Your desk’s three secret problems – and how to fix them

October 4, 2011

Even though you sit there regularly, you probably haven’t taken a good look at your desk since you set it up.

Maybe you’ve noticed it has some quirks, but I think about your desk all the time. In fact, everywhere I look, I see desks that aren’t right for you because they were designed for someone who’s five-foot-ten and neat-to-a-fault. Like a high-end tuxedo with cummerbund and tails — nice to look at, but not ideal for everyday use.

You should see me on Sunday morning scanning the glossy ads in the paper, grimacing and muttering about at the advertised desks that pass for functional. Or when I’m in the office supply store – woe to the clerk who asks me if I found what I need. It pains me to see these miserable creations because you deserve a desk that allows you to be expansive and creative. Not cramped. Not squinched. Not in physical pain.

So, I want to share with you the three secret problems that make your desk so uncomfortable. These secrets will give you the information you need to adapt your current desk to suit you, or the specific details you need to buy another one that you will love.

Problem 1: Height

A dear friend of mine moved into a new home with built-in desk and cabinets. They were gorgeous, but she’s a petite gal – and she was miserable in her oversized digs!

If your back aches and your wrists are sore, don’t berate yourself for your bad posture. It’s not you, it’s the height of your desk! Most desks are designed for an average-height man (5’10”) so that the desktop comes to a height of about 29-30″. No offense to the guys, but that’s too tall for the average-height woman (who’s typically 5 inches shorter).

In other words, once size does not fit all — and this affects your body. If your desk top is too high, your elbows and wrists must be at an acute angle when you type and mouse around. Ouch! If you raise your chair up enough for the desk top to be at a proper height, it causes your legs dangle at an obtuse angle, cutting off circulation, throwing you off balance, and affecting your spine.

To discover what height you need, grab a tape measure and a buddy. Position your chair at a comfortable height and put your hands out as if you were going to type. Have someone measure the distance from your palms to the floor. That’s how tall your desk should be, minus the height of your keyboard.

Height adjustment work-arounds:

  • Shorten the legs of your desk with a saw (measure twice, cut once)
  • Put wood blocks under your desk to raise it up
  • Use a height-adjustable bar stool that has a foot rest
  • Take off the legs and replace them with IKEA’s adjustable height legs
  • Get a height-adjustable quilting table from your local sewing center and to use as a desk
  • Make an investment in a motorized desk top that can be raised and lowered

Problem 2: Depth

The depth of your desk is the space between the front and back of your desktop. For a lot of people, there isn’t much room for anything besides the monitor and the keyboard. Many desks come with attached shelves that have limited functionality, but take up a lot of space. Some desks are triangular and get narrower toward the back so they can fit in a corner.

In any situation where there isn’t enough depth, you’re likely to have a lot of piles in random locations (on top of the shelves, boxes, on the floor, tucked into crevices) because there’s nowhere else for you to put things. It’s not you, it’s your lack of space.

Ideally, the depth of your desk is about as far as you can reach in front of you while seated in your chair, plus 6-12 inches.

Depth adjustment work-arounds

  • If it’s possible to remove attached shelves, do it. If you need overhead storage you can purchase shelving that attaches to the wall, but leaves desk space open.
  • Attach your monitor to the wall with a special contraption that lets it swing closer to you when you need it.
  • Get a keyboard drawer that allows your keyboard to be tucked under the desk (this does affect height, so check it first)
  • If you have a triangular desk, seriously consider getting a rectangular one.
  • Remove anything from your desktop that you don’t use regularly (printers, tape dispensers, and staplers are common culprits)

Problem 3: Width

My first desk was so skinny, there was barely room for a pile and my laptop. Over time, the pile got taller and taller and taller. Where else was it going to go?

Especially for visual and tactile people, having a wide-enough desk is crucial to staying organized. You need enough room to spread out, see what you have, and still have space to work. If you have clumps of piles everywhere or you regularly lose stuff that’s right in front of you, having a too narrow desk could be the culprit.

Having a desk that is as wide as your arms can stretch in both directions is a start. In the best case scenario, you’d have two or more equally wide desks in your space at right angles to each other.

Width adjustment work-arounds

  • Get out a measuring tape and measure your desk. How many inches short is it from being as wide as your arms can reach in both directions?
  • Shop in your own house. Do you have any tables or other furniture that might give you extra space — either to swap out with your desk, or add to it at a right angle?
  • Dream: What would your ideal desk be like? You might want to do some research to see what’s available. Use your creativity!

I hope this information is helpful. It can be unnerving to discover that your desk is thwarting your best efforts to stay clear and organized.

What’s your experience with your desk? Feel free to share below!

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8 comments

  1. I once saw a cartoon that had my dream desk in it. It was a giant lazy susan!

    My current desk definitely suffers from all these deficiencies. I do have a deep open-backed bookshelf next to my desk and I strive to keep the desk-height shelf clear for current projects.

    But really… that giant lazy susan desk would be ideal!

  2. The depth and height issues are definitely a problem for me. I’m currently coveting an IKEA desk with those adjustable legs. I’ve thought about putting those legs on my desk as an in-between fix but I still have the depth issue…

    You know… this just might be why I haven’t worked at my desk for FOUR MONTHS! I went into my office to get something yesterday and noticed that the calendar on my wall still said June…

    Another option for folks who could do this:
    My husband works at home in a corner desk and he wants to face the wall. We went with the Container Store shelves that are height adjustable.

    They aren’t as deep as they really need to be, but his desk has been standing height, sitting height, and several in-between heights… with just adjusting those shelves. No extra work or money, just rearrange the shelves. =)
    Tami Stackelhouse´s last blog post ..Hope & Healing: September 2011

  3. Jen- thanks so much for posting this!

    I lusted after the Bedford desk from Pottery Barn for ten years. And when I moved my studio home two years ago I BOUGHT it! It is totally living up to my dream. It is my perfect desk. Fits everything I need just perfectly and is beautiful. I love “coming” to work and because it is on the main floor of our house everyone gets a full view and I’m never embarrassed.

    But, thanks to your post, I just FINALLY took the time to explore my office chair and figured out how to lower it so my forearms are parallel when typing on my keyboard. And I moved my little food rest back under my desk – I had moved it out to put Finn’s dog pillow underneath because it’s been windy :) Anyways, I am much better situated now.

    You are the BEST! (Did you see I just quoted you on my blog? :)
    Regina´s last blog post ..Friday Fine Art Flower: Magnolia Blossoms and Jennifer Hofmann

  4. Hi Jennifer! You are always in sync with whatever is going on in my week. I really enjoyed your interview with Goddess Leonie, by the way! Thanks so much.

    Now, I was reading this article thinking, “I bought my desk because it’s an antique Governor Winthrop! My desk is not a work desk.” Only thing is, I live in limited space and won’t be adding a desk while I’m in this lovely apartment. When I do my work I now spread out on the dining room table, or sit in a great chair with my laptop beany-bag table on my lap. I love, this and can sit and work happily for hours with my tea right beside me.

    Two “problems” have arisen though: My dining table is pretty much always covered with stuff (I ask people over so I HAVE to clear it off! Haha) AND I don’t know what my actual desk is for! I open it out and use it when I am printing things out and organizing things.

    Writing this is helping me work things out… Hmmm. I KNOW I need more flat space (I’m a calligrapher and artist so that’s a given). I think I have to find a purpose in my world for my desk. Right now I have a little pile in there that the desk keeps hidden, it’s sort of my little secret that gives me permission to be imperfect; but it is in the way when I try to open the drawers.

    Do you have any thoughts? I work with Feng Shui and energy myself, but hahaha I’m much better at seeing solutions to others’ dilemmas. I am going to meditate on it a bit, ask for the solutions and I will let you know what I come up with.

    Thank you for being a constant inspiration! I’m starting up a “new” blog where I will be posting my longish muses. Please take a look in a week, it will be shaping up.


  5. 1108 days ago,
    Daniel said:

    My office desk is unfortunately too small for me. I am used to it by now but I feel it is affecting my posture. My desk at home is just the right fit and there is a big difference on how comfortable I feel working in it. The dimensions of the desk are really a big factor to consider. Thank you for the suggestions.
    Daniel´s last blog post ..online dating book


  6. 491 days ago,
    Cindy said:

    Interestingly enough, even with an adjustable height chair I cannot raise it high enough to produce the proper arm angle for the height of my standard desk. I’m 160 cm tall. The only solution was to buy a custom height desk (adjustable but for shorter people). It’s strange that the standard adjustment range for chairs isn’t just 5 – 10 cm more so that a wider range of heights can be accommodated.


  7. 146 days ago,
    Kathie said:

    I am 5’2″ and my desk is 30 1/2″ tall. Way to high for me by about 5″. When I bought it I assumed all desks were the same height as the one I had been useing for 20 years. I got a chair that can raise high enough but my feet now dangle and now I have back aches, elbow and wrist pain and weakness. My desk is new and they won’t take it back, and it is a high end desk as well as the desk chair and file cabnet that goes with it. OYE. Any suggestions?

  8. Instead we suffer from it, by storing too much fat and rarely, if ever, burning it.
    Her scheme worked for it is said that Marc Antony fell madly in love with her.
    Now we hear, wheat for man, oats for the horse and such.
    http://wikilook.info/utilisateur:Frederiauut´s last blog post ..http://wikilook.info/utilisateur:Frederiauut

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