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Published: Saturday, 3/22/2014 - Updated: 4 months ago

More monitors might not mean increased production

BY FARHAD MANJOO
NEW YORK TIMES

BLADE ILLUSTRATION BY WES BOOHER Enlarge

NEW YORK — For years, techies have argued that getting an extra monitor or two for your desktop computer is an especially effective way to increase personal productivity.

The logic seemed airtight: Two (or more) computer monitors means more room on your virtual desktop, which means more room to do your work. And more room to work would seem to mean faster work.

Even science seemed to agree. As the price of monitors plummeted during the last decade, studies showed that increasing display size increased productivity. It didn’t seem to matter that the research was sponsored by Dell Inc. and NEC Corp., among other monitor manufacturers.

Now two-monitor setups, once the rarefied domain of Wall Street and Silicon Valley, have become de rigueur in office parks across America.

But what if we’ve all been duped? What if more monitors and bigger monitors actually detract from, rather than improve, how you work?

What if, rather than more space to get stuff done, what you get from a larger display or two displays is more freedom from work — more room for Twitter, email, chatting, and all the other digitized diversions that conspire to get you fired?

In a switch that amounts to heresy among some techies, I’ve become a two-screen skeptic. Two months ago, about five years after becoming an ardent proselytizer for the Church of the Second Display, I turned off the extra screen on my desktop computer.

At first, the smaller workspace felt punishingly cramped. But after a few days of adjusting to the new setup, an unusual serenity invaded my normally harried workday.

With one screen that couldn’t accommodate too many simultaneous stimuli — a screen just large enough for a single word processor or browser window — I found something increasingly elusive in our multiscreen world: Focus.

Was my experience with a single screen simply a function of personal preference, or was it a demonstration of the fundamental problem of working on two or more displays?

Unlike monitor makers with their multidisplay studies, I have no research proving you’ll find as much benefit from a single monitor as I did. But research from another academic domain, the study of how we focus in increasingly addled workplaces, suggests my experience might not be unusual.

While extra monitors might increase productivity in certain situations — the sort of situations that can be easily tested in a research setting — they seem to do so at a high cost, by displaying a stream of digital splendors, constantly vying for your attention.

“Two monitors are a double-edged sword,” said Gloria Mark, a professor who studies workplace distractions at the University of California, Irvine. Ms. Mark hasn’t specifically researched how second monitors might affect focus, and when she recently had a chance to work at a two-monitor machine, she felt that it made some of her tasks easier.

“But most people have their email up on the second screen, and, of course, when anything comes in, it’s a great source of distraction,” she said.

The conventional argument in favor of dual monitors rests on what might be called the two-window problem. Imagine, for instance, the process of writing a research report. You have a word processor open in one window and, somewhere else on the screen, a Web browser full of tabs pointing to research papers.

To write the report, you need to shift your attention frequently from the browser to the word processor and back again. On a small display, it would be difficult to keep both windows open at the same time, so you’d waste time switching from one to the other. On a large multiscreen display, you can keep both windows open on your screen — and you save all that switching time.

The research supports this. One study commissioned by NEC and conducted by researchers at the University of Utah showed people using a dual-display machine to do a text-editing task were 44 percent more productive than those who used a single monitor.

But for most people, the time spent juggling two windows or scrolling across large documents isn’t the biggest bottleneck in getting work done. Instead, there’s a more basic, pernicious reason you feel constantly behind — you’re getting distracted.

Ms. Mark’s research, based on observations and digital tracking of office workers, has found that our workplaces are bombarded with distractions. Studies show that office workers are interrupted every four to 11 minutes by external distractions, including phone calls, email, and people who stop by your desk to chat.

Then there are self-motivated distractions when, for no apparent reason, you quit working on your project and do something else — for instance, jump into the rabbit hole of the Web.

All such disruptions are costly. It can take workers as much as 25 minutes to regain focus after being interrupted. And constant interruptions create a stressful workplace.

“The second screen can also be an inviting entry way for self-distraction,” Ms. Mark said.

That’s because it’s an ever-present, available canvas calling out for you to fire up a Web window and find solace in the latest thrills on YouTube.

Adherents to the multimonitor lifestyle might argue that the second screen allows people to deal with their distractions more quickly. To check your email on a single-screen machine, you may find yourself frequently switching from your main task to your inbox and back again.

With two monitors, you can always keep an eye on the inbox. This feels efficient; dedicating a swath of screen space to your favorite distraction feels as if you’re somehow managing your habit.

But if you wouldn’t watch a movie or play a video game while you’re trying to get something done, why would you keep an app as distracting as email sitting within your field of view?

Like many researchers who study attention, Ms. Mark recommends that people create work habits that reduce the chance of interruption.

For instance, she suggests that people turn off email notifications and answer and write email in batches once or twice a day rather than every few minutes. She notes that taking up such habits requires personal discipline and buy-in from your bosses and co-workers.

That gets to the blessing of one monitor. With a single screen, I was forced to fight my distractions. I had to actively prevent myself from falling into email and Twitter, from ever losing focus on my main window.

It took some time for me to exercise that willpower. But by finding methods of sticking to my task rather than coping with my distractions, my single-screen machine improved how I work. It can for you too — if only you resist the pull of two displays.



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