Why I Stopped Using Multiple Monitors

A Single Monitor Manifesto

Cory House
Mar 27, 2017 · 7 min read
A single high DPI monitor is all you need. And for some knowledge workers, may actually be preferable.

Many developers believe multiple monitors improve productivity. Studies have proven it, right? Well, keep in mind, many of those studies are commissioned from monitor manufacturers like Dell and NEC. 🤔

Despite the fact that multiple monitors make you look like a serious computing badass, I sold my multiple monitor set up a couple years ago and switched to a single monitor. And I’m not alone.

Here’s why.

Focus

Humans can only focus on one thing at a time. So why are we spending money to display multiple things simultaneously? If my email or social media feeds are available at a glance, then I’ll check them constantly. This isn’t just unnecessary, it’s counter-productive. In a world of endless distractions, being able to focus on a single task for an extended period is a seriously valuable skill.

Deep work is becoming increasingly hard in our distraction filled economy, yet also becoming increasingly important and rare. The few who can spend their days on deep work will become extremely marketable and successful.

— Cal Newport in “Deep Work

One monitor means my work — and only my work — is displayed front and center. Distractions stay out of sight, and thus, out of mind.

Does this look like a place to focus on a task?

Two of the most valuable tasks we do on a daily basis require focusing on a single application for extended periods: Reading and writing. Both reading and writing benefit from the focus that comes from being the only thing on the screen. A book with a moving twitter feed in the margin would be a disaster. But many are willingly doing just that. Additional displays often lead to continuously displaying potential distractions. You’re much more likely to keep working if your email, social media, and so on aren’t visible.

As a developer, I write code on a daily basis. So I often read docs. But I rarely need the docs visible at the same time I’m writing code. I read the relevant doc, then code. My workflow is modal.

Reduced Window Management

I ran a 34" LG ultra-widescreen monitor for a month. At first, I loved it.

But after a few days, I was surprised to find my opinion soured. It was far too wide to maximize my windows, so I found myself spending too much time fiddling with windows. “What should I put on the left today?” “What’s important enough to be in the middle now?”

Sure, the screen was wide enough to display multiple windows side-by-side, but it was so wide that the edges felt uncomfortably distant. So, I found myself constantly moving my work to the center of screen, thus, defeating the whole purpose of a huge display! Jeff Atwood discussed this issue long ago in “The Large Display Paradox”. His solution? Use software to make moving and resizing windows easier. My solution? Just use a single reasonably-sized monitor.

Even with handy window management software, multiple monitors present a problem: If I have two monitors, the content isn’t directly in front of me. I have to turn my head either right or left (particularly annoying when walking on a treadmill desk, as I often do — see pic below). I could place one monitor directly in front of me, but then the second monitor is even farther to the side — making it clearly a second-class citizen. This again leads to moving whatever I’m working on to the middle screen.

As Barry Schwartz explores in “The Paradox of Choice”, decision fatigue is a real problem. Sometimes, more is less.

“Choice has made us not freer but more paralyzed, not happier but more dissatisfied.”

With a single screen, I eliminate decisions. I don’t waste time deciding where to drag windows or fiddling with where to place a given window. I maximize the app I’m working with to block out all other distractions…and get to work.

Virtual Desktops For the Win

Both Mac and Windows support virtual desktops now. On my Mac, I can 3 finger swipe to quickly switch between multiple virtual desktops. This takes less than a second and it doesn’t require me to turn my head and refocus my eyes on content in a different spot. But I don’t waste cycles on this arrangement either. The far left virtual desktop is always my browser, the one to the right is my editor. So I treat virtual desktops like physical screens that reliably present the same content.

The three boxes at the top represent three virtual desktops. A three finger swipe instantly switches between them — in no more time than it would take to turn my head and look at a separate monitor.

As a side note, if you’re on a Mac, be sure to disable auto rearrange:

Same Workflow When Remote

I often work remote in coffee houses, libraries, public parks, outside on the deck, and on planes. I take my 15" MacBook Pro (review) everywhere. Since I work on a single screen at home, my workflow isn’t impacted when I’m away from my desk. I just keep using virtual desktops to get things done.

Last week I enjoyed working from the beach without any impact to my normal workflow.

When I had multiple monitors, I had to rearrange my windows every time I undocked my machine. Now there’s no friction when I undock. All windows remain maximized, and they remain in the same position on my virtual desktops. It’s like having an unlimited set of virtual monitors, that are always in the same position, wherever I work.

My Preferred Monitor for Getting Things Done

I prefer using a single 27" 4K. Why 27"? Because if you want to get actual work done, bigger isn’t necessarily better. 27" is large enough to display two apps side-by-side when I truly need to see two things simultaneously.

A 27" 4K can easily display two windows side-by-side, even when pixel doubled to an effective 1920x1080.

To split windows, I use BetterTouchTool on Mac and simply hit Win+arrow on Windows). I’ve found 27" is the sweet spot because it’s big enough to split like the above (and zoom out a bit if necessary), while still small enough that I can maximize applications without needing to move my head or eyes much to see the screen edges. Remember, maximize all the things. Maximized = focused.

Here’s my current set up when standing:

I walk on the treadmill to stay alert and active. I enjoy walking around 2 miles/hour. I find I can use the keyboard and trackpad just fine at that speed. I feel more creative while walking.

For video conferencing, I open my laptop and use the built in cam. It’s also potentially useful as a 2nd monitor, though I typically keep it shut for the reasons I outlined above.

Laptop open so I can use the webcam. Otherwise, I prefer to keep it shut.

Here’s the view while walking. Again, I typically keep the lid closed.

When I’m tired of standing, I lower the desk. It’s electric.

I move my peripherals to the right, and pull up a chair. The monitor is on an Ergotron arm, so it articulates easily up/down and left/right.

I enjoy docking with a single USB-C cable. Here’s the back of my monitor.

All my peripherals dock on the back. Power, ethernet, audio, USB keyboard, etc. I plug my MacBook Pro into the monitor via a single USB-C cable.

I discuss the equipment I’m using above in detail on my GitHub AMA.

Why a 4K monitor? High DPI reduces fatigue. Text is much crisper. And prices are finally reasonable, so if you don’t own a high DPI display yet, buy one. Any MacBook Pro built in the last few years can push a 4K display at 60hz over DisplayPort. Many recent Windows laptops can do so as well.

So why do so many workers demand multiple monitors? I believe it’s a case of the illogical allure of extremes.

Too much of anything becomes its opposite . — Tim Ferriss

Too much monitor becomes a distraction. So when it comes to monitors, I embrace these maxims:

  • Less is more.
  • Quality over quantity.
  • Location, Location, Location.

Follow me on Twitter: @housecor

Comments? Chime in below or on Hacker News.


Cory House is the author of multiple courses on JavaScript, React, clean code, .NET, and more on Pluralsight. He is principal consultant at reactjsconsulting.com, a Software Architect at VinSolutions, a Microsoft MVP, and trains software developers internationally on software practices like front-end development and clean coding. Cory tweets about software development as @housecor.

Cory House

Written by

Pluralsight Author, Principal at reactjsconsulting.com, Software Architect, Microsoft MVP, Speaker, Clean Coder, Aspiring Outlier.

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