Does Computer Monitor Setup Improve Productivity?

May 1, 2015
7 Min Read

Remember when the only people to use more than one monitor were designers, programmers, and gamers? In the last five years, multiple monitor use has entered mainstream business to the point that if organizations have the money and the space, they’re providing average employees with tricked-out monitor configurations. The question is, does this actually improve one's productivity?

I have been using the 24″ desktop monitor I’m currently typing on for what feels like forever. It’s connected to my laptop because that screen is really small. Most of the time, it works just fine for my needs. But there are times, like today when I was hosting a Twitter chat, when I could have benefited from multiple monitors or an oversized monitor. My single monitor did not allow me to quickly scan the chat feed while making comments and responding to questions. And if I tried to hop over to Google to look something up, God help me.

On the Hunt for Evidence

I started looking into multiple monitor and oversized monitor use to see if there were documented productivity differences. In a 2012 New York Times article, Matt Richtel mentioned a study by the University of Utah, which found that productivity among people working on editing tasks was higher with two monitors than with one. Although financed by NEC Display, investigator and professor of communication James Anderson said he did not let his sponsor influence his findings. Since the NYT took his word for it, we will too.

Professor Anderson claimed that more monitors cut down on toggling time among windows on a single screen, which can save about 10 seconds for every five minutes of work. If you have more than one monitor, he told the Times, “You don’t have to toggle back and forth. You can take in everything with the sweep of an eye.”

This was exactly what I was thinking during my Twitter chat.

“I Think I Need Glasses”

On the other hand, having two or more monitors doesn’t necessarily mean the information on them is actually useful. For example, your individual displays may be very small, involving lots of scrolling, maximizing/minimizing, and squinting as you balance working with different documents, spreadsheets, and web pages. According to Lifehacker Australia, that’s where the ultrawide (oversized) monitor comes in.

Ultrawide monitors are traditionally any display that’s about 21:9 aspect ratio, designed to have a similar aspect ratio to traditional movie theatre screens. Depending on the size of the display you purchase, you’re looking at screen resolutions of around 2560 or 3440 pixels wide by 1080 or 1440 pixels high, in display sizes from 29″ to 34″ diagonally. Twenty-nine inch models are often competitively priced, but 34″ designs generally attract a premium.

The Holy Grail of Multi-Tasking?

Lifehacker was of the opinion that only the 34″ designs are really worth the money. A single, ultrawide monitor gives you a seamless working (and gaming) experience without bezels in between windows or documents, and without multiple connectors to your computer’s video card to drive all of those displays together. At 34″, you have more than enough room to work, and resolutions like 3440 x 1440 give you enough space to open up three or four browser windows, documents, or applications side-by-side or tiled without text getting too small to read and menus impossible to navigate.

After reading all of this information, I was tempted to splurge on an ultrawide, or at least a second monitor. But then I thought about it more carefully and realized that the majority of my work is probably not all that conducive to multiple screens. You see, I spend about 50 percent of each day writing (and focusing on) a single, Microsoft word document. If I had other screens available to me at all times, how many times per hour or minute would my train of thought be interrupted so I could check what was going on over on the right or left? Plus, I travel often, so I’m used to operating in cramped quarters. If I got accustomed to a fancier setup in my home office, would my productivity suffer once out of that environment?

I concluded that whether multiple and oversized monitors improve productivity is in the eye of the beholder. It depends on the kind of work you do and where you do it, and whether it’s helpful to be constantly switching your attention from one data stream to another and leaving yourself vulnerable to overwork. You might be better off just keeping it simple.

Do you use multiple or oversized monitors? How has the experience been for you?

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