian rhythm? Your internal clock doesn’t just affect your preferred time to sleep and rise; in fact, every activity you do can theoretically be assigned to a certain time of day when your body and mind are primed to perform their best.
Take the typical ancestral hunter-gatherer day, for example. At the start of the day, our ancestors rose with the sun and got to work on their top priority: securing food for their families. This work was physically and cognitively demanding—whether it was hunting, foraging, or farming. It was often done in a fasted state and involved physical exertion and analytical problem-solving. When the hunt was done, it was time to return home and engage in social activities, creative work, and more abstract thinking.
Regardless of whether or not you buy into the “hunter-gatherer” approach, research shows that the fingerprints of this process live on in your nervous system, your endocrine system, and even your optic nerve. When you arise in the morning, your brain starts elevating your dopamine and norepinephrine levels to help you sustain motivation and perform difficult work. And if you're able to go outside and let the sun hit your eyes, this sends an even stronger signal to your endocrine system. Movement and fasting increase hippocampal neurogenesis, “brain growth” that helps you learn, form memories, and navigate the space around you. About 8 hours after you wake, your dopamine and cortisol levels start dropping, while serotonin rises. At this point, when the ancestral sun was hanging lower in the sky, you’re built for creativity, social engagement, and collaboration.
The good news is our circadian clocks are quite “hackable” and there are a number of triggers you can pull to utilize circadian cues to optimize your physical and mental state for the desired task at hand.
Optimizing Circadian Cues for Analytical vs. Creative Work
By sending the right signals to your brain—through movement, light, and other inputs—you can prime yourself to meet a given task, either analytical or creative, in the most optimized state.
First, if you want to perform best at a task that’s analytical, repetitive, or otherwise onerous, the best time to do it is when your system is maxed out on dopamine and norepinephrine—which, as you just learned, is in the morning. When these neurotransmitters peak, you’ll find it easier to push through adversity, shrug off distractions, and “eat the frog,” so to speak. Interestingly, these same neurotransmitters also rise when you move from a seated to a standing position, when your eyes take in bright overhead light (as your ancestors would at sunrise), or when your eyes are pointed slightly upward.
So, when you want to signal to your body to best perform a cognitively demanding or analytical task, you should:
- Ideally, perform it first thing in the morning.
- Stand up (using either a standing desk, or if you don't have one, a stack of textbooks, boxes, kitchen counter, or anything that you can set your monitor on safely).
- Prop your monitor or laptop so that you’re looking upward, like your stone-age ancestors scanning the horizon.
- Turn on the overhead lights or open the blinds.
On the other hand, if you need to do more creative work such as writing, design, or brainstorming, you'll almost want to give your brain the opposite signals. For example, by sitting down instead of standing, you’re telling your brain to let off the accelerator, and it responds by reducing your body’s uptake of dopamine and norepinephrine. This reliably takes you out of a “get things done” state and opens you up to more abstract, creative thinking.
Furthermore, if you want to amplify that signal, you can pair sitting with a reduction in bright overhead light—not only reducing the intensity of the light in your office but also the angle of it. You could, for example, switch off the overhead lights and turn on a desk lamp, and even adjust your monitor a little lower, below the eye line. Think of those hunter-gatherers, making an early campfire while they swap stories of the hunt and figure out how they’re going to preserve all that buffalo meat.
When diving into creative tasks for the day, you can optimize your workspace and mindset by:
- Perform in the afternoon, ideally at least 8 hours after waking, when serotonin is higher.
- Sit rather than stand, or alternate.
- Adjust your monitor so it's a little below eye line.
- Dim the lights or turn on a lamp.
By making these small tweaks to your work setup, you'll likely find yourself much more productive, able to get tasks done with greater efficiency, and maximize the quality of your work, too.
Maximizing the Benefits of Sitting and Standing
Even before standing desks were cool, I’ve been banging the drum of timing your sit-stand intervals. The obvious reason is that it’s just not healthy to sit for long periods of time, but what many people neglect to mention is that it's also just as unhealthy to stand for long periods of time, too.
Not only is long-term standing associated with arterial and muscular issues, it slowly taxes your attention and willpower. Imagine an “attention curve” that initially spikes when you stand, then begins to drift down below your baseline attention with time. To deal with this, I recommend two solutions.
First, you shouldn’t just be standing at attention while you’re at your desk. You should be moving your legs frequently—either with a short footstool, a balance board, a tennis ball, or some combination of those. It’s an excellent hedge against vascular stiffness and lower back pain.
Second, you should stand for just long enough to gather the benefits, then sit down for a period of time. The best way to do this is to establish a sit/stand split that works for you. Everyone’s standing tolerance is different, so you’ll need to experiment, but the studies indicate that you can probably start with 30 minutes standing, 30 minutes sitting, then progress to 40/20 or 50/10 as your tolerance rises. Less than 30 minutes standing per hour might actually increase fatigue and lower back pain, which is why I recommend starting at 30/30.
How to Incorporate Movement Into Your Workday
Now, this probably isn't news to you as a health and fitness enthusiast, but it bears mentioning: standing alone—even in timed sessions—isn’t enough to help you magically lose weight, put on more muscle, or increase your metabolism.
If you want these benefits, you need to engage in exercise throughout your workday No surprise there. However, it's easier said than done for many people with busy work schedules.
In the case that you find yourself unable to schedule a traditional workout, there are two movement strategies you can incorporate that take very little time out of your day and also help to maximize your cognitive function and productivity while working.
First, you can try the “movement snacks” method, which essentially consists of building in mini-workouts throughout your day, typically during short work breaks such as a 45-15 Pomodoro approach, where you work uninterrupted for 45 minutes straight, and then take a 15-minute break.
During that break, you could do air squats, burpees, push-ups, or even some kettlebell swings or pull-ups if you have access to the equipment. After a full workday, you'll be surprised at how much movement you can actually get in (six hours of work would end up being 1.5 hours of movement with 45-15 Pomodoro approach!).
Now, if taking a break every hour or so throughout the day just won't work for you (perhaps you have a lot of calls or work in an office setting), you can utilize my second favorite method: a “work while you work” approach, which involves engaging in light aerobic training (easy enough to hold a conversation near heart rate Zone 2) while you're performing your daily tasks. This could look like taking calls/meetings while walking (when possible) or investing in a simple under-the-desk treadmill or bike. While you’re busy hacking your metabolism with light exercise, you’ll also be boosting your attention and cognitive control, which can help if you're really drilling down into an analytical task.
For years, I’ve personally used a manual treadmill to get in some light aerobic exercise while I’m on calls or doing light work. But lately, I’ve been swapping it out for the Ergonomyx Under Desk bike. It’s a surprisingly well-built bike for standing desks that pairs with a companion app, in case you want to track your wattage, and it has a nice tie-in with the Ergonomyx Standing Desk as well. For what it’s worth, the studies don’t find much of a difference between bikes and treadmills—but if you want to save space, the Ergonomyx bike folds up for easy storage. I also find it much easier to type and use a keyboard while cycling than running.
(The only type of work I wouldn’t recommend for this is writing since verbal memory is negatively impacted by the effort of exercising—but I do actually find that cycling helps me write a first draft, where I’m not so concerned about specific verbiage, and I can sit down for revisions to really get my work into a presentable form.)
Putting It All Together: A Workday Template to Become a Productivity Ninja
So far, we’ve established that:
- You should aim to perform your analytical tasks in the morning, and creative tasks in the afternoon or evening.
- If your schedule doesn’t permit that, or your want to enhance circadian signals even more, you can mimic these conditions with light, body position, movement, and screen position.
- You should split each hour up into sit/stand intervals: at least 30 on and 30 off, but increasing your standing may help you focus, up to a point.
- Exercise can provide a huge boost to attention and cognition, but use it wisely as it can also tax your verbal recall for writing activities.
When you’re planning out your workday, start by marking your tasks off as:
- Creative or collaborative (not writing)
If you can batch all your analytical tasks into the morning, absolutely do it. If your schedule doesn’t allow for it, you can still follow the protocol for each type of task to hack your biological clock for peak performance.
- Turn on the overhead lights, and use a brighter, bluer hue if you have the option.
- Raise your monitor up, just above your eye line.
- Try a 50/10 or 40/20 stand/sit split, which maximizes your attention.
Creative or Collaborative Tasks (Not Writing):
- Turn off the ceiling lights and put on a lower-intensity lamp or light board.
- Lower your monitor to just below eye level.
- Engage in low-intensity exercise—either stepping, walking, or cycling at a level where you can still hold a conversation.
- If you’ve done enough low-intensity exercise for the day, use a 30/30 stand/sit split.
- Turn off the ceiling lights and put on a lower-intensity lamp or light board.
- Lower your monitor to just below eye level.
- Use a 30/30 stand/sit split, which promotes lower dopamine and higher serotonin levels.
At all times, I recommend that you take attention breaks at least every hour, where you truly disconnect for at least five minutes (AKA don’t swap your computer screen for a phone); actually stand up from your desk, try to look at a horizon and widen your visual field, and let your mind wander.
If you implement this protocol, I promise that you’ll find a depth of focus and perseverance that you didn’t know you had—to say nothing of the metabolic benefits that you’re accruing in the background.
Tips and Tools For Solidifying These Workday Habits
Before you think you need to go out and buy a ton of fancy gear for your home office, know that you can start taking advantage of these strategies simply by stacking your computer on top of some books or boxes, using a timer on your phone for sit and stand reminders, having adjustable lighting, using an online calendar to schedule out your work, and taking any opportunity to move throughout the day.
However, any added friction certainly makes it harder for good habits to stick. To that end, there are a few simple ways to make this a little easier.
First, use a Pomodoro app timer as part of your sit/stand splits and movement breaks. Even without sitting or standing, it’s crucial to take breaks so your brain can reset itself.
Second, you can mount your monitors on adjustable arms—and if you’re working on a laptop screen, I highly recommend monitors so your neck doesn’t become permanently c-shaped. I prefer non-flicker monitors, but if you’re on a budget you can install something like Iris to get the same effect through software.
To make the adjustment to standing a little easier, an anti-fatigue mat is an inexpensive go-to. I’ve used a Kybun mat for years, and I’d also recommend keeping a footstool under your desk so you can continually change posture as you stand.
Of course, having an electronic standing desk is also going to make the whole sit/stand process much, much easier. However, you might be surprised to know that just having any old standing desk may not actually be that effective. In trials of low-cost standing desks, researchers found that while their subjects initially reduced their sitting time, after six months they slowly regressed back to sitting. Interestingly, though, another study found that if you add in software that reminds people to move, the frequency of these “standing desks that are never used” improved by 76%!
When the engineers at Ergonomyx read this research, they realized that the issue wasn’t in the availability of standing desks, it was in human psychology. Simply put, standing takes effort, and if something takes effort, it’s going to be hard for it to stick as a habit—especially if you’re trying to encourage people to do it when they’re already engaged in mentally demanding work.
So, that's why the good folks at Eronomyx made a standing desk that:
- Integrates with a phone app that can remind you to move, and even automatically adjust the desk on a timer.
- Doesn’t even need buttons to move, just a capacitive touch panel. Just double-tap it, and it’ll swap between sitting or standing height for you.
- Pairs with their under desk bike, through their app, so you can gamify the whole habit formation process.
I've personally been using their desk and bike for several months now, and I'm really digging them. The bamboo tops are a nice aesthetic upgrade, and I like that the app lets me see the wattage I’m putting out while riding the bike.
You can check out the Ergonomyx desk here, or the bike here, and save an extra 10% with the code “BGFworkhealth” at checkout. Additionally, if you lead a company that’s looking to biohack its way to the next level, you can save an extra 10% (for 20% total) for orders of 3 or more — just use the code “BGCorpHealth” at checkout. They’ll also throw in half-priced shipping for corporate orders.
When starting to think about optimizing their workspace, most people approach it like engineers—simply focusing on getting the right pieces in the right position.
There’s nothing wrong with that, per se (in fact, I think everyone should make sure they’re not shackling their bodies to an unhealthy workspace), but the reality is that you can get exponentially better results simply by focusing on optimizing your mindset and adjusting your schedule to build in healthy habits throughout your day. In fact, you don't even need any expensive gear to do so, although I will admit it can definitely help.
If you’re like me, you probably spend most of your waking hours working (depressing thought, I know), so it's probably worth revisiting the space where you spend half your life, making sure that you’re happy, healthy, and as productive as possible.
To recap the most important points about hacking your workplace ergonomics:
- Your productivity on a specific task is highly dependent on your circadian rhythm, which can be “hacked” with circadian cues like light, eye position, and movement.
- Analytical, creative, and writing tasks all require a slightly different approach and setup for best results.
- Standing is not always better than sitting; it's best to follow a 30/30 split.
- Incorporate movement throughout your day, whether that's with Pomodoro movement breaks or a “work while you work” approach by taking walking calls, or using a treadmill or bike under your desk.
- A specific workday template that you follow on a regular basis can help you accomplish analytical, creative, and writing tasks.
- Utilize tools and strategies such as a standing desk or a Pomodoro app timer to help out with solidifying your workplace habits.
In the case that you are looking to upgrade your workspace gear, I'd highly recommend checking out the Ergonomyx desk or bike. You can save an extra 10% with the code “BGFworkhealth” at checkout, or 20% and half-priced shipping for corporate orders of 3 units or more with the code “BGFCorpHealth”.
I hope you found a few strategies here that you can put to work right away. What about you? Do you already work on perfecting your sitting and standing habits at work? Is there any particular standing desk or office gear that you just swear by? You can leave your thoughts, comments, and feedback about workspace setups below.