Making multiple monitors work for you

A few days ago I happened upon a post regarding large screens and multiple monitors, or rather the lack thereof. The article was a well-written, but sloppily thought out piece where the author makes the claim that having a single, small display makes him “meticulous”, “instantly less distracted” and generally more productive. I take exception to this claim.

I want to make the argument that if using multiple monitors is not boosting your productivity then either you are not using them correctly, or that your work does not require two monitors in the first place (which is perfectly fine). But going back to one small screen is not suddenly going to make you more productive. Productivity is a function of both the work you do and the tools you use and it annoys me when so-called “technology bloggers” hold up interesting tools to be the end all and be all.

Rants aside, the issue of multiple monitors is something that I’ve been thinking about on and off for the past few years. At various points I’ve gone between one and two screens. Over the summer I had a dual monitor desktop setup. Now I have my Macbook Air at home and a single 22″ monitor at work. Since I have a standing desk at work I don’t hook my Macbook up to the monitor. If there is a way to make the Air float in mid-air please let me know.

Here is my thesis: multiple monitors are most useful when your work actually needs you to be looking at multiple pieces of information at the same time. Any time you find yourself quickly switching between 2 or more applications, tabs or windows, you could probably benefit from adding a monitor (or two). Personally this happens to me all the time when I’m programming. I have one monitor devoted to code and one devoted to documentation about libraries I’m using. When I was taking a screenwriting class I would have my script on one monitor and the other would be devoted to research (mostly Wikipedia because I was writing an alternative history piece involving the British Empire).

I’ve always used multiple monitors with virtual desktops (or workspaces as they’re called now). They blew my mind when I first started using Linux and I couldn’t live without them now. Some window managers (OS X in particular) treat multiple monitors as one big extended desktop. I think that’s the wrong way to go about it. I prefer using XMonad with multiple monitors – it turns each monitor into a “viewport” onto my set of up to 9 single-monitor desktops. That means that I can control and move what’s on each monitor independently which gives me much finer control over what I’m seeing at any time. If I have code, IRC and documentation open in three different workspaces I can keep code open on one monitor and move in between docs and IRC on the other if I need questions answered. This level of control is also why I think smaller dual monitors are better than larger single monitors.

Xmonad is also a tiling window manager which automatically arranges my windows to make the most efficient use of my screen space. It makes OS X’s fullscreen app mode look like a toy in comparison. Instead of futzing around without laying out my windows by hand I can have preprogrammed setups that are guaranteed to be the same every single time. This comes in very handy when you need to look at three terminals logged into three different computers at the same time. Spatial memory can be very powerful and it’s one more trick in the productivity bag. It’s also why I love Firefox Panorama, but that’s a matter for another post. XMonad also lets me use space that would otherwise go wasted if I had to spend time and effort manually setting it all up. Large screens actually get partitioned into usable layouts. window manager that will do it for you. If your second monitor is filled with

Two things to note about my usage: first, I do work that actually benefits from having multiple things open side-by-side. Second, I use tools that are molded to suit my workflow, not the other way around. And therein lies the fallacy when people start saying that going to smaller, single monitors increases their productivity. If you’re a writer who doesn’t need her research open side-by-side then you’re not going to benefit from another monitor. If you absolutely need to focus on PhotoShop for long periods of time then a single big monitor might be the best. As I’m writing this blog post I’m using one-half of my piddly 13″ Air screen. If you’re having trouble using space on a large monitor you should get a email, Twitter, IM and other distractions then of course it’s going to make you less productive. If you’re fighting with your technology rather than shaping it to your will then it’s not surprising that you get more work done with less tech.

The last thing I want to talk about is physical positioning. The article I mentioned at the beginning does make one valid point: If you have a dual monitor setup then either the seam between the screens is right in front of you or one is off to the side. The article also claims that having a monitor off to the side means that it’s less used (or completely unused). You don’t want to be staring the seam by default, but I’m not sure that having the monitor to the side is such a bad thing. Again, when I’m writing code I like having the code front and center and having the documentation off to the side isn’t such a bad thing. If your monitor to the side is really unused you should consider the points I mentioned above. Manually dragging windows to the side can be a pain and I think this might be biggest killer for a lot of people.

When I’m at a desktop with two monitor I tend to sit directly in front of my “main” monitor (whatever has my code up) and have the second one off to one side. XMonad makes sure I’m never dragging anything over and moving my head or eyes a few degrees every now and then isn’t a big deal. Your mileage may vary. But when I have a laptop connected to an external monitor, I prefer having the external one propped up so that the screen is above the laptop. Configurations with a small laptop side by side a larger monitor always struck me as odd. Having them stacked above each other makes the workflow slightly better. In Linux (or Gnome at least) you can definitely get the vertical stacking to work right, I haven’t tried it with OS X.

In conclusion, please think carefully about your workflow if you’re considering changing your monitor setup. Use tools that will work with you, not against you. Don’t think that a particular setup will work for you just because someone on the Internet promotes it or some piece of software makes that the default. People and companies get things wrong. Even Apple. There is no substitute for using your own head, especially when it comes to personal matters like workspace setup.

PS. I know that I haven’t linked to the original article. I did it on purpose because links are the currency of the Web and I don’t want to reward what I consider to be sloppy thinking and inaccuracy. If you really want to find it, Google is your friend. If you think I should link anyway, feel free to convince me in the comments.

4 thoughts on “Making multiple monitors work for you

    1. I haven’t tried using OS X with XMonad. I mostly run apps full screen on my 13″ Air and Alt-tab between them. I vaguely remember seeing an article about running XMonad on OS X at some point, but I could be making that up.

  1. Having a single monitor, the problem of referencing documentation/theory while coding is a real issue. The constant minimizing/maximizing can seriously derail an undisciplined mind. What I do is get a printout (the lab seems to have infinite stocks of A4 sheets) of everything I’d possibly need, get it bound if posterity is needed (INR 20 apiece), then lug it back home in glory to leaf through in magisterial dignity!
    Also the eye strain of looking at monitors is relieved somewhat.

    1. I have a love-hate relationship with paper. It’s a great tactile medium and it’s much easier to flip through than any digital medium (unless you can do a fairly precise search for what you’re looking for). And there’s still no general-purpose digital alternative to being able to take out a pen and scribble down whatever you want. However that flexibility is counterbalanced by having to actually lug the stacks around (and deal with forgetting to do so) and the slight tinge of guilt I feel about destroying the planet one tree at a time. Sometimes I feel like I think too much about these things.

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