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I was reading the wonderful post of Trent Walton : UniTasking which contains a lot of useful thoughts and ideas, plus some good links to some neat OS X apps. (which I have started using right after I read the blog.)

But I noticed a funny notion. Many people talked very negatively about using multiple screens.

Onwards to Tom Cunningham's : Stay productive, he actually mentions using only 1 monitor as the first tip to increase productivity.

Is this a common belief ? And has anyone done any tests with this ?

I work at a software studio, and we have three screens as standard (Macbook 15" + two 21" screens) but due to the fact that I take my macbook with me every day, and set it up every morning, I can easily go an hour or two with only the main screen turned on.

So what are your beliefs on this ? Myth, fact or completely up to individual preferences ?

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closed as not constructive by FrustratedWithFormsDesigner, Thomas Owens, Michael K, Yannis, Josh K Jan 13 '12 at 16:33

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I'm too lazy to find it, but there have been authoritative studies done on this, and multiple monitors do increase productivity (if I remember correct) about 17%, which is huge. Larger monitors do also, but they max out their return fairly quickly. –  Malfist Jan 13 '12 at 15:12
In my opinion, mulitple screens won't help if you don't know how to use them efficiently. I doubt that it will make you less productive, but I wouldn't expect an immediate boost in productivity either and it won't help for all types of work. If all you look at is code, it probably won't matter. If you are looking at code, output windows, large spreadsheets, a database tool, a browser, and Outlook, having multiple monitors or a large widescreen could improve productivity once you get used to it. –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Jan 13 '12 at 15:12
...also, questions that ask for opinions usually get closed here because with an opinion question, there's no one "right" answer. –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Jan 13 '12 at 15:13
+1 I just started a new job where I was given dual monitors. I was going to ask this very question last night (but got distracted reading Google+ on one side and UX.se on the other ;)) –  msanford Jan 13 '12 at 15:25
BTW. Both mentioned articles mention working with MBPs and Apple displays, which come with only one option: glossy. Reflections on these are distracting and annoying, which for me is big productivity killer. –  vartec Jan 13 '12 at 15:50

6 Answers 6

up vote 17 down vote accepted

Well, in "7 Ways To Stay Productive" there are 3-4 things that are widely known and accepted, one irrelevant on platforms with functional window maximizing (and even on OSX there are tools for that). And there are at least two, which are totally contrary to experience of most people and to scientific research of the subject. These are "Listen to Music" and "Use Only One Display". However, it might work for the author, as he's photoshop dude, not software developer.

For software development, it's been scientifically and empirically proven, that extra screen area (be it more screens or bigger screen) increase productivity, as they reduce overhead on window switching. In other words, if you have for example have your IDE open on one screen, and tailing output log on another, you don't need to switch windows, you just need to look at another screen.

Quotes from creators of StackOverflow:

More usable desktop space reduces the amount of time you spend on window management excise. Instead of incessantly dragging, sizing, minimizing and maximizing windows, you can do actual productive work.

— Jeff Atwood "Does More Than One Monitor Improve Productivity?"

Debugging GUI code with a single monitor system is painful if not impossible. If you're writing GUI code, two monitors will make things much easier.

— Joel Spolsky ("The Joel Test", pt. 9)

see also: http://skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/1700/do-bigger-or-more-monitors-increase-productivity

From my personal experience, for me best setup was 3 24" external screens, connected to 2 computers (desktop + laptop, sharing mouse and keyboard via Synergy). I could have also used 15" screen of the laptop as the 4th, but that actually was too much.

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+1 for he's photoshop dude, not software developer. In their very core, visual design and programming share almost no common structure in the creation of the final results. –  back2dos Jan 13 '12 at 15:33
This photoshop dude thing is a BS generalization. I'm a Graphic Designer (on windows) and dual monitors are crucial. I often work from multiple file locations and just having a dedicated screen for file manipulation (e.g. windows explorer) is a HUGE win. Just manipulating 500 images in a file list is far more streamlined when you can drag them over to the proper tool without losing your place in the file list. Scrolling file dialogs is for Lusers. Throw in website work with multiple-tabs in a browser and tweaking/uploading/refreshing etc. –  horatio Jan 13 '12 at 16:15
It's been scientifically and empirically proven, that extra screen area increase productivity. - Do you have any references? Or is it one of these "authoritative studies" that everyone is referring to, but no one has ever actually seen? –  Joonas Pulakka Jan 13 '12 at 16:35
@JoonasPulakka: follow the link to Skeptics.SE. –  vartec Jan 13 '12 at 16:38

Far from it. I have 2 24 inch monitors, and I'd kill for a third. The single most productive thing I've ever done at work was get 2 monitors. After that was an SSD hard drive.

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How'd the SSD Drive improve productivity? Seriously asking. –  Mike Jan 13 '12 at 18:25
Most of the wait time on a computer these days is due to waiting on the page file to swap. That and shitty tools like McAfee running all the time. The SSD access/read times are so much faster than a normal disk that it makes having a normal hard drive ludicrous. Here's Jeff's take on it... codinghorror.com/blog/2011/05/… –  John Kraft Jan 16 '12 at 14:18
Ahh, I getya... thanks. –  Mike Jan 17 '12 at 17:53

Like many other how-to-work issues, the answer is it depends.

Many productivity gurus do indeed advocate only one thing at a time. For a writer, for example, that may well mean only one screen, without even the various widgets and dashboard icons that litter the top/bottom/sides of our worlds. Given that a writer is mostly thinking and then typing, this seems to make sense.

For a programmer while coding, that one thing may well include an IDE, REPL, Reference material, DB-session and the like (even in my heavy emacs-using days, I used multiple frames and switched between them using the keyboard). If you have the minimal set of those open, you may well use up multiple screens worth of real estate.

And in that case, you would be increasing productivity by using the multiple monitors, instead of decreasing it. As the minimal set of information is large.

If you are instead of coding, trying to do thinking/writing text/designing, without writing code, then indeed some smaller setup may well work better, just as it does for other pure-mental activities.

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The optimal amount of screens is indeed equal to the number of windows you NEED at full screen throughout a task. Switching between multiple windows, particularly of the same type slows you down (you have to keep looking for the correct one). –  Danny Varod Jan 13 '12 at 15:49

One way multiple screens increase productivity is by keeping marginal stuff marginal. Say you're curious about whether you have any new mail and if so how much and from whom. One screen? You alt-tab or whatever to make the mail app take up the whole screen. This can turn a quick check/glance into half an hour of reading and dealing, just because you felt curious. Two screens? Email sits open on the other screen and you can flck your eyes there any time, and then flick them right back to what you're supposed to be doing. Not everyone is the kind of person who gets sucked down the rabbit hole when they glance at stuff, but many are.

This also works for things you supposedly do for 5 minute "while compiling" - this site, twitter, checking the weather, etc. If they stay on one screen and your IDE on another, you won't miss the compile ending and stay away too long.

Finally, I find having my todo list on a screen of its own and always visible serves as a great source of things to do "while compiling" and keeps me on track for the day. Usually. Gotta go :-)

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After I found some unused monitors in the back, I switched from 1 monitor to four. It's incredibly helpful for easier "state" switching. For those of you who use vim, it's the same idea as switching between modes. When I'm adding code to a program, I need everything set up for that.

But once I switch to web search mode, I need to have things changed. Perhaps have other docs available, so on and so forth. Having multiple monitors allows me to have everything for each "state" preconfigured, so switching is as simple as moving my eyes.

Finally, a "task" usually involves several sub states, with lots of switching. If it was slow, difficult, and inconvenient to switch into and out of insert mode for vim, would you ever leave? Even if normal mode has better cursor movement commands?

Oh, and when I get interrupted, I can leave my task set up and use the extra monitor for the quick script I've been asked to build. I'm leveraging having the computer remember my state for me, instead of going through teardown and set up. Would you ever use a web browser that didn't support tabs? Do you want to remember where you are on every page you've visited, while you do something else "real quick"?

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It depends both on what you are doing and what your productivity metrics are. My bosses PA has two monitors, one is used for word processing and other general tasks. The other runs Outlook pretty much exclusively. One of the metrics would be is responding to emails in a timely manner.

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