Code Like a Chef: Stand Up

This is part three of Code Like a Chef: What Programmers Can Learn from the Best Kitchens in the World. If you want to hear more, come see my lightning talk at Windy City Rails on September 7.

The first step in my quest to code like a chef was to move to a standup desk.

Standing desks are all the rage in tech circles these days. While the health benefits are well documented, that’s not why I use one. I have ADHD, and standing improves my productivity and focus.

I used to be envious of a chef’s clear separation between work and play. In the kitchen, there is no room for procrastination, no temptation to check email, and no time to read “just one more page of reddit.” And at the end of the day, when a chef is nursing his aching muscles on the couch with a cold beer, there’s no urge to do a little more work before he goes to bed.

Office workers don’t have the same delineation. We spend much of our work time and leisure time in the same place and posture, and it can be difficult to switch gears. I’ve suffered too much stress in my life because I lacked a good way to tell my brain, “It’s time to get back to work” or “You can relax now.” A standing desk gives me a clear signal as to what mode I’m in. When I need a break, I take my computer or iPad to the couch. When I’m standing, it’s time to get things done.

Chefs, architects, plumbers, carpenters… almost all craftsmen work on their feet – though, I credit Donald Rumsfeld for starting the standing desk movement. Using one most of his career, he got a ton of media attention when, in a memo on enhanced interrogation, he wrote “I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to four hours?” He was 71 years old at the time.

Detractors of standing desks argue that standing all day is uncomfortable – which is hard to argue against when the practice shows up in discussions on what makes for acceptable torture. A lot of people find standing desks alleviate back and neck pain, but it comes at the cost of your legs and feet. There are ways to mitigate the pain: I stand on a kitchen mat, keep a stool next to my desk, and at the gym I’ve become intentional about doing leg strengthening exercises. There are enough bathroom breaks and conversations at co-worker’s desks to provide natural rest throughout the day.

That said, standing will never be as effortless as sitting. I feel mild discomfort most of the day. I’m constantly shifting my weight from leg to leg – it’s impossible to stay stationary. This is a feature, not a bug. The pain and exertion produce a subtle feeling of urgency, focusing my thoughts on what needs to be done now. I literally think better on my feet.

Ultra-marathoner Dean Karnazes says, “Somewhere along the line we seem to have confused comfort with happiness.” My best days are rarely the ones in which I’m most comfortable. I’ve had a few occasions to work a full day in a professional kitchen, and the physical exhaustion I felt after a twelve hour shift produced a euphoric feeling of accomplishment I had not known before.

I don’t mean for this to be prescriptive. If you don’t struggle with wandering focus and procrastination like I do, or if you have no appetite for physical discomfort, this might not be for you. There’s a lot of negativity towards the trend, thanks largely to overbearing evangelism from standing desk hipsters. However, to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, for most critics, “the standing desk has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”

If you’re interested in trying, these might be good places to start:

Greg Baugues

About Greg Baugues

Greg Baugues has written 88 post(s) in this blog.

Developer Fluent in: Rails, PHP, WordPress, Cooking, Druidic

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2 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    Losing focus? Try working hourly where every minute is tracked. That will train you to stay focused on getting the work done.

  2. Mattie says:

    Thanks for the post. I’ve been peripherally interested in standup desks, but mostly for the health perspective. The focus/attention issues aren’t something I’ve considered, but now that you mention it, I’m ready to give standing a try.

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