I’m just back from a three-week visit to my dad in El Paso. The current pattern is three weeks every three months, and that seems comfortable. His overall health is excellent right now, and so my visits are mostly for company—but that may be the most important reason, in sickness or in health.

I got the idea to try out a standing desk just before I left for El Paso, and ordered the IKEA supplies to be delivered both here and there, so boxes awaited me on my return and I’ve spend the first day back reconfiguring my office. Well, reconfiguring in a purely functional way—the new setup is organizationally a mess. But I have a computer desk to stand at, and a separate computer desk/work area to sit at—the laptop I travel with is the computer there, and I finally have file synchronization working to the point where I can easily move between the two computers, even in the middle of a task. And I have a reading chair as well, an ancient but still serviceable Danish recliner.

Somewhere I read of a large corporation (Microsoft?) which, whenever it built a large multi-building campus, put off installing sidewalks connecting the buildings for a year or more. At that point, they would look to see where folks had worn paths in the grass, then pave those over. Smart! I look at this current arrangement in the same way. Now that all these ways of doing things are available, I will spend a few months using them, then look at my actual usage patterns while I think about an arrangement suitable for the space, which will be walled in this fall.

Also waiting for me on my return were the books I ordered while away—I’m always stumbling across references to interesting reading, and if it’s unavailable or too expensive on the Kindle, I turn to AbeBooks and can usually find what I want for a few dollars.

One of the books in the stack was a brand-new copy of Esther Gokhale’s 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back. It is a bit pricey by my miserly standards, but not overpriced–the photos are an important part of the content, and so it is good to have them in a nicely produced format. So far I’ve only had time to read through it casually, but it inspired a few thoughts I think are worth writing down.

First, I like her approach to the topic, which very much reminded me of Weston Price’s book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. Wondering about some troubling consequence of modern living? Why not take a look at folks who still live a pre-modern life—while you still can!—in search of differences that might explain the consequence? Weston Price wondered why people’s teeth were suddenly rotting in their heads, suspected it had something to do with changes in diet, and traveled the world in search of people still eating in a pre-modern way.

Similarly, Gokhale wondered at the dramatic increase in reports of back pain during the 20th century, but rather than looking at moderns and trying to guess what might be the culprit, she went in search of pre-moderns and looked for difference in how they sat, stood, and walked. Price’s book is especially charming because of the photos which compare the teeth of moderns and pre-moderns—so, lots of photos of people smiling! And Gokhale’s book is full of photos of pre-moderns sitting, standing, and walking—in places where folks still live that way, and from years gone by when all of us used to do the same (she places the transition in the early 20th century, when it suddenly became fashionable to pose in a new, slumped manner). There is something mysteriously good and satisfying in looking at the photos of people doing it right.

Perhaps what I like best about Gokhale’s approach is that it is very sensible and modest. Even in this time of buzz about “sitting is the new smoking,” she points out that, hey, moderns didn’t invent sitting. In fact, there are common tasks in traditional cultures that require extended sitting—and yet folks in those cultures are able to endure extended sitting comfortably and without pain. And so she suggests that, rather than avoiding and even stigmatizing certain behaviors, we focus instead on how to better do the things we do. Sit better. Stand better. Walk better.

Another bit of wisdom built into her approach is finding ways to experience benefits by making adjustments in everyday activities. For example, she is big on the importance of lengthening the spine so as to decompress it, giving discs the opportunity to rest, realign, rehydrate, etc. She’s not the only one, of course, and there are contraptions you can buy (such as inversion tables) which will do this for you. But Gokhale’s thinking says, Why buy an ugly and expensive piece of furniture which only benefits you during the short period you set aside for using it, when you can find a way to sit which will give you the same benefit for the whole time you’re sitting? And so she suggests a technique for sitting in a chair which extends your spine, something you can do as you sit down to do your work (and re-do in just a few seconds if you notice you’ve drifted out of that posture).

I like this, because it fits with my own main reason for wanting to switch over to a standing desk–if there is an adjustment I can make to my primary daily activity which will increase the rate at which I burn calories, then making the adjustment will be way more profitable than trying to add a new activity to do the same thing. An hour of cardio exercise might also do it, but I need to find additional time for it, I won’t enjoy it for its own sake, and I will likely find excuses to drop it after a stretch. But making an acceptable adjustment to something I already do, and do a lot, is not only more likely to stick, it will provide its benefits continuously and for extended periods.

This isn’t to say that adjustments are easy. In fact, I think they are harder than adding a new activity to experience the same benefit, because with the latter approach you have the additional tool of “toughing it out”—perhaps an hour of cardio or hot yoga is less acceptable, but you can convince yourself to push through since it will be over and done with at some point. But changing the way you sit, or switching over to a standing desk, presents you with the challenges differently—this is how things are going to be from now on if I make this adjustment, so I either need to figure out how to deal with the change or admit that it won’t be happening.

This sort of thinking has also been helpful to me during my recent efforts to lose weight, which I view not as a diet, e.g. something that needs to be toughed out until done, but as an adjustment in how I eat. It’s been eight months now, and I don’t feel like I’m enduring anything, or long for the day when I reach my target weight. I am anticipating the day I reach my target weight, because at that point I will need to add somewhere around 1000 calories to my daily menu, and that will be interesting (and pleasurable!). But I also feel that, if somehow it turned out to be necessary, I could continue eating as I currently do for the rest of my life. I’ve successfully adjusted my way of eating.

4 thoughts on “Adjustments

  1. Thanks for the thoughts – I think I will check out Gohale’s book. I’ve been thinking about the standing desk, but multiple monitors are screwed to the wall at desktop height. Maybe I can figure something out.
    What tool do you find best for file syncing in order to use two computers?

  2. I’ve been thinking about the standing desk, but multiple monitors are screwed to the wall at desktop height. Maybe I can figure something out.


    If it’s a matter of reducing back pain, or just general health considerations (“sitting is the new smoking”), then I’d recommend looking into Gokhale first, since I think she’s right that sitting properly is much more important than avoiding sitting. If $20 is more than a discretionary purchase for you, start by watching some of her videos—this one on sitting is good, as is the Google presentation which Kelly originally pointed me to. But if you have the $20 to spend, I think you’ll get at least that much benefit from the book no matter what.

    And if it’s a matter of increasing your calorie burn, you’ve read why I recommend a standing desk for that.

    What tool do you find best for file syncing in order to use two computers?

    I use a combination of Google Drive for my main work and Box Sync for my personal and consulting work, but I think all syncing services are about the same now. I would use Google Drive for everything, but at the moment GD only allows use of one Google account at at time on a computer. Since the Google account for my main work is employer-provided I wanted to use something separate for my other stuff. Dropbox would work, but they only provide 2GB free storage.

    Checking around, I discovered that at some point in the distant past Box was offering 50GB for free and I had taken them up on it. So Box it was!

    Until a month ago I had just been copying folders to and from the laptop, solely out of laziness, and it occasionally caused me grief when I forgot where the latest versions were, It took some thinking and reorganizing to make sure that everything I needed would be properly mirrored on both computers and in the cloud. My main motivations were to avoid the occasional problem just mentioned, as well as to have all files automatically backed up in two different places. Being able to easily switch back and forth between the two computers here at home is just a happy but unintended consequence of the setup.

  3. Gokhale´s book helped me get rid of sciatica about six or seven years ago, and I’ve often recommended her book to other people. I had tried weeks of physical therapy (which didn’t help at all) and out of desperation I checked the library for books on back pain. I came across Gokhale’s book, used her suggestions (yes, I agree with you: the pictures are important and just plain interesting to look at), and within a few weeks I got rid of the sciatica, which wasn’t actually in my back but rather in my backside and down one leg. Her ideas were the turning point and the cure-all because I’ve never had an issue with sciatica since then.

    Another very practical and interesting book is Katy Bowman’s book Move Your DNA. She has a blog with a lot of the same content you’d find in the book, but I find it difficult to search for information there. The book is worth owning as a reference. She addresses alignment in all parts of the body and outlines very easy-to-implement strategies for lengthening and loosening muscle groups.

    I hope you enjoy your standing desk!

  4. Sarah,

    Thanks for the endorsement of Gokhale’s method, and the recommendation of Katy Bowman’s book–I’ll check it out.

    I am indeed liking my standing desk so far. I feel like an entire day spent mostly standing is within reach, as I build up stamina and figure out what mixture of activities makes it endurable. The remaining challenge is to get into the zone reliably and stay there. It happens occasionally–I’ve written some long blog posts while standing, and the fact that I’m standing recedes in my mind–but I still haven’t managed to spend multi-hour stretches coding or writing. As I think I mentioned, it’s fortunate that right now I have lots of smaller tasks in the queue that don’t need deep concentration, so I can still do the work I need to do as I work on adjusting to this new way of doing things.

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