• September 20, 2014

The Faculty Treadmill

A professor starts measuring her productivity step by step

I am writing this essay at 1.7 m.p.h. No, I do not mean "w.p.m." (words per minute). I now measure my daily productivity as an academic in terms of speed, calories, and steps.

As scholars and teachers, we usually calculate our progress in terms of the number of words written in a day, students advised in a semester, or total grant dollars raised in a year. All of those are important metrics on the tenure track. But I have seen my productivity, perspective, and health improve from being on an entirely different track—the never-ending one that runs right beneath my desk.

As you may have guessed, I have a "treadmill desk" in my faculty office. That may seem odd for an academic. It certainly does to many of my colleagues, who smile, chuckle, and, no doubt, shake their heads privately whenever they see me marching away in my sneakers.

Two things inspired me to get moving while I worked: competition and health. A colleague of mine who works in medicine—and whom I can voyeuristically observe through an online fitness tracker we both use—had suddenly appeared to become a marathoner overnight. My meager 35,000 steps a week were suddenly being bested by his 20,000 steps a day. That was simply unacceptable; I had to know his secret. The answer proved to be a treadmill desk.

I had read about such desks. They’d seemed like yet another fitness fad that I was prepared to ignore. But then my colleague began raving about how his had changed his work life for the better.

I remained skeptical. A treadmill desk seemed like something you’d find in corporate America, or even in medicine, but never in academe. I had never seen one in a faculty office before my friend acquired one. And I’d never read a blog post or article about a professor who used one. My colleagues around the country with whom I shared the idea (some of whom have standing desks) were cautiously curious. But I imagined that my more cynical colleagues would think I was ditching work to do personal training in my office.

Yet I loved walking. I knew I needed to get more exercise but somehow never found time to go to the gym. And I had read many an article about how sitting at a desk takes years off your life.

Professors sit more than many other professionals, I’d venture. Our entire lives (except when we are at the front of a classroom in a lecture hall) are about sitting—at committee meetings, desks, seminar tables, coffee shops. Depending on the size of your campus, the walk to or from a meeting could be substantial, but unlikely to amount to anywhere like the 10,000 steps a day that the American Heart Association recommends for an "active lifestyle."

In short, the professorial lifestyle is a sedentary one.

So, as any good social scientist would, I did my consumer research. I learned all the specs, the best models, the recommended walking strategies to prevent overuse and injury. I measured my office to make sure this sizable piece of equipment would fit in my rather small space. And then I made my purchase and called the facilities staff at my university to reclaim my good old metal desk.

Had I made a mistake? The comfort and security of sitting at a desk was gone. The ability to squirrel away pens and paper clips and chocolate trail mix in my desk drawers had been eliminated. I panicked. Could I even be productive while walking? What would I do when I tired? What would I wear to work each day? Maybe I hadn’t thought this through very carefully.

It’s been several months since my new desk arrived, and I have no regrets. In fact, I have become an evangelist on the campus (no doubt to some people’s annoyance) for standing/walking desks. I regularly invite faculty members to come to my office and give my desk a test drive.

In the process, my notion of work has been transformed from a passive to an active pursuit. Now even tedious, time-consuming (but necessary) tasks seem less so because, when I’ve finished, I will have five or 10 miles of walking to show for them (if nothing else).

There are important pros and cons to these desks. Before you take the leap (or the first step), here are some lessons that I learned about myself and my relationship to work.

The meaning of "progress" changes. Working, to me, always meant striding forward, metaphorically. Now it means that literally. The experience of moving forward physically on the treadmill often translates into a feeling that I’m making progress in my work (whether or not I actually am). When I stand still at my desk now, I feel as if I am slacking, losing ground, missing out on opportunities to step and move myself to new places. Sitting feels like punishment.

Sitting in those interminable committee meetings, I used to think, "I just lost two hours of my life for that?" Now I think, "I just lost 6,000 steps for that?"

On the other hand, if your scholarly career feels like it’s on a long, meandering path, just adding movement at your desk may not be enough to make you feel like you’re making progress. And if your professorial career is at a sufficiently dark point, a treadmill desk might very well make you feel like you’re stuck in your own personal myth of Sisyphus. Nietzsche would not have written on a treadmill.

Place matters. As someone who always preferred to write at home where I could work uninterrupted, I now find myself eagerly craving to get to my office in the morning and more than happy to stay later and later if the task requires. Recently I reached my first 25,000-step day and was more proud of that accomplishment than my most recent publication.

Working at home suddenly seems unproductive, slow, and tedious because there is no forward movement accompanying the task. But I’ve also got to guard against thinking I’ve achieved more on the page than I actually have.

Working is even more of a solitary activity than it was. The machine makes noise. Out of respect for my colleagues—and fear of annoying them—I now keep my office door closed at all times. Does that deter colleagues and students from just dropping by? I don’t know yet.

New visitors to my office are often taken aback by the presence of a giant treadmill belt. I usually attempt to diffuse the awkwardness with a friendly invitation, "Want to try it out? It’s really fun."

I still keep a couple of chairs in my office because one-on-one meetings seem to go better when I sit down with a visiting student or colleague. But group meetings rarely take place in my office anymore because seating is limited. I remain ambivalent about whether that fact should lie in the pro or con column.

New ways of doing old things. Recently, due to scheduling conflicts, an interview with a job candidate via Skype had to take place in my office. Everyone stood at my desk and took it like a trooper. It was awkward. And it probably seemed strange to the candidate who may have been wondering, "Can’t they afford chairs at this university?"

It remains untested whether many colleges and universities will begin to buy treadmill desks for their employees. (My university did not buy mine for me.) Standing desks, I am told, have become much more commonplace in academe and, in many instances, are cheaper than conventional desk workstations (because they don’t require ergonomically correct chairs).

In my mind the mental and physical health advantages of my treadmill desk have outweighed any potential risks or downsides. The worst thing that’s happened to me as a result of the desk is a bit of muscle strain. The best thing: I have a whole new outlook on professorial productivity, and it is moving in the right direction.

Summer McGee is an associate professor of public management in the business school at the University of New Haven.

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