Standing as you write has much to recommend it
If William Heath Robinson saw my desk, I reckon he would fold his arms, purse his lips and nod. “Not bad,” he would say. “Not bad at all.” It is resting on four old matching chairs that were gathering dust in the loft, and these bring it up to the correct height for me to work while standing.
I also had to slip a book under the keyboard to bring that up to the optimum height, too, but I think I’m there now, and already I find I am stretching more, putting my hands on my hips as I brood, shifting my weight from one leg to the other. It’s a revelation.
Dr John Buckley of the University of Chester, I should explain, has been recommending that office workers stand at their desks in order to improve circulation and reduce obesity. It could help you lose 8lb of fat each year.
Apparently, you burn more calories chewing gum than you do sitting in a chair. And when you sit for too long, your metabolic rate crashes. “It isn’t natural,” our man says. “Humans are designed to stand up and keep moving.” Even so, can you imagine the reaction this standing will get in an open-plan office? “Stand-bys”, as they will become known, will be bobbing up and down like meerkats. Colleagues will snigger behind their backs. They will feel self-conscious.
I was all set to dismiss the idea, then, until I realised that, because I work from home most days, there is nothing to stop me from trying it there — although I have a feeling my wife is going to take a dim view of the furniture arrangements when she gets back from London later today. I think her opening sentence might well begin with the words “what” and “the”.
Even without this new interior design, my study was starting to resemble Steptoe and Son’s sitting room: with a telescope, a model Spitfire, piles of books and a drum kit that my eldest son has decided he no longer wants in his bedroom. This desk-on-chairs arrangement might be the final straw.
I’ll tell my wife it’s only temporary until I can get a purpose-built one, or until the novelty wears off and I go back to sitting in a chair, because actually my back is already starting to twinge, and although I am not a qualified doctor, I’m pretty sure standing too much gives you varicose veins. I’ll give it a week. Report back.
Meanwhile, I have another, more pretentious incentive for giving it a go. Standing is thought to improve your creativity and focus as a writer. Your muscles are engaged and you’re less comfortable, so you stay alert. Also, when writing becomes a more physical activity, it makes your prose more vigorous. That at least was Hemingway’s theory. When he wrote, he stood in a pair of oversized loafers on the worn skin of a lesser kudu — his typewriter at chest-height, resting on a cabinet.
The more I’ve delved into this stand-as-you-write idea, the more I have come to appreciate its literary pedigree. The Victorians were mad for it, with Dickens, among others, working at a “standing desk”. Vladimir Nabokov was another. And more recently, Philip Roth penned his best work while vertical at a lectern. He was — I say “was” because he recently hung up his pen, or put the lid back on it, or did whatever it is you do when you stop writing — also a keen pacer, claiming to walk half a mile for every page he wrote.
Which brings me to the second piece of advice in the air this week. Psychologists have suggested that over-stimulated minds are counterproductive, and that if you want to boost creativity and lateral thinking among your staff, you should encourage them to stare into space. More time daydreaming, doodling and generally being bored, that’s the gist.
This makes a lot of sense. As an experiment this Christmas, we had a digital-free day when our children were not allowed to have contact with iPhones, laptops, Xboxes or televisions. Sure enough, in desperation they were soon making things, drawing, reading, doing jigsaws, cooking and, because it was raining outside, playing indoor cricket. They fashioned stumps out of a lamp, a vase and a laundry basket.