I’ve just realized that there is something wrong with my new office chair. It’s a swanky piece of furniture called “Freedom by Humanscale” and comes with “advanced armrests” and an ingenious way of matching its “recline tension” to my weight.
The problem is that it is so comfortable there is no incentive ever to get out of it. I’ve just worked out that I spend 12 hours a day sitting down, making the average person – who passes only nine on their bottom – look quite active.
Yet until last week this sedentary working life was low on my list of things to worry about, much lower, say, than the fact that I forgot to put my dental hygienist appointment in my diary. But then I read a Harvard Business Review blog post saying that sitting is the new smoking. It makes you fat and then it kills you.
The author, Nilofer Merchant, has solved the problem by holding walking meetings – she makes her business associates pound the streets with her. Every week she covers between 32 to 48 kilometres , which leaves her full of joy and creativity. If “you want to get out of the box thinking, you need to literally get out of the box,” she says.
If one ignores the cheesiness of this, it’s rather a good scheme. Walking and talking is something that even the stupidest person can manage. Indeed, it is easier to talk when you walk, especially if what you are saying is sensitive. And the person you are talking to might even be paying attention, as it is hard to check e-mails while striding along. The snag is that it only works with two people: you can’t take a whole team for a walk along city streets unless you’ve got megaphones to be heard over the roar of traffic and are prepared to push other pedestrians off the pavement.
Even though the walking meeting is a good idea, it doesn’t solve my main problem with the sedentary life. What concerns me is not fatness and imminent death. It is that my brain and willpower are weakened by long spells in the chair. I can’t believe it’s just me: I suspect advances in office furniture are the main reason productivity stubbornly fails to improve. With everyone sitting so comfortably, there is never any great rush to get things done.
If sitting is the new smoking, the answer is not to cut down by having meetings walking or standing, but to quit sitting altogether, and conduct all work from a vertical position.
Indeed, standing desks are selling like hot cakes in the U.S. – in an attempt to counteract the effect that actual hot cakes have had on the nation’s waistline. Also popular are “elevator desks” at which you can either stand or sit, and treadmill desks for walking while you work.
But all of these are quite pricey and a similar result can be achieved for nothing. First thing this morning, I moved the piles of unread management books from the floor to my desk (happy to find a use for them at last) and balanced my keyboard and mouse on top of them.
The effect was instant: I felt perkier and started attacking the day’s tasks with urgency. By lunchtime I had shifted a lot of work and not sent one pointless e-mail, or wasted any time on Twitter. By midday I was so far ahead that instead of going out and getting a sandwich to eat at my desk for more time wasting, I had a proper lunch with a colleague and sat down for a blessed hour to eat it.
Now, back at my computer, I don’t feel any post-lunch sleepiness, as it is hard to nod off when you’re standing up. The only noticeable timewasting I’ve done all day is going to the lavatory more often than strictly necessary for the simple joy of sitting down.
The real problem with this new, vertical arrangement is other people. They don’t like it. They don’t like the fact that I’m looking down on them both morally and literally, and so can track any advance in their bald spots. I’m also getting tired of telling everyone who walks past my desk that no, I haven’t hurt my back. And the reason I’m standing with my left foot on the Harvard Business Review is because that leg is shorter than the other one.
I am, of course, desperately uncomfortable. There is a nagging pain in my right calf and in the soles of my feet, but I’m sure it will get better in time. Charles Dickens wrote about 20 books of 1,000 pages each standing up. Ernest Hemingway also wrote standing up. As did Vladimir Nabokov. And as far as I know none of them had varicose veins or carotid atherosclerosis, or any of the other things doctors warn of. Admittedly, Hemingway did shoot himself, though I don’t think that being vertical was his main problem.