Updated on January 27, 2016
I spend most of my waking hours working on my computer. I do a lot of reading, research, writing, editing, emailing, and planning. And I do most of that at a desk.
I’ve customized my desk setup for what I do. Of course, this isn’t how everyone else should set up their desks, but my setup may give you some ideas for how to customize your desk for what you do.
My Desk for Sitting
Here’s my desk setup:
I had not given much thought to organizing my desk until Matt Perman published a series of blog posts on it in 2009. Matt recently revised and expanded his series into a handy little book: How to Set Up Your Desk: A Guide to Fixing a (Surprisingly) Overlooked Productivity Problem. Here’s my endorsement:
Matt Perman has served me so well in applying a Steve Jobs-like approach to my workflow: simple, intuitive, elegant, and efficient. I’ve followed most of his advice about setting up my desk (as well as processing my email), and it works beautifully.
Here are five components to my setup:
- I use the Galant model from IKEA. There are a lot options to choose from. I recommend getting as much desk-space as you can reasonably fit in your office, and I highly recommend an L-shaped desk.
- Cheaper option: Place a smooth door on top of two short filing cabinets.
- I use a 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display. (Apple released it in 2013. It doesn’t include the new Touchbar.)
- I strongly prefer a laptop over a desktop computer because a laptop is versatile. It’s nice to have only one station that I can easily move around. I use it in my home study, my work office, the classroom, at meetings, when traveling, and all throughout my home (e.g., on a couch or in bed).
3. Multiple Monitors
- Some people are less productive with multiple monitors because they use one of their monitors to display their email and social media virtually all the time. So they rarely get “in the zone.” But with sufficient self-discipline, multiple monitors can significantly increase your productivity.
- I prefer to have three screens (including my laptop), which I most commonly use to display (1) a document that I’m reading, writing in, or editing—usually a Word doc, Google doc, or PDF; (2) Logos Bible Software or another document; and (3) web pages or applications such as Zotero, BibleWorks, Finder, iTunes, Evernote, and Todoist.
- The MacBook Pro I use allows up to three non-Apple external monitors. It works beautifully.
- I use two 27-inch Dell monitors with a 2560 x 1440 resolution—the same resolution as the much more expensive Apple Thunderbolt Display. They are outstanding.
- I almost invested in some sturdy monitor arms (this or two of these), but I decided against it because the Dell monitors come with decent adjustable stands.
- I love the option to rotate my monitors. Pretty much everything I use my computer for (except for watching videos) works better when you rotate your monitor 90 degrees so that it’s vertical rather than horizontal. (A vertical monitor is ideal for tracing the arguments of Bible passages.)
- To display the highest resolution with a MacBook (i.e., with the MacBook that released in 2013—I’m not sure how this works for the MacBooks that just released), use a Display Port cable (not an HDMI cable).
- It’s more complicated to display the highest resolution with the latest MacBook Pro for two of these Dell monitors at the same time. (You might want to skip the next sub-bullet points; I’m including them for reference. In December 2013 I had to appeal to some friends who are IT experts to figure this out.) Use two Display Port cables, and follow the instructions here:
- (a) Download this Zip file.
- (b) Double-click the Zip file to show a folder titled DisplayVendorID-10ac. That folder has two items in it (DisplayProductID-4080 and DisplayProductID-a092).
- (c) Drag and drop the whole folder into your Overrides folder, which you can get to in Finder this way: Macintosh HD > System > Library > Displays > Overrides.
- (d) Restart your computer.
- (e) If your displays are already set for “Best for display,” then they should be at full resolution when you restart. To confirm, open System Preferences > Displays > Scaled. The dimensions should be 2560 x 1440 for a standard (horizontal) view or 1440 x 2560 for a 90-degree rotation.
- Download Duet for Mac or PC. (What follows has Mac users in mind.)
- Download the Duet app for your iPad and iPhone ($9.99).
- Connect your iPad or iPhone with a cable to your MacBook. (I use a retractable lightning-to-USB cable or an 8-inch 30-pin-to-USB cable.) Then tweak the settings in Duet on your MacBook to your liking.
- For all iPhones and for newer iPads (not iPad generations 1–4), you can use a side-mount clip. I learned this after I purchased the clip. I couldn’t get the grip to work with my iPad 3, which has a curved edge that can’t fit securely in the grip. (The iPad Mini and iPad Air have straight backs.) But I can use the grip with my phone, and I can place my iPad on a tablet stand next to my MacBook and still use my iPad as a second monitor.
- I was hoping to use my iPad as a second monitor in the classroom. When I teach at Bethlehem College & Seminary, I usually connect to a projector via Apple TV and mirror my MacBook’s display to a large screen that the students can see. But when I do that with the Duet app running (so that students see what is on my MacBook but not what is on my iPad-monitor), there is significant lag time on the big screen—at least if Logos Bible Software is open on my iPad-monitor. I hope to troubleshoot that so that I can use a second screen while teaching.
- I’ve been using a Eurotech 4×4 Mid-Back Multipurpose Chair in my home study since 2009. It does the job. It’s comfortable and adjustable.
- Before getting this chair, I used a much cheaper one; I upgraded because my back was often sore.
- Some of my friends highly recommend this chair by Realspace.
I have no complaints about any of these products:
- Griffin Elevator Laptop Stand. My laptop rests securely on this. The stand raises my laptop screen to a height that matches my external monitors, and it allows my laptop’s temperature to remain cool. (Some of my friends use this stand by Rain Design.)
- Apple Keyboard with Numeric Keypad
- Apple Magic Mouse (Some prefer an Apple Magic Trackpad.)
- Bose Multimedia Speakers
- Bose Wireless Noise-cancelling Headphones. I use these when I need to get in the zone in noisy environments like airplanes or sometimes my home. (We have four little children.)
- Book stands. I use a couple of these. They’re invaluable for when you type out quotes from a print book or interact with it while typing.
- Stackable trays
- IMAK SmartGloves
- Brenthaven bag. I transport my laptop in this bag, and I love it. (And when you’re going through security at an airport, you don’t have to remove your laptop; you simply unzip the bag in half so that it unfolds and then send it right through the x-ray machine. If you have an iPad in the bag as well, make sure you put it on the other side of the bag [i.e., not in the same compartment as your laptop] or else the security folks will pull the bag aside to search it.)
- Camelbak water bottle. I have five of these, and the other members of my family each have two. I invariably have one by my side at my desk.
- Fujitsu ScanSnap S1300i Mobile Document Scanner. This scanner helps me go paperless. It’s easy to use and reliable.
My Desk for Walking
Here is my previous walking-desk setup (from May 2013 to December 2016):
I used that basic setup (in conjunction with my sitting-desk setup) for about 2.5 years, and I loved it. I wish I had designed it a long time ago. It’s a good investment.
I also added a second external monitor to the treadmill setup.
But last month my treadmill broke. So I bought a new one, and since the old treadmill desk wouldn’t work with my new treadmill, I hired someone to custom-build a desk with a plexiglass top. (More on all that below.)
Here is my current walking-desk setup:
Here’s what led to my designing a walking-desk setup:
- For years I ran a couple of miles three mornings per week. My regimen and motivation are similar to John Piper’s: “Physical Exercise: What I Do and Why: Part 1 | Part 2.”
- My family moved from South Carolina to Minnesota in summer 2013. Up to that point I had almost always run outside. I know it’s possible to run outside in the Minnesota winter, but it requires purchasing high-quality running gear for extremely cold temperatures. And it takes extra time to put all that gear on before running and to remove it after running. And even if you own the right gear, the weather is often simply not conducive for running (e.g., heavy rain, ice, snow).
- I periodically see studies concluding that sitting at a desk for long periods of time on a regular basis is unhealthy. The title of one infographic is “Sitting Is Killing You: The Truth about Sitting Down.” My wife repeatedly expressed her love for me by sharing her concern for me in light of such studies.
- Here are three viable alternatives for a sitting desk:
- A standing desk. I’ve tried working on a computer while standing still for a long period of time, and I don’t care for it. But it’d be nice to have the option for shorter periods of time. (I haven’t researched sit-stand desks, i.e., desks with adjustable heights to accommodate both sitting and standing.)
- A treadmill that is designed to be a walking desk (like this). My problem with such treadmills is that they are for walking only. Their max speed is 4 miles per hour. I usually run not slower than 7 or 8 mph on treadmills.
- A desk that fits on or over treadmills. This is an attractive option if you have space for it, if you can find a desk that fits with your treadmill well, and if you can afford it. But if you also want to use your treadmill to run, you’d want to ensure that the desk wouldn’t be in the way at all.
That helps explain why I designed my walking desk the way I did.
Here are four components to this setup:
- My general experience with walking desks
- When I walk on a treadmill while working on my laptop, my sweet spot is 1.5 or 2 mph. I can type and use the mouse on my laptop with no problem while maintaining that speed. And I mix it up by changing the incline. (I’m typing this article right now while walking on the treadmill at 2 mph with a 2% incline.)
- For my morning routine, rather than reading on the couch or at my desk, I usually spend the first part of every day reading, memorizing, etc., while walking on the treadmill for about 90 minutes. And on days when I work at home, I’ve been walking an average of about four or five hours per day while working. I feel more productive because I’m more alert and energetic when I’m walking than when I’m sitting—especially in the afternoon.
- I haven’t mastered this treadmill dance.
- My experience with the Horizon Fitness T101-04 Treadmill
- My wife, Jenni, and I were initially very happy with this treadmill. I was hoping to use it for both running (as an exercise machine) and walking (as a desk). And Jenni walked on it most evenings while working on her MacBook.
- But this treadmill is not heavy-duty enough for how much we were using it. The motor died about ten months after we bought the treadmill, and Horizon Fitness replaced the motor, the board, and the mat. About a year and a half later, the motor died again. (Friendly advice: When you purchase a treadmill and intend to use it a lot, purchase the longest warranty the company offers.)
- My experience with the Sole F85 Treadmill
- After researching treadmill options, I decided to purchase the Sole F85 treadmill (Amazon | Sole). Jenni and I have been using it for only one month, but thus far we think it’s great.
- It is supposed to be far more durable than our last treadmill. And for good measure I purchased a six-year labor warranty (the first two years from Sole and the next four from Dick’s Sporting Goods).
- This is the best model I could find that folds (which is important because we need the floor space for an air mattress when guests stay with us).
- For our Horizon Fitness treadmill, we used the SurfShelf Treadmill Desk: Laptop and iPad Holder.
- Before I purchased this shelf, I asked Randy Fenton, the man who invented it, if it would work with the Horizon Fitness T101 Treadmill, and Randy swiftly confirmed that it would.
- The shelf secures a laptop well, and it’s adjustable. It’s very easy to move out of the way if you don’t want it on the treadmill when you run.
- But it doesn’t work with the Sole F85 Treadmill. It’s too far away and too high to type comfortably and securely and without banging your toes into the plastic. So …
- For our Sole F85 treadmill, I decided to custom-design a desk. (See more pictures above.)
- The desk is classy and solid. I love it!
- The plexiglass top allows you to see the treadmill controls.
- The desk is large enough to place my MacBook on a stand and use an external keyboard and mouse. And there is plenty of room for other items such as a water bottle, food, a phone, and a headset. (That’s what’s on my treadmill desk right now as I’m updating this article. The food is a large bowl of my favorite healthy snack!)
- I hired Nate Weller, one of my graduate students, to custom-build this desk for my treadmill. If you live in the Minneapolis area and would like to hire Nate to build a similar desk for you, contact him at nathanael.weller.1[at]gmail.com. It may cost you $300–$400 depending on the design.
- I use two 27-inch Dell monitors with a 2560 x 1440 resolution. (I also use two of these monitors on my desk for sitting.)
- I use two Ergotron LX Wall Mount LCD Arms. The quality is exceptional. To get a better idea of how this works, see the two videos here (at the top left of the screen after the pictures of the product). This monitor arm allows me to easily rotate a monitor and adjust its height, depth, and tilt.
- One advantage of having external monitors like this is that I can place monitors directly across from my eyes. It is hard to maintain good posture when looking down at my laptop while walking for hours at a time.
- Shoes for running and walking. If you spend a lot of time running and walking, then it’s good stewardship to invest in a quality pair of shoes. Your body (especially your feet and knees) will thank you. I use Brooks running shoes.
- Audio-cable extension cord. My treadmill is close enough to my IKEA desk that I can still use my Bose Multimedia Speakers if I use an audio-cable extension cord.