Is The Multiple-Monitor Productivity Boost A Myth?

Dear Lifehacker, I've always heard that multiple monitors were supposed to boost your productivity, but this post on rebuilding your attention span mentions, in passing, a second-monitor myth. So what's the deal? Do multiple monitors boost productivity or not? Signed, Multiply Confused

Dear Confused,

First, thanks for a great question! We'd almost always read that multiple monitors were a nice productivity kick in the pants too (we've even offered some tips for making the most of your multiple monitors), so to answer your question, we thought it was only appropriate to ask the person who mentioned the second-monitor myth you're referring to. So we asked technologist Clay Johnson from InfoVegan: What's the deal with this multi-monitor myth? Here's what he said:

Manage Pixels, not Monitors

My How to Focus article got a lot of people thinking about attention fitness and how they could use interval training to increase their attention spans. One thing I mentioned was quite controversial — that I got rid of a second monitor. A lot of people disagreed — people love their multiple monitors, and we've been told over and over again that multiple monitors "boosts productivity".

Let's shine some light here on the multi-monitor setup. Just where do these productivity claims come from?

The first report I could find is a report from the University of Utah in 2003 followed up by a new one in 2008. If you follow the money, you can likely predict the results — the study was commissioned by monitor manufacturer NEC. And surprise, the results of the study are: buy bigger, more expensive monitors!

What's surprising is that the media crooned over the multiple monitor part of the study, when the study came to the conclusion that it was pixels, not monitors, that increased productivity. What's also surprising is that while the report mentioned that there were productivity gains in certain tasks with more screen real estate, those gains begin to taper between 26 and 30 inches, or at monitors where the native resolution is 2560x1440 or greater.

My take: There's an optimal number of pixels you need to complete the tasks you need to complete. Worry about that number, not the number of monitors you have. That optimal number, for the vast majority of people is about 2500x1400. In 2003 — before widescreen became commonplace — it was the case that two 17-20 inch (2560 pixels wide) LCDs were the only affordable way to acquire an optimal number of pixels. Today, you can pick up a 27-inch display with 2560x1440 pixels along with a computer attached to it for under $US1500. This number of pixels allow you to accomplish most tasks — whether it's writing code and debugging, writing a blog post and reading primary sources, or editing one spreadsheet with data from another.

So whether it's multiple monitors or one big monitor with lots of pixels, what do you do once you've reached your optimal pixel number?

Managing your pixels is just as important to your productivity as having them. Part of what makes multiple monitors appealing is that it makes multiple window management a little easier — you can open up one big window in each monitor you use — but mastering window management is something one ought to do whether they're working on a 15-inch laptop or four 24-inch widescreen monitors. On the Mac, Divvy is a great tool for this. Divvy allows you to create set window positions and associate them with hotkeys. As an avid gamer, I've set up my Divvy keyboard shortcuts like those of a first person shooter. The Q key puts a window in the top left 25 per cent of the screen, W makes the window take up the top half of the screen, E takes the right 25 per cent of the screen. The A key makes the window take the left of the screen, the D key makes it take the right. Z, X and C work the bottom row. R, F and V split the right-hand column up into thirds so that I can run multiple terminal windows on the right while I'm writing code on the left.

Ed. note: Windows users may want to try similar apps like WinSplit Revolution or Window Manager. If you're on a Mac and don't want to pay for Cinch, you may also want to take a look at the free, open source ShiftIt.

Remember: The key to having strong focus is the elimination of distraction. While a lot of space has its pluses, too much space is only creating room for more distractions. Having your mail, Twitter and IMs pop up in one monitor while you truly work in another is just giving your distractions equal ground to what you're working on. Even having relatively static things up in extra screen space is a distraction. A to-do list in a second monitor is nothing but a constant reminder of other things you could be working on other than the task at hand. Keeping anything up other than what you're working on is a great way to keep yourself distracted from doing the important stuff you don't want to do.

And that's Clay's well-reasoned take on the matter. Your mileage and experience may vary depending on the kind of work you do, but keep the trade-offs in mind while you're adding more screen real estate. For some of you the extra pixels might not be a problem, but as Clay said, the more space you've got, the more distraction land mines you're potentially placing in front of yourself. Hope that answer helps!

Love, Lifehacker

Manage Pixels, not Monitors [InfoVegan]


    I used to use dual 24" monitors but switched to a single 30" and never looked back.

    I think people are missing the point of why multiple screens are good and why they are a productivity boost.

    2 screens are very handy when you say need to do work in one screen and look at reference material on the second. With one screen you have to constantly alt tab where as with 2 screens you just glance a little to the side then back.

    I think the problem with multiple screens not being a productivity boost is more to do with how you use them not the actual screens themselves.

      You are completely right. This article is very subjective, and not at all accurate IMHO.

    I used to have one 17 inch. Now I have four 23 inch and one 42 inch and have never looked back.

      I have 4x22's and most of my tasks can be done on the centre two. As a commodity trader I can't have too much realestate but for other tasks 4 is overkill. I have also found pixel size makes a difference. Stuffing more pixels into a smaller viewing area reduces productivity as you get fatigued reading it. Wide format 23's have it about right imho. 1920x1080 on a 23 inch screen is about right for pixel density if you are using it all day and with Win 7 splitting the screen into two usable workspaces is easy. All depends on what tasks you do on your computer too. Trying different setups is important if you use the same computer all day every day.

    I find that multiple monitors increases productivity in fairly specific subsets, but this article is correct - with increasing available resolution on monitors, that subset is increasingly small. There's no longer any need to have two 17" montitors, one with reference material and another with the document you're writing.

    The one situation I find multiple monitors works well with is quick reference. I tend to keep dual screen at home and at work for that reason. I have one screen devoted to actually getting my work done, and the other to whatever I need to be able to check sometimes (server stats, email, and so on). At my last job, we had to keep an eye on 12 different systems at the same time and respond to any activity within a few minutes, but still get focused work done - even multiple desktops wouldn't have been as efficient as the 4-screen monster we had set up.

    Multiple monitors rock! Now, for the first time I'm using 2 x 20inch monitors with windows 7 and it's fantastic for reading multiple docs. It's just like working on a bigger desk. Would you prefer a 20inch deskspace or a 40 inch one?

    The responses here remind me of the razor wars only escalated to a ridiculous, only 40 platinum-titanium alloy blades in a 7 inch razor will give you a closer shave.

    Seriously though, productivity is firstly all about ergonomically completing your core processes of work, not screens or pixels. And this is where each is to his own as we all have different types work that we do.

    In my case 5% of the time I could do with three screens and 50% of the time I use two screens. So two 20" screens suits me fine for my volume core work processes. If I watch a movie or TV at my desk (rather than at my 47" LCD TV with independent stereo etc) a wide screen 16:9 format version of the 20" might be OK, but this would distract me from my work so I only need and have cheap as chips 4:3 format screens.

    This is also pretty ergonomic too because I don't have to move my head much, they at at an ergonomic height and I don't finish the day with a sore neck or sore eyes. I don't need to roll my chair around or repeatedly move my keyboard and mouse back and forwards between large format screens.

    I appreciate IT Admins may have a ongoing multi-system monitoring need and perhaps certain stockbrokers but these roles would be less than 0.1% of dual (or more) screen users.

    I would be interested to know what type of "work" drives the need for Scott's five and Anthony's 4 screens apart from their my set up is bigger than yours mentality implied without any reasoning in their comments.

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