Multiple monitor screens: maybe the fastest way to immediately boost productivity 

For years, I’ve used multiple monitors on my computers at home and work. The investment I’ve made in two extra monitors has more than paid itself back in enhanced productivity. But don’t take it from me:

  • The NY Times reports, “Survey after survey shows that whether you measure your productivity in facts researched, alien spaceships vaporized, or articles written, adding an extra monitor will give your output a considerable boost — 20 percent to 30 percent, according to a survey by Jon Peddie Research.”
  • Research by Microsoft suggests that adding a second screen can achieve productivity increases of nine to 50 percent.
  • Apple touts research showing that larger screens increase work output, as discussed in a Slate article entitled, “Why gigantic screens are the best computer upgrades ever.”
  • The Wall Street Journal discusses a study by the University of Utah, which demonstrates that using a larger monitor helped users complete tasks 52% faster, saving upwards of 2.5 hours per day.

Though many studies suggest that having more screen space enhances productivity, it is challenging to design studies which reliably measure the exact impact. On methodology to measure productivity and screen size, Jakob Neilsen provides thoughtful input.

Who uses multiple monitors?

Bill Gates:

Bill Gates uses three monitors on one computer

Bill Gates uses three monitors on one computer, and he keeps a tidy desk to boot

Gates writes, “On my desk I have three screens, synchronized to form a single desktop. I can drag items from one screen to the next. Once you have that large display area, you’ll never go back, because it has a direct impact on productivity. The screen on the left has my list of e-mails. On the center screen is usually the specific e-mail I’m reading and responding to. And my browser is on the right-hand screen. This setup gives me the ability to glance and see what new has come in while I’m working on something, and to bring up a link that’s related to an e-mail and look at it while the e-mail is still in front of me.”

Multiple monitors aren’t just for technology wizards. Al Gore, former Vice-President of the U.S., uses three Apple displays:

al_gore_3_mac_lcds

Al Gore uses three monitors on one computer, and he keeps a tidy... oh, never mind

Gates and Gore use three screens with desktop computers. For laptop users, two additional screens connect to my laptop:

I am enjoying the pleasant fiction that my desk is never clutterred

I enjoy the pleasant fiction that my desk is never cluttered. Here it is after I moved in - with zero mess and zero personality.

Multiple monitors are used by folks from all walks of life: programmers, writers, customer service reps, sales reps, doctors, mechanics, logistics coordinators, and maybe your grandmother. See below for more multiple monitor workstations:

What do you do with so many screens?

It’s easy to move programs from one screen to another. I typically use:

  • on the left screen: Microsoft Outlook or Gmail
  • on the middle screen: A document I’m editing – such as an email, word document, or spreadsheet.
  • on the right screen: A web page related to the document I’m working on, or other supporting material.

This video shows how to move programs across screens:

I’ve worked in sales. Say I’m on the phone with a customer, discussing an email they sent me. I might view the customer’s email on my left screen, while typing call notes in Microsoft Word on the middle screen, and referring to the customer’s website on my right screen.

Perhaps I’m researching a company before I meet with them. I might be keeping an eye on my inbox on the left screen, completing a company profile template on the middle screen, while reading a news article about the company on the right screen. I’m not multitasking. (Multitasking reduces focus on a single task.) I’m using the monitors to do one task at a time. Often in our jobs we need to monitor incoming email  to see if something requires a quick response. Having email open on one screen is sometimes helpful; when email arrives, I quickly scan it to see if I need to address it immediately.  If it’s not urgent, I return to my task. Working this way, I don’t miss urgent messages, and I don’t constantly interrupt my task to check new messages.

I’ve worked in logistics. I might be speaking with a customer on the phone, while referring to their email on the left screen, a proof of delivery on the middle screen, and a transportation management system on the right screen. I’m performing the single task of solving the customer’s problem; information on all three screens helps me solve it more quickly.

Generally, my inbox is on the left; what I’m typing is in the middle; and what I’m referring to is on the right.

Once you experience working with a second monitor, I bet you’ll concur with the sentiment expressed in the Microsoft research: “Give someone a second monitor, let them use it for awhile, and then try to take it away. It just isn’t going to happen.” In study after study, users prefer having multiple screens.

It doesn’t cost much, and it’s easier to setup than you might believe.

How do I add additional monitors to my computer?

Three steps (basically):

  1. Get a second monitor
  2. Connect the monitor to your computer
  3. Click “Extend my Windows desktop onto this monitor.”

Windows users can follow Microsoft’s step-by-step guide (with pictures).

Apple users are also welcome to join the multiple-displays party.

What if I don’t have space on my desk for another monitor?

If you can, invest in a desk which provides sufficient workspace. (My three displays at home are on a desk which is 54 inches wide.)

You can save space by using a monitor mount, which provides these benefits:

  • saves desk space, and allows you to add monitors that your desk can’t hold
  • reduces the visual clutter on your desk that is caused by large monitor bases
  • makes it easier to clean your desk, since you don’t have to clean around monitor bases

Monitors can be mounted on a wall:

Monitors mounted to wall

Monitors mounted to wall. (For ease of reading - and to reduce neck strain - these displays should be placed a bit lower.)

Or you can mount monitors to your desk using a desk-mounting bracket:

3-Way Adjustable Tilting DUAL Desk Mount Bracket for LCD

Save desk space by mounting two monitors to your desk with this mount; it is smaller compared to using two monitor bases.

The most cost-effective method for mounting two displays seems to be the desk-mount pictured above: The Monoprice 3-Way Adjustable Tilting DUAL Desk Mount Bracket for LCD is $38.40. (It has received rave reviews, with one customer claiming it supports even two 24-inch displays.)

How much does it cost to add a monitor to my computer?

1. Buy a monitor:

– A 22-inch monitor is $160 (as of this writing) from Tiger Direct.

– Or buy a new or used monitor for less on Craigslist.

2. If you need another monitor input-port, you can:

– Buy a new video card for $57 from Tiger Direct.

– Or buy a new or used video card on Craigslist, or from a surplus computer-parts store.

– Or buy a USB to VGA adapter for $25 on Ebay.

Do I need an extra monitor? Is it worth the investment?

What you need can only be decided by you. You might not need an extra monitor any more than you need a bigger desk or a bigger office – but they’d all be useful and nice to have, wouldn’t they? You might want another monitor because:

  • The studies above suggest that productivity increases (across a wide-spectrum of computer tasks).
  • Users surveyed almost unanimously prefer multiple screens over single screens. (One user reported that multiple screens inhibit focus on a single task, due to distractions on the additional screen. I can sympathize with that. I have three screens. When I work on a task that requires only two screens, I minimize distracting windows on the third screen. And unless my job requires it, I don’t keep my email inbox visible at all times. Rather, I check email at necessary intervals – because we all know email can be very distracting.)

How many displays are optimal?

I’m not aware if research has – or even could – answer this question. It depends on what you like or need to do on a computer.

Productivity returns diminish once more monitors are added to the point at which the extra monitors must be placed too far away from your eyes, or outside the periphery of your vision. Let me explain.

Based on an ergonomic assessment of your workstation, I suggest these guidelines for adding monitors to your space:

First, adjust the monitor height so that the top of the screens are at or slightly below eye level. Your eyes should look slightly downward when viewing the middle of the screen. If you don’t have desk space for all of your monitors to be at eye level, then one option is to use displays which can be oriented in portrait mode, rather than the more traditional wide-screen mode. See the picture of Czerwinski’s office below, showing three portrait monitors occupying less than 40 inches across her desk.

Mary Czerwinski, an interruption scientist, in front of her triptych of computer screens in her office at Microsoft. She found that more desktop space equals greater productivity.

Mary Czerwinski, an interruption scientist, in front of her triptych of computer screens in her office at Microsoft. She found that more desktop space equals greater productivity.

If you still can’t place all monitors at eye level, then place at eye level the ones more frequently used. Place the others as close as possible to avoid neck strain from looking up or down.

Second, position the monitors within 20 to 30 inches (about arm’s reach) from your eyes. If using bifocals, the distance should be 16 inches. If you position your monitors closer or further away, you might feel eye strain. If it’s not possible to position all monitors within arm’s reach, then place within arm’s reach the monitors more frequently used. For the monitors further away, you might reduce eye strain by increasing the text size or zooming-in on those displays.

If your monitors are placed ergonomically, I see no harm in adding displays. Depending on what you do, decide for yourself how much your productivity is enhanced by adding a screen.

For most users, I think three screens are terrific. For more than three to be practical, it might help to have some monitors in portrait mode. My three monitors – including one laptop screen and two LCDs – take up 51 inches across. Outside 51 inches, I can’t see much without turning my head or swiveling my chair. I don’t want to strain my neck upward, either, to view a second row of monitors above the ones on my desk.

Mitch Haile makes good use of six screens wrapped around his desk:

The three displays to the left are portrait oriented, and the three to the right are wide screen oriented.

The three displays to the left are portrait oriented; the three to the right are wide-screen.

If you have as much desk space as Mitch, you might emulate his display setup. Is it overkill? Maybe – but who’s to say? Besides, it looks cool. Some people like to “pimp their cars.” Beyond a point, does it improve driver performance or the driving experience? Maybe not – but it’s fun for car buffs, and multiple monitors are fun for workspace enthusiasts.

How much is too much?

Jason Fitzpatrick of Lifehacker said, “Sometimes trying to build a workspace that can do everything for every situation leads you to create an overwhelming and cluttered workspace.”

Research suggests that it’s better to separate spaces by the functions they serve, rather than try to do everything in one spot. It makes sense to use separate spaces for separate functions because mental states, moods, and behaviors, are associated with – and triggered by – particular locations. (See 2002, Gilbert, P.E. & Kesner, R.P.: The role of the hippocampus in paired-associate learning involving associations between a stimulus and a spatial location. Behavioral Neuroscience , 116, 63-71.)

It’s good to have one place (e.g., a bedroom in your house) for a home office. Use that place only for work (if it’s important for you to work at home). Have a separate space (e.g., your living room) for recreation. Research shows that it’s easier to focus on work-related tasks when you’re in a space that is used exclusively for work. When you enter your home office, your mind is triggered to work. Then it’s easier to relax – and take a mental break from work – when you enter the recreation space.

If in the same home workspace – or on the same computer – you also engage in recreational activities (such as personal email, personal web browsing, and gaming) then your mind can be triggered to perform these recreational activities when you want to concentrate on work.

I use one laptop for work (no personal email, Facebook, or games) in my home bedroom office, and I use a second laptop in my living room for everything else (like watching classic episodes of Columbo).

Too much clutter: this workspace seems gaudy and impractical

Too much clutter: this workspace seems gaudy and impractical

By contrast, the workspace to the right seems to combine everything and then some. It cries out, “Excess is barely enough!” If this space meets the needs of its owner, then he should follow his bliss. Since I don’t know what he does, my criticisms below are made without knowledge of the needs and preferences of the user. That said, I imagine this workspace makes poor use of the significant investment put into it.

The photo shows eight screens, and another photo shows an additional two screens in the room. That’s 10 screens crammed into this tiny space.

What is the purpose of the workspace? Viewing the screens, it looks like we simultaneously have a computer game being played, a spreadsheet being updated, an image being edited, a CNN market report being watched, a second CNN broadcast being viewed on another screen, a movie being watched, and who knows what else. If this person’s brain has evolved far beyond mine – to the point where he can achieve maximum focus while splitting his attention across many diverse activities – then all the power to him. But I want evidence before I believe it.

I’m concerned for the user’s neck as he (come on, we all know this is a guy’s machination) cranes it upward to view the upper displays. For long viewing periods it does not look comfortable.

Where is the working space for paperwork? Filing cabinets for storage? Cable management? Plants or art to give the space a warm, personal feel? This space seems cluttered and ugly.

If it was my equipment, I’d distribute the hardware among separate spaces, each serving a unique function. I’d have one workspace and one playspace. If this user can show why he needs everything squeezed together, then fine. But as a bystander, it looks like an expensive mess that does not work.

Who knows – perhaps he’s a political commentator, game reviewer, and graphic artist all rolled into one amazing person who uses the devices simultaneously with astounding productivity and focus. Or maybe he’s a guy who is trying to impress us with how many pixels he can pack into a photograph. I bet it’s the latter. This space looks less like a workspace than it does a playpen for a kid with attention deficit disorder.

How can I get my employer to invest in an additional monitor for me or my team?

Many employers provide employees with multiple screens. Sometimes the phenomenon is all-or-nothing: Either everyone in the office – from reception to developers to the president – has multiple displays, or nobody does. When companies decide that multiple monitors are a good investment, they’re often rolled-out to everyone. Organizations realize that if you provide multiple monitors to some but not all, then the have nots can feel slighted (and their productivity and loyalty diminishes).

From the research cited above, I believe multiple monitors provide most companies with a fast return on investment. And surveys show that employees enjoy extra screens; happy employees are productive employees.

It seems contradictory that some companies do not hesitate to pay $100 a month for an employee’s BlackBerry plan, yet resist making a one-time investment of $150 in the same employee for an extra monitor that will last about 17 years or 50,000 hours (before the backlight extinguishes). Workers says that technology like laptops and mobile phones have improved their productivity, and increased their working hours. When multiple monitors become more ubiquitous, I imagine similar worker surveys will show that employees work longer and harder due to having better displays, too.

You might share this article, or some of the linked studies, with your manager for their consideration.

If it’s not in your company’s budget, I encourage you to invest a couple hundred bucks to give yourself the tools you need. Your output will increase, and you’ll enjoy your work more when you have better tools for the job.

After reading Jeffrey Gitomer’s “Little Red Book of Sales Answers,” I decided to buy for myself (or invest in myself is how I think of it) anything I thought might help me be more productive. Gitomer was asked, “My company won’t buy me a laptop? What should I do?” He basically answered: “Quit bitching and go buy yourself one.” You’ll get your investment back on the first extra sale you make due to having the laptop. If you are not willing to invest in yourself, what makes you think that your customer will be willing to invest in you and your products and services? I’ve tried to adopt an empowering attitude of, “I’m not going to complain about anything. I’m going to find a way to get the resources I need to support my success. If that means I have to invest a few hundred to earn a few thousand, so be it.”

With permission of my boss, I’ve brought my own monitors into my workplace. If you bring in yours, coworkers will notice and ask about your extra monitor. Inform them that you bought it, so they don’t think you’re receiving special perks. When I upgraded to my current monitors, I replaced two 17-inch LCDs. Two of my team members were using cathode ray tube monitors instead of LCDs, so I lent my old LCDs to my coworkers.

If you bring an extra display to work to enhance your productivity, it signals to everyone in your office that you take initiative – and even invest your money – to be effective. (Just ensure that your extra screen displays work-related material, not Facebook.)

What equipment and software do I personally use?

Kevin Kane's home office

Kevin Kane's home office

My hardware includes:

  • a Lenovo T61 laptop – with a docking station – running Microsoft Vista. The laptop has a 15-inch widescreen with 1680 by 1050 resolution. Higher resolution shows more content on the screen, which reduces mouse scrolling.
  • an Acer 23-inch widescreen LCD in the middle, at 1920 by 1080 resolution. The Acer screen is connected with a VGA cable to my laptop’s monitor port.
  • a Dell 22-inch widescreen LCD on the right, at 1680 by 1050 resolution. The Dell screen is connected with a USB 2.0 VGA adapter cable to one of my laptop’s USB hubs.

If you use a laptop and want to use three screens instead of two, I recommend a USB to VGA adapter, rather than a dual-head device such as the Matrox DualHead2Go Digital Edition. The USB to VGA adapter is better in the following ways:

  1. It allows for three independent screens, each with unique resolution. The DualHead2Go requires that all screens use the same resolution. The two screens attached to your laptop have a stretched resolution across them, decreasing usability in some ways.
  2. The USB to VGA adapter connects up to six displays (if you buy six adapters). The DualHead2Go seems incompatible with adding screens (at least when I tried to add a fourth screen with a USB to VGA adapter).
  3. The DualHead software is buggy.
  4. The USB to VGA adapter is physically smaller than the DualHead adapter. The USB to VGA adapter and its USB wire take up less space, creates less wire mess, and is more portable.
  5. The USB to VGA adapter costs less (I bought it for $40, with free shipping, on Ebay) than the DualHead adapter (about $200 or more).

For multiple-monitor software, I like Ultramon. It’s not necessary, but for $40 it’s wonderful. Ultramon allows window-switching across displays, using keyboard shortcuts of your choosing. I use Cntl-1 to move a window to the left, and Cntl-2 to move a window to the right.

What has been your experience with multiple monitors? Share your questions and comments below.

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3 Responses to Multiple monitor screens: maybe the fastest way to immediately boost productivity 

  1. Greg says:

    NTI provides high quality multiple display computer systems and other video technologies. It is our goal to help businesses and individuals become much more productive and profitable with the use of multi-display equipment.

    NTI is the leader in multi display video technologies. Our unwavering dedication to quality has kept us #1 since 1995.

  2. Michael says:

    Thanks for great info!

    But my personal recomendations for multi-monitor software is Actual Multiple Monitors (http://www.actualtools.com/multiplemonitors/). It is a most powerful utility among others and it works fine under Windows 7.

    The most important feature for me is an additional taskbar on my second monitor that has all features of main taskbar like Start button, toolbars, clock and tray area with notification icons. Even more, it has Pin to Taskbar and Grouping feature of Windows 7.

    • Kevin Kane says:

      Michael, Actual Multiple Monitors looks neat! With multiple monitors increasing in popularity, we’re becoming inundated with a plethora of software options to enhance the experience. Great, thanks for sharing!

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