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Married to your desk? 5 tips for a better relationship

Optimize your work area for better productivity -- no 'standing desk' required

February 2, 2012 06:00 AM ET
messy desk

Computerworld - Here's a sobering statistic: With a 40- to 45-hour work week, many Americans spend about 25% 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.

1. 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% 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.

A little help, please?

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 Workrave for Windows or Linux, Time Out Free for Mac or Gimme a Break! for the Chrome browser (on any platform). 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!

"But wait," 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% 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.



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