Multiple Monitors: Blessing or Curse?

Farhad questions the benefit of using multiple monitors on his desktop computer, arguing that the benefits have been oversold:

The conventional argument in favour of dual monitors rests on what might be called the two-window problem. Imagine, for instance, the process of writing a research report. You have a word processor open in one window, and, somewhere else on the screen, a web browser full of tabs pointing to research papers. To write the report, you need to shift your attention frequently from the browser to the word processor and back again. On a small display, it would be difficult to keep both windows open at the same time, so you’d waste time switching from one to the other. On a large multi-screen display, you can keep both windows open on your screen – and you save all that switching time.

The research supports this. One study commissioned by NEC and conducted by researchers at the University of Utah showed that people using a dual-display machine to do a text-editing task were 44 per cent more productive than those who used a single monitor.

But for most people, the time spent juggling two windows or scrolling across large documents isn’t the biggest bottleneck in getting work done. Instead, there’s a more basic, pernicious reason you feel constantly behind – you’re getting distracted.

A couple of thoughts:

1. It all comes down to your work flow and usage pattern. If you leave email or Twitter open on your display – single, dual, triple, or notification-driven on a phone or tablet – you will be distracted more and thus your digital toolset will reduce productivity on the immediate task at hand, not aid it.

2. My preference remains for as large a screen as possible, so you can show two applications in full “half screen” mode side-by-side, thus giving essential two pages side-by-side. Whether it’s a database and an article, or a Word document that you are writing, or a large spreadsheet with many cells, I argue for more screen real estate. If you have three or four applications which you are correlating across – say an Excel spreadsheet, a report from the previous year, and your document for this year’s analysis, then multiple big screen displays may be necessary.

3. It’s a behavioral issue first and foremost. If you allow the distraction, you will be distracted. One way of getting focused time for the current task and staying up with important changes in your work – and this will vary by work role – is a punctuated focus / scan. Focus for 50 minutes or 110 minutes, and then do a quick scan regarding what’s going on.

4. What’s your current approach to dealing with this productivity issue?

3 thoughts on “Multiple Monitors: Blessing or Curse?

  1. Re: Productivity, I encourage people to turn of the Outlook email Toast notifications as they are a constant distraction and frequent cause of not focussing on one task at all. People have now got so ingrained into using email as an instant communication tool which is a major backwards step, as in my view email should be checked every few hours, not every few seconds.

    We are now rolling out Yammer and it is interesting to see that some people seem to really want to be constantly notified, which is why Yammer released the Notifier app, which guess what…. brings Toast notifications into Windows for every new Yammer message. Two steps forward, one step back !

    Scott Jackson
    London, UK

  2. I’m using 2 screens (laptop + 1 monitor) at work, and I tested 3 screens (laptop + 2 monitors) at home. For my working style, 3 monitors is too much, I noticed that I rarely use the third screen.
    Generally, I need one screen for reference stuff (Outlook / PDF / Excel in “view mode” / …), and one screen where I do stuff (Visual Studio, or working on SharePoint via the browser, or having some other program open where I actively do something)

  3. I’ve used two monitors a few times over the last few years. When I was doing my Masters (topic collaboration) I did exactly as you describe above – research on one and write on the other. I also often had my referencing tool open on the research screen. Split screen didn’t given me enough real estate to do this well. The other example is when documenting a system – invaluable to have it open next to you. I can’t understand the reluctance of some organisations to make dual monitors available to staff who need them.

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