More of something is always better. Except when it's not. Why one computer screen is better than two
If something is good, we’re conditioned to think that more of it would automatically be better. But what if that’s completely wrong? Case in point for today: Computer monitors.
Back in the early 2000s, I was working as a writer and designer using a single large CRT monitor. All in all, life seemed pretty good.
At some point, I began seeing two monitors pop up on the desks of some trend-setting co-workers. Envy set in and I immediately asked to get a taste of what the cool kids were using. And I liked it – a lot.
Having two monitors made me feel efficient and productive. Using both screens to copy and paste text between Word and Quark Xpress (look it up) was a game-changer. From that point forward, I was a devoted advocate for the two-screen setup. At the start of the COVID work-from-home era, I even had a dalliance with three screens.
It’s now 2022, and I’ve gone back to one computer screen as my preference. Why? I think it helps me focus.
This regression is all part of what I’m calling a noble quest to get away from multi-tasking. You might call it a mid-life crisis or tilting at windmills. Whatever label you put on it, I’m struggling to limit distractions in a world that makes it all too easy to lose focus.
What’s changed in the workplace?
Here is what the typical office landscape looked like in the early 2000s:
Light email volume (probably half of what I get today)
No social media
No video conferencing
No instant messaging/chat
Very few websites that helped manage your life
When I set up my second monitor back then, it really was for productivity purposes.
Today, my second monitor is basically set up for all those other features that didn’t exist in the past. In other words, that second monitor is almost always a distraction zone. I get the dopamine hits and feel productive balancing many tasks at once, but in reality, I’m mostly just distracted from the primary task at hand – getting work done quickly and effectively.
As with all things, opinions on this vary and some jobs really do require you to look at several screens and that might be happening even more often in the future.
The future’s so bright I’ve gotta wear shades … or smart glasses?
It seems obvious that fighting against distraction is going to get harder before it gets easier (if it ever does). Reading the text below is going to either fill you with gleeful anticipation or dread. From an advertorial in Time:
"When you sit down at your desk sometime in the near future, instead of turning on a monitor or opening your laptop, you may simply don a pair of Lenovo’s ThinkReality A3 Smart Glasses ($1,499). Connect the glasses to a computer or smartphone, and high-definition displays built into the lenses will show as many as five different virtual desktops. As you move your head to view the different desktops floating in front of you, you can continue multitasking between Excel spreadsheets or Word documents as you normally would using a standard keyboard, track pad or mouse, all while streaming a Spotify playlist through the headset’s built-in speakers."
Five screens! That’s four more than I want and all with the added benefit of them being attached to my face!
This innovation is touted as a productivity enhancer, but I’m not so sure. If anything, it feels like a great way to be even more distracted for longer than ever. As I wrote about recently, we often delude ourselves by thinking that multitasking isn't a distraction.
Furthermore, the impacts on how this technology will affect our brains – and eyes – are also unknown. I doubt they will be entirely positive. In this case, I think less really can be more.
Fighting the good fight
For now, I will solider on as a voice among those who advocate rolling back the number of screens in our lives. I won’t win, but then again maybe I will. From a fellow contrarian take on this topic:
“It isn’t surprising that reducing the number of monitors can help you get more work done. After all, use of multiple monitors enables multitasking, which can actually reduce your productivity.
Consider the negative effects multitasking has on the brain, like decreased functional memory, or increased time needed when switching between tasks. The very idea of ‘multitasking’ is erroneous: in reality you’re simply switching focus from activity to activity, an action shown to decrease your ability to discard irrelevant information.”
About my equipment
I’m using a 24-inch Samsung curved monitor. I like this specific size because it really draws focus to the center of the screen. It helps me concentrate on writing and reading copy.