It Only Takes One

Monitors are a feisty thing to many geeks. You’ll hear from some of us how multiple monitors are a must. The more monitors the better and that you need at least two to be really productive. You can browse the battlestations subreddit and find pictures of all kinds of computer setups that will make you weep with envy and almost all of them have some multi-monitor thing going on. Some have two, others three, and others will have four or five. They’ll be set up all side by side, or side by side with one mounted above, or side by side with an overhead and then a connection to the HDTV on the wall — there are hundreds of ways to set this stuff up.

I’ve used a bi-monitor and tri-monitor setup at home and at work. I’ve coded websites and the occasional app on these kinds of setups where I’ve got my IDE or Dreamweaver on one monitor, my email on another, and a browser on the third so I can check my edits as I work on a website. I’ve done this for a long time and didn’t give much thought to it until I got my current gig as a web content guy for the library. The job comes with a 27 inch monitor, which is bigger than any single monitor I’ve ever used. To me, it’s huge, and it’s still huge even after a year of using it. After that space of time I realized something….

I don’t need a lot of monitors, I just need a big one.

I don't give a damn who you are, there's no way you can pay attention to all of this shit at once.
I don’t give a damn who you are, there’s no way you can pay attention to all of this shit at once.

Now I know geeks all over will look at that statement and say “Well, yeah, but what about two big monitors? Can you imagine what you’d accomplish with two 27 inch monitors?!”

Yes. Yes I can. I can accomplish exactly the same amount of stuff that I can do on this one.

I multitask pretty well, but my style of work and the work I typically do doesn’t flow well on multiple monitors. That’s a function of my own workflow, but I’m certain there are others like me. Look, I’m paid to make stuff and I create things for fun in my spare time too. When I’m coding stuff for the library’s site, I’m looking at Dreamweaver and I’m looking at the code. That’s all I’m looking at. I don’t give a damn about email because I’m busy with this code, so I don’t need a monitor showing me my email. I’m not going to look at it anyway — because I’m coding. I’m not worried about Spotify or Clementine or anything providing me with music because, once I fire that off, I don’t have to look at it. After all, when you turn on the radio, do you keep constantly checking the radio? I bet you just listen to it without looking at it since that is fairly the correct way to use a radio.

When I’m working on anything creative I have a focus and, if I have to pick, I want a big window of focus and everything else can simply fade away into the background. Sure, while I code a website I’ve got a browser open to that site, but it’s in the background. Alt + Tab to the browser and then F5 refreshes the site. I note the changes, figure out what’s next, Alt + Tab back to Dreamweaver, and go back to work. The browser isn’t doing anything for me unless I need to verify my code, so there’s no point in having it on its own monitor because, even if it was on its own monitor I’d be ignoring it anyway.

The same is true with Photoshop or GarageBand or Final Cut Pro or my favourite text editor in Linux. (In case you’re wondering, it’s Kate.) When I’m illustrating something in Photoshop, I want a big ass canvas to work on. When I’m composing in GarageBand, I want to see as many tracks as possible so I can time things properly. I want as much of my footage on screen with Final Cut so I don’t have to find things as often. And when I write? I need a blank screen and a cursor.

I especially love the physical edges of the monitor crisscrossing my images and video. That really adds something to multimedia.
I especially love the physical edges of the monitor crisscrossing my images and video. That really adds something to multimedia.

When I started using a large monitor I noticed something about my behaviour on multiple monitors. It didn’t matter what was up on each one, I was only paying attention to one thing at a time anyway. So Outlook is up on my left monitor. I’m not reading email and I’m not sending email, so what do I care? Okay, Firefox is taking up the primary monitor, but if I’m not using the web at that point, what’s it to me? That’s when I discovered that what I really need is a large area to focus on and everything I’m not interested in can cease to exist, at least temporarily. When I’m working on something that requires concentration, I tend to close out unnecessary stuff anyway. That unnecessary stuff means extraneous folders open on the desktop, unneeded programmes, apps I’m not using, and email. Hell, especially email. There’s nothing so crazy making to me as being in the middle of a idea and Outlook’s toaster pops up on screen and my eyes dart to it, causing me to lose my train of thought.

If I have a productivity tip for you, it’s this: Fuck email. There’s a great Walter Matthau movie called First Monday in October where he plays a Supreme Court Justice. There’s a line in there that I absolutely adore, “The telephone has no constitutional right to be answered.” Guess what? Neither does email. I get email all day from people who could easily walk to my desk and talk to me. I figure, if it’s really important, they’ll come talk to me. If it’s not that important, they send it via email. When I go to work on something and I don’t want to be interrupted, I kill Outlook first. I heartily suggest you do the same. People send stuff through email when they don’t care that much about it, everything else is delivered by a process server and he has you sign for it.

So all of you people out there working on multiple monitors, maybe you have the multifocus thing I lack. Then again maybe you’re doing a different job that you can look from one thing to another without worrying about a singular task. I don’t, and almost nothing I do allows me to split my attention in such a way. Try it, if you can. Ditch the multiple monitors and get one big one. It changed my workflow completely and totally for the better.

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