No, You Don’t Need Three Monitors

If you’re the kind of person who works with a computer at a desk then you’ve no doubt spent some time endlessly tweaking and tuning your setup to achieve the right feeling.

Having a nice desk setup can create a soothing sense of feng shui. You feel more productive, even if you aren’t actually getting any more work done.

I’ve gone through many variations of my setup. Some have been clear improvements. After years of writing at a cheap Ikea table with a kitchen chair I finally invested in an ergonomic chair and a proper desk. Both have proven to be excellent investments for creating a comfortable space for doing my work.

Other tweaks have more dubious value. Case in point: extra monitors.

Walk into any office and you’ll see people with external screens galore. Some of these arrangements are absurd arrays of many millions of pixels. I worked with someone who had a large 52 inch screen TV on his desk, in addition to the large laptop screen he already had. Another person I worked with had three 4K screens on rotated mounts.

Here’s the thing: I don’t think most of us actually get anything out of additional screen space.

Let’s consider why we add monitors to our desk setups in the first place. I think there are two reasons: a) we have special requirements that our primary screen can’t provide, or b) we want more screen space.

Maybe you’re a graphic designer or a video editor with a laptop and you require extremely high color depth or an unusually high refresh rate. I don’t do a lot of graphics work anymore, so I can’t comment on whether typical Macbook or Thinkpad screens are “good enough” for that work, but my suspicion is that they usually are. However, I concede that there may be some real cases here where the screen attached to your laptop is just not good enough.

For the rest of us, which includes the vast majority of desk workers — developers, engineers, writers, business analysts, marketers, HR, sales — there is only one reason: because we want more screen space to display stuff.

The question I will then pose is: why do we feel that we need so much extra screen space?

There was a time in the early 2000s when video cards could only pump a paltry 720 x 480 pixels out to a flickering CRT monitor. I remember when 1024 x 768 felt huge. In those days, it made sense to add additional screens to be able to display everything we needed to look at — if we could even get a video card that could push that many pixels. A second monitor doubled our very limited real-estate.

But today, even my basic Macbook Air — the svelte sliver of aluminum that I’m presently typing on — can display millions of pixels at a time. I don’t really need any more pixels. I can easily fit two browser windows and a text editor in the same desktop, with room to spare.

Nor is this pixel density unusual. Indeed, it is becoming the norm even for budget laptops. I contend that almost all of us have more than enough pixels to get our work done.

I’ve had times when my desk was occupied with an extra screen. Occasionally, it has felt useful to have the extra pixels. But inevitably I grow weary of the looming monitor.

The author’s setup with an additional monitor.

The more screen space we have, the easier it becomes to multi-task. By switching our focus between different tasks, we can successfully defer completion of any one task, while maintaining the illusion that we are being more productive by making trivial progress on all of them.

Every bit of information we push to our senses, whether it be a conversation or an extra browser window, divides our attention. It is only the narrowing of our attention that leads to creative and productive work.

The author’s distraction-resistant desk setup.

With that extra screen cleared away, I discovered room on my desk for objects I never considered vital to my setup. I have a small plant, a pothos, which sits peacefully beside me. I also have an empty section of my desk in which I can easily write in a notebook to make notes or sketch diagrams.

With less pixel space, I find I have more mental space. And that has turned out to make the most difference.

Give it a shot. Put your extra monitors away for a month and see what effect it has on your work life. Perhaps you’ll find, like me, that less is more.

Robert is a writer and software engineer. robert@rquinlivan.net - www.rquinlivan.net

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