Multiple Monitors boost productivity... a lot

Today Apple launches it's new Thunderbolt Display so I decided to write about displays a little more. When I visited for the first time the Google's HQ (aka "Googleplex") way back in 2007 I was surprised to see most of the developers there with several monitors... sometimes even 2 external screens plugged into one small Thinkpad laptop.

When I came back home I immediately bought myself a Gateway 21" monitor for my laptop - a screen that can be pivoted to horizontal orientation - and felt a lot more productive. Now I actually have three monitors "kind of" as I use the iPad as my third screen with Mail, Twitter and Reeder apps launched there:

But I'm not the hardcore user here. My Productive! Magazine editor, Lori Anderson is using 4 screens at the same time hooked up to one PC. It's amazing to see this setup and I truly believe it makes her very productive. After all, she's a GTD practitioner and a GTD coach at her company. Here's Lori's desk:

Why are multiple monitors productivity boosters?

They help us "design our focus" and put full-screen apps on all the screens. The new Mac OSX Lion is all about full-screen apps and it's because only with one window open we can focus on the task at hand. With multiple monitors we can have shift our focus from one monitor to another and then stayed focused on it... without being distracted by windows all around us.

My usecase: When coding (I still code from time to time) I launch my coding app (Espresso for the Mac) in full screen on my external monitor in portrait mode and launch my browser on the laptop screen to be able to immediately preview the results of my code in the browser window.

With two monitors it's just useful to have a "reference" app and the actually app you're working in on two separate screens.

What's your take on multiple monitors? Love'm? Hate'm? What's your magic number and how do you get things done in such an environment?

I'm Michael Sliwinski and I'm an entrepreneur who's also the...
.. Founder of - a time and project management web application
.. Editor of Productive! Magazine - a global PDF publication on productivity
.. and a blogger as well as a producer of a weekly 2-minute Productive! show.

Posted on Wednesday, July 20, 2011 (productivity)

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Al Pittampalli
Jul 20, 2011 18:21
Truly to each their own. Seeing more than one screen scares the heck out of me. I spend most of my day trying to avoid distractions and focus on one thing...multiple screens I think might exacerbate my problem.

But I know others who swear by it...really it's about know what works for you.

Mickey Mellen
Jul 20, 2011 18:35
I use three at home, plus an occasional laptop or tablet on the site.

I'm on the road right now with only two screen (laptop + 1) and it's brutal! :)

Michael Sliwinski
Jul 20, 2011 23:58
It all depends what you do. For some tasks I don't plug in external display, for other stuff I really dig dual-monitor setup. My iPad makes sure I don't open the same apps on my Mac so when I use the iPad, I'm focused on what's there. It all depends, Al :-)

Mickey, I totally get what you're saying - when I'm on the road and need to code, I'd kill for an external display. They have dual monitor laptops but they look, weird, though :-)

Natasha Murashev
Jul 21, 2011 00:01
Glad it works for you! I would personally find this super distracting. Kind of defeats the purpose of the full-screen apps :)
Michael Sliwinski
Jul 21, 2011 11:05
Multiple monitors don't defeat the purpose of full-screen apps. Normally to change focus you'd need to change apps, with several screens you can just glimpse on the other monitor for a reference and get back to the main monitor you're working on. I'll install Lion now and see how the full screen apps play out on my multi-monitor set up. Again, my iPad as 3rd monitor makes sure I don't launch more apps on my working laptop. If I want to read the news, I grab the iPad and open Reeder there, for example. Anyway, Natasha, it's all a personal preference but there were studies that multiple monitors do improve productivity. In my case they really do. :-)
Natasha Murashev
Jul 22, 2011 02:08
Do you have a link to the studies? Would love to read up more on this. Might have to try this :)
Michael Sliwinski
Jul 22, 2011 09:35
My wife never used 2 monitors before. Got them in her new work. 1 - full screen Word (writing), 2 - full screen web (research) - loves the setup and never would go back.

Natasha, by the way I found this study by Microsoft:

Natasha Murashev
Jul 22, 2011 19:07
Wow, thanks for the link! Fascinating research, especially about the gender differences. I'll have to try it out.
Jul 23, 2011 03:48
I am in the same boat, when I am home, I hook up my mbp on samsung 21,5 inch led and use iPad on the side.
Jul 23, 2011 14:14
I use this in my office, MBP + 26" Lg monitor with Windows 7 desktop. Its cool because both computers have their own strengths & weaknesses, so I have the best of both worlds. Saves the hassle of switching between apps as well
Michael Sliwinski
Jul 24, 2011 16:29
I'm now going to try multiple monitors and full-screen apps on Lion and will let you know how this works out. Amit, two computers is a good trick :-) Bojan - glad we use similar approach :-) Natasha, good luck!
Jul 26, 2011 18:00
I've used multiple monitors since 2005 and wouldn't ever want to go back to just one. Not even if it was an extremely large display. Depending on what I'm working on, I usually have my editor or IDE on my main display, and reference material on the other display. Or if I'm doing web development, I'll have the web browser on the second display.

I think that it's important to use the second display for something that will compliment the work being done on the main display. Otherwise it will be a distraction.

Michael Sliwinski
Jul 27, 2011 10:51
Totally agree that once yo've tried two-monitor setup you don't want to go back. I know this for a fact :-) Exactly my point - the second monitor should compliment the primary one. Thanks for your comment, Simon!
Timo Kiander
Jul 31, 2011 07:22

I have two monitors myself (both at work and at the office) and my life would be so much more complicated without that kind of setup.

It definitely helps and especially in web development (or in any other software development for that matter), it is beneficial too.


Michael Sliwinski
Jul 31, 2011 23:05
I'm going to buy a Mac Mini which will share a monitor with my Macbook Air - I'll use it as a dual-monitor setup or dual-computer setup depending on my needs. Thanks for commenting Timo!