Overcoming the Multi-Task Blues with Multiple Screens

Ok, I’ll be the first to admit that I get easily distracted when I’m trying to work.  I means let’s face it, at any given time that you’re trying to focus, you’re being hounded by multiple alerts, be it email, Skype, Facebook updates, twitter updates, linked in profiles, Reddit stories or pictures, calendar alerts, and if you’re like me you probably have a favorite forum or two in the mix as well.  To say that it’s sometimes frustrating is a pretty huge understatement.  I mean let’s face it, even when you try to turn down the noise, it’s still there, buzzing in your ear like a busted fridge.  And even if you’ve become a master at toggling among a dozen tabs, moving your mouse like Superman himself and an expert at speed-reading, you’re still losing time if you’re only using one monitor to manage all of your applications.

Now that I’ve ranted about the problem, you’d probably like to know the solution (ok, well if you read the title, I’m guessing you know where I’m going with this, but let’s do it anyways.)  One of the fastest growing trends in the workplace is the additional of
multiple monitors- 2, 3 or even more.    Companies and home offices have exploded with screens the way population explodes during springtime at the zoo.  All of these offices are starting to look like creepy control room in The Matrix (you remember don’t you?)  Or perhaps they look like a NASA control center- irrelevant really, but what is relevant is just how much time and energy multiple monitors can save you.

It’s almost amusing to those of us that have made the switch to multiple screens.  It’s like asking someone with a cable modem to use dial-up again.  You just don’t go backwards.  The average for most multi-monitor users is 3 monitors with 3 tables open on each- if one goes down it’s like be smacked in the knee with a police baton during a marathon- you go down and you go down hard.    According to a recent New York Times article a lady by the name of Jackie Cohen, age 42, works at home and uses 3 17-inch monitors at any given time.  She writes a blog, and uses her center monitor for writing.   The other 2-display real time feeds like Facebook, Twitter and an RSS feed where she keeps up with her favorite blogs.  She made a joke about one of her monitors breaking recently saying that it made her computer run faster, but her brain couldn’t handle it.

So here’s an impressive number for you: in 2011 tech firms sold 179 million monitors, in combination with only 130 million computers.  What does this tell us?  Well obviously
it’s a hint at just how many people are trying the multiple monitor thing.  On top of that people are discovering that the rumors are true, size does matter.  The average size of monitor went up from 18-inches five years ago, to 21-inches just last year.

One of the best-known and largest suppliers of monitors, NEC, said nearly 40 percent of all corporate customers are using more than one monitor.   Of course there are probably a number of good reasons for the sales spike.  I mean let’s face it, the cost of monitors have gone down drastically.  It was only 5 years ago that a 24 each display would cost you over $700 dollars.  If a retail store tried to charge that now, you’d probably laugh at the clerk and walk out.  The average price is around $300, in case you were wonder, but discount suppliers online have deals that are even better than that.

In addition to the lower prices on monitors, you can bet that they are thinner and lighter too.  I can’t imagine trying to use 3 CRT monitors on my desktop (that’d just be silly in all honesty- even though it was actually done not that long ago), but having 3 high definition LED displays just makes me happy.  And you can bet that with all the communication tools, like the ones we mentioned above, the extra screen real estate could be a huge advantage.

You know what they say about a guy with 5 monitors, right?  He’s probably trying to impress young recruits to come work for his tech company.  OK, OK, I’m just being funny, but in all seriousness, there are companies that now use multiple monitors as a selling
point for a tech position.  There are jobs, like software engineer and other technical jobs where having more than one screen is pretty much essential.  Engineers aren’t dumb and they know that having the appropriate tools to do a job right could mean success or failure.  So companies offer big screens and many screens to serious candidates.

If you’ve been trying to determine the main motivation behind using multiple screens, the idea tends to be that multiple screens increase productivity, but it’s difficult to prove this, even to some of the die-hard-multi-screeners.  I guess it really comes down to the type of job that you’re doing and the actual need to have live data streamed in front.  After all, there are the detractors that say having more than one monitor just means you’re more likely to mess around on other screens and avoid doing actual work.  But according to a study done at the University of Utah, this simply was not the case.  They found that productivity was higher among those with 2 or more monitors than those who just used a single monitor.  The study cost about $50,000 to conduct and was paid for by the guys over at NEC.  Of course, once the news got out that two monitors really are better than one, HP/Compaq picked up the story and it became a sort of mantra for a while.  Worth noting the lead professor on the study said that the financing of the study in no way influenced the results.

One argument that I made for using multiple monitors that seems to have been backed up by the University of Utah Study is that having multiple monitor can actually cut down on the amount of toggling that takes place.  In return this can save you hours every week- 10 seconds for every five minutes of work.  If you don’t have to toggle back and forth, your company could save literally thousands of dollars a year in lost time.  David E. Meyer, a professor at the University of Michigan agrees that toggling is the equivalent of lost time, even if multi-tasking sometimes makes work more difficult as well.  His
suggestion is to try and stay on task, focus on one thing at a time, even if you are using multiple monitors.

If you talk to people in the financial industry, they’d probably laugh at the thought of using only 2 or 3 monitors.  Many day traders find themselves using 6, 8, 12- the sky is the limit really.  But of course the wall of monitors they use end up displaying charts, graphs, headlines, even live news feeds.  When you’re trading stocks there are so many indicators that you must be aware of to make wise trading decisions.  One downside to the wall of monitors though is that if you work with other people, it can make inter-office communication (at least on a face to face level) a bit more challenging.

Programmers are another field of employees that seem to think multiple monitors are advantages.  The owner of a popular software firm says that he uses 2 monitors and will buy his employees an extra monitor as well, if they want it.  As seems to be the case with a lot of multi-monitor supporters, the main advantage is the ability to have communications open and code at the same time.

Indeed, as this trend continues to grow, it’s likely that more offices will transform into what some might say looks like mission control.  The advantages are many and it’s impossible that other companies and businesses will not continue to catch on to what appears to be an incredible tend.  If you haven’t bought multiple monitors for your office, just remember that it’s rather insignificant cost wise, but will likely save you 10 seconds for every 5 minutes of work, this will add up very quickly.  Those that make the change to multiple monitors never go back, I’d bet that once you have multiple monitors, you won’t go back either.