Back pain is something that I’m grateful to have not suffered from much. Having seen dad put on traction several decades back, then later be operated on to remove part of a slipped disk, then finally lose sensation in his legs leading to great difficulty walking, I’ve tried to be nice to my back.

In recent years though, I’ve spent an increasing amount of time editing videos. This basically involves long hours spent in my office chair at my iMac. It’s a good chair, and if I was to always sit up properly in it it wouldn’t be a problem. But, as the day wears on, so I start to slump.

Whilst this doesn’t cause me any pain during the day, a couple of years back I started finding myself suddenly waking up paralysed in back pain, literally unable to move. I would try and slowly turn over to get up; inevitably this would result in my crying out in intense pain. Once I was up I was OK – I’d do some yoga to stretch my back, and the pain would disappear almost entirely.

It was after one such incident last month (which followed a long editing session) that I decided that I needed to take decisive action to stop this from happening again.

It was only 4am, but the pain was so intense I felt wide awake. I had an idea what the solution was: a standing desk. The problem was, of the few that I could find in Japan, none would support my office set up (a 27” iMac and 27” Thunderbolt display, which together weight a tonne). Not only that, but the standing desks I did find cost a pretty packet.

This was the point I’d reached on a couple of occasions in the past before giving up on the idea. But this time was different: there had to be a solution.

And there was. It was in the form of several large pieces of timber I had outside on the balcony, the remains of a huge 2m x 2m hardboard display board I’d built in 2014 for a client’s TEDxTokyo booth.

As it was still early, I realised I couldn’t yet start sawing, but that was OK. I first needed to research the optimal height for a standing desk, and measure out all the timber.

That done, I got out my handsaw and proceeded to cut everything to length. My design was really sturdy: a bench-shaped mini-table that would sit on top of my existing desk, with enough clearance for my third 27” monitor to fit underneath it.

Then, I added additional beams to the inner edges of the uprights, creating solid slots between which the removable shelf could be inserted (and easily removed). That would become my keyboard and mouse surface when standing.

With all this in place, I now had two work positions:
1) Standing, with the iMac on the left and the second display on the right. The bottom screen wouldn’t be used in this setup.
2) Sitting, with the shelf removed, and just one screen which was configured to mirror the iMac above. The iMac would have its screen luminosity turned down to the minimum so as not to distract me.

Switching between the two was easy and quick: simply add or remove the shelf, and switch the appropriate secondary displays on or off.

The final touch is a padded doormat, which provides my feet with cushioning (being in Japan of course we don’t wear shoes in our home office).

(Before coming up with this solution I had planned to just have two screens and a very high chair, which I started to make by hacking one of our living room chairs up and adding additional pieces of pine on which Ricky’s string high-chair would sit. I gave up on that when I realised it would be much too unsteady. We now have a somewhat odd stool in the living room).

It’s now been over 5 months since I started using my standing desk, and I must say, it’s making a huge difference. Apparently one of the main reasons people give up using standing desks is that they tend to suddenly switch from sitting-only to standing-only. Just as sitting at a computer all day isn’t good for you, neither is standing at a computer all day. You need to be able to switch when your body’s tired – and that’s what I’ve been doing.

I’ve not been woken by back pain, despite having a lot of video editing these past few months.

There’s a psychological benefit too: when I stand, I feel more purposeful. I’m less likely to start procrastinating by reading news sites, or going down YouTube rat-holes. I’m more inclined to focus on what needs doing.

Another advantage of this set-up is that it naturally encourages me to stand, as if I stand I have double the screen estate compared to when in the sitting position – which is particularly important for video editing.

I’m also finding that on hot summer days, it’s far more comfortable to stand and have the air move around and cool you naturally, as opposed to sitting in a chair and getting sweaty (we’ve chosen not to install an aircon in the office).

Overall I’m delighted with how much of a positive impact this has had upon my worklife, and I wouldn’t choose to go back to a sitting-only routine. I’m also happy that I was able to hack this solution together in just a few hours, using materials that I had to hand, at no cost whatsoever.

The question now is, what should I make with the remainder of the timber I have on the balcony…?!