Things I’ve quit doing at my desk

Things I’ve quit doing at my desk

We need to think of our desks as workstations.

In reality, we do all sorts of things at our desks that aren’t real work (or affect our ability to produce our best work).

Here are things I’m trying to quit doing at my desk:

  1. Thinking: 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? If you’re like me, your best thinking happens when you’re not at your desk: taking a walk, going and asking another person for help, drinking a coffee, in the shower. Your desk is for executing; do your thinking elsewhere.
  2. Socializing: When I sit down at my desk, I want to be in work mode. I want to prioritize my most important tasks, and then complete them with the fastest velocity possible. Socializing while I’m at my desk sullies the purity of the workstation. This is why the water cooler is actually a brilliant social construct: when you want to hang out, you can get up from your workstation and go to the socialstation. I think every office should have a socialstation, a place (or time in the morning) where team members can hang out, and talk informally.
  3. Procrastinating: Check Facebook, check Twitter, go on YouTube, check email, mindlessly read blog posts. I think that breaks, and downtime, are important in a work day. But again: I think maintaing the purity of my desk as a place where I work is important. If I need some “mindless” time, I think it’s better to walk away from my desk and have a place and time limit where I do that. It’s also important that we catch ourselves when procrastinating and ask ourselves: “Why?” Are we procrastinating because we’re tired? Hungry? Bored? Are we stuck on a problem? Are we just feeling lethargic and need to get up and move around? Figure out what’s at the source of your mindless net browsing, and deal with the problem.
  4. 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. A standing desk allows you to stand, sit, lean, and put one leg up while you’re at your workstation. Even better, I’ve felt more freedom to just walk away when I’m faced with a problem and need to do some thinking (or when I’m tired and need a break).

Many writers maintain a private writing hut. The hut has one purpose: it’s the place they go to write. They don’t do anything else there. Once they can’t write any more, they go do something else. I think we need to think of our desks in the same way: these are places where we get work done.

What do you think?

Justin Jackson

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  1. Great Idea! I second, and would love to turn my desk the same way.

  2. I agree 100% with you, I use to do it for studying. My desk in my room is my “sacred area” for studying, if I want to play or do something else with the computer, then I move the laptop to some other desk/table in another room, it really helps to feel focus while working.

  3. I think that if you’re unable to do your work without rituals and space dividing tricks, maybe you ought to do something else, something that you want and like to do.

  4. I totally agree with the part about thinking. Many times I’ve struggled hours with a solution just to figure it out in minutes when walking around and getting something to drink.

  5. Did he say he was unable to do his work?  Where did you read that?

  6. Really insightful post.  I totally agree that when you are at your desk you should be “working”, and move around to other places to “waste” time.  :)  I am going to try to not read news, blogs, HN, etc… at my desk anymore, and save those for the iPad.  Try to get my self to “focus” at my desk, and “relax” only when I am on the iPad (unless I am at meeting or something).  Thanks for the ideas.

  7. I would add that, if you really take this seriously, make it difficult to do things that you know you shouldn’t be doing, and easy to do things that you know you should be doing. One trick that I’m using is to ‘uninstall’ sites like facebook via /etc/hosts on my PC. I can still check on my phone, but I find that the less convenient form factor appropriately attenuates my interaction with it, and limits it to better places and times, like the bathroom.

  8. Its not about not able to do work, its about doing work with higher productivity.

  9. I’m glad masturbating wasn’t on your list.

  10. Please, Tell us more about the standing desk. I’ve seen some examples on the internet, but I can hardly imagine how would that work for someone who has to be in front of his laptop 8 hours a day. so can you, please,  show us how you managed to make the perfect standing desk ? 
    Thank you.

  11. This is how I built mine:

    The whole key isn’t that you’re standing all day; but rather, that you have more options for how you position your body (sitting, standing, leaning, etc…).

  12. Ha ha.

  13. I should have written something about guilt in this post. I think so many of us feel guilty about walking away from our desk for 15-20 minutes. The crappy thing about Hacker News, etc… is that we’re staring at our “work” screen, so it allows us to appear that we’re working. 

    But real work is getting things done. If we want to get things done, we need to take breaks, and get away from our workstation.

  14. Absolutely! Something as simple as taking a break and getting the blood flowing can do so much for inspiration and problem-solving.

  15. I’ve found that this, in combination with recognizing when I have the most energy (ie. the morning) is the most helpful for me.

  16. You should be able to write your code in a tree. You should be able to work in a tree. In all seriousness, try your job in a tree. In an actual tree, old magnolias are usually very large and have natural desks.

  17. I like the idea of doing less “thinking” at my desk. Thanks for the motivation.

  18. ‘I’ve felt more freedom to just walk away when I’m faced with a problem’….

  19. I struggle to keep my desk and office tidy! I’d love a minimalist set up like above in the picture!

  20. Thanks for this Justin, nice post.

    It’s important to keep a work environment, and understand that moving away from that for other reasons is not only more productive, but actually healthy. 

    I’ve never thought about moving away when designing/brain storming as have always felt that it’s a part of the work, another task that happens on the desk. That said I will definitely try it next time, before ‘executing’!

  21. I think this is opinionated garbage. What right do you have to say you shouldn’t think at your desk. A person is free to think wherever they be.

    This blog has the signature of “wanker” writ large all over.

  22. Is a standing desk really worth the investment? What do you do when you just need to sit down?

  23. Just a heads up, the title is “Things I’ve Quit Doing at my Desk”
    So I am sure Justin is not telling you that you have to do what he does, just simply what has worked for him.

    By the way, thanks Justin for the insight, I am evaluating my work space.

  24. Hi Justin, your post is timely for me. I restarted my internet marketing company two months ago and since then I spend my entire day in front of the computer (except for meetings, of course). Your article struck a chord with me, especially your comment that “your desk is for EXECUTING”.  Our desk should be a workstation, rather than a place to “be”, which is how I treat it. 

    Last week (due to eye strain), I decided to think about and write proposals on paper while sitting outside, just to get away from the computer. It was nice. 

    I also get “stuck” in front of the computer (at my desk) when I lack focus…as if continuing to stay in front of the computer will help. Ha! I’ve found that socializing & procrastinating on the computer is the worst thing to do, even though it “feels” better than, say, going for a walk, which ALWAYS helps clear my mind and focus.

    Thanks for the post!

  25. Interesting point. But what is “discipline” if not enforcing arbitrary rules on yourself? If I had my way, I’d waste time all day, because (let’s face it) most jobs are 10% interesting and 90% boring. 

  26. It is so true that real thinking occurs any place but sitting at one’s desk. Humans think with the body and mind together.

  27. There’s this threshold we need to get over: sitting at our desk is “easy”. Getting up, and going for a walk is “hard”. But once we get over that wall, we experience the benefits.

    I call that mindless looking at the computer “screen sucking”. You’re just sitting there, tired, hoping that you get a sudden burst of energy or inspiration (but it never comes).

  28. Brandon. For me, yes. I have a standing mat and a barstool. The barstool is the key. I only stand for about 50%-75% of my day. The rest is sitting/leaning against the barstool.

    Here’s my post on building a standing desk:

  29. Ha ha ha. This comment is hilarious.

  30. Thanks Oliver!

    This is actually a great question: why does all of our work “have” to occur at the desk? Is this better for the worker? Or is it better for the manager who wants a perceived sense of control?

  31. Guilt of screen sucking! Like every friday and the last two hours of every day. :(

  32. Ha ha. That photo is a bit of a lie. I had just moved into a new office and snapped the photo.

    Here’s what my desk looks like today…

  33. Thanks for the comment Josh!

    I’ve had varying degrees of success with limiting my access to sites. What’s been more helpful for me is to look at the underlying reason for not wanting to work: am I tired? Is this problem too challenging? Am I bored? Usually the remedy (for me) is to leave the problem for the next morning (when I have my most energy).

  34. I can see a potential problem with the first one. Well two, actually. First: if the thinking is thinking about work, then deliberately thinking away from your desk risks letting work spill over into other parts of life too much, so you end up not having a rest from it. Second: I think my best ideas for things come when I’m not explicitly thinking about them. So actually, thinking somewhere else might sometimes be the wrong approach when what’s really needed is for my brain to make a connection of its own accord.

  35. :-) makes me feel a bit better!

  36. I like this response! Now that I think about it, I definitely do this with food: I try not to even buy junk food (and especially not bring it to the office). By removing the temptation, it’s easier to resist (because the temptation’s not there).

  37. This is a good point Tim!

    I’d say two things:

    1) I’d like to see more corporate environments where employees are empowered to do their best thinking (wherever that thinking might occur). Based on the response to this post, it sounds like a lot of people do their best thinking away from their desks.

    2) I agree; my best ideas come when I’m not explicitly thinking about them as well. However, I’ve found I can “trick” my brain into this state by going to the gym, riding my bike, doing some artwork in a park.

  38. Help! I’m screen sucking by reading this blog!

  39. Thank you for highlighting our desk as a workstation. Like the kitchen table and treadmill, our desks must be used on purpose. When you violate the intention, you lose your focus. When you lose your focus, you become disconnected, fat, and unproductive.

    Stay tuned into The Light.

    Voncelle Volté

  40. Yes, yes! I’m actually building a treadmill desk, which adds walking as another option to standing and leaning. Also? I’d add EATING to your list. No more mindless food intake or crumbs in the keyboard distracting me from my task at hand.

  41. What…? Seriously? It’s tough for any work to be sustainable.

  42. I LOVE to write and I make a living doing it, but that doesn’t mean my productivity and enjoyment won’t be better because I purposefully make myself focus more.

  43. The greatest thing, that worked for me (although I haven’t try standing desks yet) was to quit planning at my desk. I create a to-do list for tomorrow every evening before going to bed, that way I always know, what to do next from the moment I wake up. That single thing had the biggest productivity impact for me.

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