TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Monday, March 24, 2014

NY Times: Two Monitors Are Not Better Than One

New York Times:  Discovering Two Screens Aren’t Better Than One, by Farhad Manjoo:

2 MonitorsFor years, techies have argued that getting an extra monitor or two for your desktop computer is an especially effective way to increase personal productivity. The logic seemed airtight: Two (or more) computer monitors means more room on your virtual desktop, which means more room to do your work. And more room to work would seem to mean faster work. ...

But what if we’ve all been duped? What if more monitors and bigger monitors actually detract from, rather than improve, how you work? What if, rather than more space to get stuff done, what you get from a larger display or two displays is more freedom from work — more room for Twitter, email, chatting and all the other digitized diversions that conspire to get you fired?

In a switch that amounts to heresy among some techies, I’ve become a two-screen skeptic. Two months ago, about five years after becoming an ardent proselytizer for the Church of the Second Display, I turned off the extra screen on my desktop computer. At first, the smaller workspace felt punishingly cramped. But after a few days of adjusting to the new setup, an unusual serenity invaded my normally harried workday. With a single screen that couldn’t accommodate too many simultaneous stimuli, a screen just large enough for a single word processor or browser window, I found something increasingly elusive in our multiscreen world: focus.

The conventional argument in favor 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 multiscreen 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 percent 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.

With a single screen, I was forced to fight my distractions. I had to actively prevent myself from falling into email and Twitter, from ever losing focus on my main window. It took some time for me to exercise that willpower. But by finding methods of sticking to my task rather than coping with my distractions, my single-screen machine ultimately improved how I work. It can for you, too — if only you resist the pull of two displays.

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Depends on what you do. I write, edit and publish books. Two displays are so important, I'm replacing my 19" second display with a 24" one.

Posted by: Michael W. Perry | Mar 24, 2014 7:36:18 AM

Much of what I do on a computer is writing lengthy, complex documents. I must use the word processor window along with reference material from e-mail, web pages, and PDFs of other document. Sometimes it is cut and past from one document to another; more often it is simply reading one document and typing into another. I use two large monitors. When I get to writing, distraction is not a problem.

Posted by: Marybeth Cooperstone | Mar 24, 2014 10:26:52 AM

Looks good. Distracting

Posted by: ptl | Mar 24, 2014 7:18:34 PM

Well, for what you are describing a second monitor is superfluous. But for most other tasks more screen real estate is inarguably better. So don't argue.

Posted by: Jb | Mar 24, 2014 7:19:05 PM

As an attorney I'm often drafting one contract while referring to another contract, markup from a colleague, or an email. Having two full-screen documents open at the same time is a HUGE productivity boost. So it depends on what you do.

Posted by: Brock | Mar 24, 2014 7:21:27 PM

" is more freedom from work — more room for Twitter, email, chatting and all the other digitized diversions that conspire to get you fired?"

That's the tell right there. This has nothing to do with tech and everything to do with work ethic. Throw those distractions in the digital trash and put up on the screens what is needed for the workflow for a given task. And you just might want to read the book 'Get Things Done'.

For me two screens are productivity enhancers. Code on one screen, API manuals in the other.

Posted by: JohnMc | Mar 24, 2014 7:24:10 PM

I do material take-offs from blueprints all day. I'd go nuts without two monitors.

Posted by: Arty | Mar 24, 2014 7:44:18 PM

I write computer programs. The code is on one screen; the documentation on the other. :)

Posted by: Bill Roper | Mar 24, 2014 7:47:55 PM

When preparing or reviewing tax returns the second screen causes a major increase in productivity - eliminates the shifting back and forth between input and output.

Posted by: realestate accountant | Mar 24, 2014 7:53:32 PM

As a software developer, I don't use the second monitor for distractions. I use it to hold more information about the program I am working on - sometimes requirement documents, sometimes reference material.

I totally agree that increasing distractions is bad, but that is a choice that you can easily avoid. There's no reason to avoid the extra usefulness of multiple monitors just because it's possible to mis-use the extra space.

Posted by: Kendall | Mar 24, 2014 8:01:50 PM

I used to edit newspaper layouts, and I used a dual screen setup. The layout would be on one screen and I'd use the other screen to bring up articles, edit photos, create graphics, occaisionally do research, etc. in the other. It helped to have one screen totally dedicated to the layout itself, making it easier to see how what I was working on in the other screen would fit into the big picture, as well as cutting down on the amount of time I spent switching between different windows.

I can't imagine doing that job with only one monitor.

Well, I could imagine it; it'd just be extremely inefficient.

Posted by: Robert | Mar 24, 2014 8:04:34 PM

April Fools isn't until next week.

Posted by: rob | Mar 24, 2014 8:16:51 PM

I'm a software developer - for my particular job, there's no substitute. 3 monitors are actually becoming less uncommon. I need a window for programming, a window for the browser to check my work and it's nice if I have a third monitor for reference material. In my case, when I'm on the road with my laptop, I get to try out the one monitor setup and while I have a large 19" screen on my laptop, it is crazy slow compared to my normal desktop. It may not be necessary for everyone, but it saves me a ton of time.

Posted by: Ed | Mar 24, 2014 8:26:47 PM

I have two 27 inch monitors and for my job, which is to run two internet companies there's no other way. One screen is a real time monitor of messaging, the other screen is web site performance and email. Two screens is great.

Posted by: Concerned Citizen | Mar 24, 2014 8:27:27 PM

Depends on what you are doing. In hardware and software coding, you can't have too much real estate. Same for reading tech specs such as USB. Also true for simulations where the code goes on one screen and the waveform viewer goes on the other. I have dual 30" displays at 2560x1600 and that is not enough sometimes.

Posted by: Phil | Mar 24, 2014 8:30:01 PM

The only reason to have two monitors, in my opinion, is to have one with an always-present application (mine is the web browser) and the other monitor allows you to switch between multiple desktops.

This allows you to retain context on one part while switching context on the other. This concept is valuable enough to me -- I am a web software developer -- to make it something I insist on even in my road office.

Posted by: Mick | Mar 24, 2014 8:33:39 PM

I disagree with the article. I write software for a living. Often I need to refer to a technical document to write the code. Having the reference is critical to my productivity.

But more than that is the testing of my software. I have multiple components: Server, Client, Debugger, Code. I need to see the server log in one screen. I need to interact with the UI. I need to pause the application and manipulate data. I am more productive than the people who only have one. Period. And the people on my team who have multiple monitors have equally soared in productivity.
(insider tip #1: The best performers on my team bought their own hardware.)
(tip #2: get monitors that can be rotated vertically. Most documents are narrow and long. 1024x1280 is much better than 1280x1024.)

if the author is having issues with focus and concentration, their problem isn't with the technology, it is with the person and their approach to their work.

I find it frustrating to read an article like this in a major publication because I will now have to defend it from management that doesn't want to pay for the extra hardware.

Thank you Paul, for posting about this topic. I wouldn't have read it from the source. Now I am more prepared for when I am presented with this article.


Posted by: _Jon | Mar 24, 2014 8:38:57 PM

It doesn't matter how many monitors you have if you are running apps like Twitter or non work email. Keep those apps on your phone and only check it a couple of times a day.

Posted by: Sam Hall | Mar 24, 2014 8:54:07 PM

I don't "work" on a computer (I'm a warehouseman at a retail store), but I have dual monitors (22" widescreen at 1600x900 resolution) on my home computer. I routinely have a video program or audio playlist (with visualizer) running on one monitor while "working" on the second. I usually have the second monitor split into quadrants: a wordprocessor, text editor or database; a file manager; a utility program (monitoring a defrag, for example); and an "open" quadrant for any other application I may need. I find that I can get considerable work done while still enjoying a movie, documentary or audio album. Or, when working on my personal website, I'll have a browser fullscreen on one monitor to see my changes in realtime, a second browser halfscreen on the other monitor for online research, a quarterscreen file manager for selecting/editing graphics, and a quarterscreen text editor for coding HTML and CSS (I hand-code; I hate WYSIWYG editors). I guess it just comes down to whatever the individual is most comfortable with.

Posted by: Rusty Bill | Mar 24, 2014 8:55:57 PM

I'll echo the "depends on what you do" sentiment. Being able to see my presentation at a decent size while copying information from other documents makes it so much easier.

But you saved the real point to the penultimate paragraph. It's not having two screens. It's that having two screens makes it easier to be distracted. I know too many people who put Outlook on the second screen, so they immediately get drawn into every email that pops in. It's not what you've got on your desk; it's what you do with it.

Posted by: Derek Gwinn | Mar 24, 2014 9:11:18 PM

People who do video work or CGI need 2 monitors, or even more. Probably the same for many engineering disciplines.

Posted by: Norm | Mar 24, 2014 10:03:40 PM

You have yet to convince me. I have a 24", and a 32" TV used as a monitor. It doesn't have the resolution, but does make reading stuff easier, given the larger type.

I am a patent attorney, and spent the afternoon with one copy of patent drawings in one window, and the CAD version in another. Tonight, I will go with the CAD drawings in one, and Word in the other. Absent a second monitor, I have to switch back and forth continuously, and I really don't have all that good of a memory any more.

When I was in a decent sized firm a couple of years ago, I had three monitors, all in the 21"-24" range. I really didn't need the third monitor that much, unless I was responding to an office action from a patent examiner. Then, I would have my text on one screen, the examiner's comments in another, and either the prior art he is citing, or the claims, in a third window. That is the time though when I would get distracted, as I often used that third monitor for Drudge, Instapundit, etc. With only two monitors, I have to switch away from work to follow these sites.

Why not just get and use a super big monitor instead? One, this is cheaper. But, maybe more importantly, it is easy to keep myself organized on my screens with two monitors - I run with maximized windows, so I only see two things most of the time, and have written software that switches applications between monitors and maximizes, minimizes, etc. them, when needed.

Each to his own.

Posted by: Bruce | Mar 24, 2014 10:07:42 PM

Ho hum... Imagine that - a NY Times writer suggesting that, based solely on his personal experience in his job as a tech columnist, all us unwashed out here using 2 monitors are doing it wrong.
I had to laugh when I saw Farhad's 'punishingly cramped' single screen was at least a 24" (perhaps 27") 1920x1080 display - plenty of room to have two normal letter-sized document windows open side-by-side. Oh the humanity!
I retired a couple years ago after 28+ years at one of the major high-tech companies creating some of the stuff Farhad writes about... so I saw it all from 640x480 VGA monochrome CRTs up to today's WQHD/WQXGA LCD/LEDs. As a product development manager, I found finally getting 2 monitors my last few years to be very helpful to my accomplishing what was expected. So I'd say what's optimal for Farhad in the creation of his work product isn't by definition optimal for everybody else. In a highly-matrixed environment where you're transacting information and managing multiple projects simultaneously, one best be able to multiplex in real-time throughout the normal work day. It may not be optimal but it's what it takes to get the job done for many in sub-optimal reality. Not everybody is a tech columnist working from home.

Posted by: David Wickerham | Mar 24, 2014 10:07:50 PM

I write financial models for a living. I have three monitors on my home desk - one a 27 inch 2560x1440 and it bothers me that my work computer can only drive two monitors. I'm thinking about personally buying a device to get the third monitor running at work. It's great if your work product is just a few words once or twice a week for the times, but it does not describe what I or anyone I work with does for a living.

Posted by: Josh | Mar 24, 2014 10:30:03 PM

This article is face-palm inducing at best, and insulting at worst.

I work in an office with 150+ people who are using 3-5 monitors. Take away one monitor from one person and you'll impact at least one or two dozen people. You'd be hard pressed to find more than a handful of people with non-work content on their screens, and even then you're virtually guaranteed to find that they're loading tools or compiling.

This is what tends to happen when people are, you know, actually working.

Posted by: Srsly | Mar 24, 2014 11:01:26 PM

As someone who did IT for 35 years and now write, all I can say is do not blame lack of focus on the hardware.

Posted by: Oligonicella | Mar 25, 2014 12:13:06 AM

I'm glad you've made observations of relevance to you

They mean nothing to me. I am confined by two monitors at work, and at home use three. I keep reference documents up on one, my development environment on the middle, and results show up on the third.

Posted by: Tom Perkins | Mar 25, 2014 3:22:09 AM

The second monitor is for the debugger, as any computer-savvy person would know.

At least the comments will be filled with people who actually know what they're doing to keep readers informed. I understand "tech journalist" is more about the "journalist" part than the "tech", but you could at least do enough homework to find out what REAL computer professionals are doing with their second monitors.

Or you could wait for the flood of commenters saying, "What about the debugger," which is admittedly a much cheaper way to budget your time.

Posted by: Ada Lovelace | Mar 25, 2014 5:24:07 AM

The first time I read an article by Farhad Manjoo, he was bloviating about the fact that he was bored with the display fonts which were then currently being used by most web designers (and are still being used because they are, you know, legible). The second article was about, (gasp, are you ready for this?) the absolutely evil practice of using 2 spaces after a period, instead of his preferred one space. The third article was about his going to a make-up specialist to see if it would improve his looks. Why does anyone take him seriously???

Posted by: Elva | Mar 25, 2014 6:10:47 AM

Disagree. I do illustration work and two monitors work best to keep the drawing area uncluttered.
If one is just using the internet for Facebook, YouTube, email, Twitter, etc, then one monitor is enough.

Posted by: C Kaufman | Mar 25, 2014 6:13:55 AM

I make a living using geology and geophysics to look for places to drill oil and gas wells. Multiple monitors are a huge boost to productivity. One can look at data on one screen and a map on another and well info on another.

Posted by: Mike Bergsma | Mar 25, 2014 7:13:38 AM

Two monitors good. Three monitors better!

Posted by: Southern Man | Mar 25, 2014 7:14:07 AM

I prefer no monitors. Even one monitor is a distraction from living my life and spending time with family, but I guess we all have to work. :)

Posted by: Truth Teller | Mar 25, 2014 7:46:38 AM

I'll bet he still gets distracted by Twitter on his single monitor ...

Posted by: JeffC | Mar 25, 2014 12:11:13 PM

I've worked with folks that had 4 monitors and would have like 6 ... and none of them had "distractions" on them ...

Posted by: JeffC | Mar 25, 2014 12:12:45 PM

Yes, it's entirely task-specific.

As a programmer, I'm vastly more productive with two monitors; I can have an issue tracker or documentation taking up one screen, while a development environment is open on the other.

Switching between both of those on one screen is absolutely not productive.

Posted by: Sigivald | Mar 25, 2014 1:51:49 PM

I personally would love to have two monitors to crunch through the tasks that require lots of monitor real estate space, but as I work in one of those firms where contractors aren't allowed to ask for extra equipment that can make our work easier its not happening anytime soon. Gotta hate short sighted policies.

Posted by: Hybrid | Mar 25, 2014 3:06:38 PM

I use two monitors at work. I love it. I frequently need to compare two documents (such as a permit, and an underlying regulation), so it really works for me. But, hey, you don't like it, don't do it.

Posted by: RobinGoodfellow | Mar 25, 2014 7:17:37 PM