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People now have more pixels to work with than ever before. Not only has the resolution of the average computer display been increasing, but larger screens have also become much more affordable. These trends have combined to decrease the cost of putting pixels on people’s desktops and resulted in more and more workers embracing multiple monitors.
The same way that having a larger desk allows you to put more things on it at once, having more screen to work with lets you do the same thing on your computer. A study by the University of Utah found that productivity among people was higher when using two monitors rather than one. Other research suggest it rises 20-25% when people go from one to two monitors and up to 35% when adding a third. The real question is not if they make a difference, but rather how workers can get the biggest possible gain.
These productivity gains don’t come from working on many things at once, but rather from allowing you to more easily access and switch between all the things you need to accomplish a single task.
Multiple screens are great when you need to see a lot of information at once. They eliminate wasted time moving or resizing windows and toggling back and for between applications and tabs. This applies to things like working with large spreadsheets without having to scroll or composing emails that require referencing multiple other sources.
Next time you’re walking around, take a look at how people use their screens. Chances are you’ll find a lot of variation. While there’s no one-size fits all solution, following a few key guidelines will enable you to squeeze the most productivity from your screens.
More isn’t Always Better
Think about how you use your applications. There is a key productivity sweet spot in terms of both resolution and total screen area. As pixel density becomes higher, there’s a point where the benefits of greater resolution become undetectable. Same goes for screen size. Productivity rises up to a point then diminishes. Beyond that, more screen becomes unnecessary or provides the temptation to fill it with distractions.
Focus on Single Tasks
Resist the urge to work on many things at once. Instead, use your multiple monitors to more efficiently complete individual tasks. Their impact on productivity increases as tasks become more complex and require referencing or switching between multiple documents, information sources or applications. For example, if you need to have multiple reference documents open while putting together a presentation, having them all open and visible at once can make the process much easier.
If you’re a manager, don’t simply approve someone’s second monitor, put it on their desk and walk away. People work differently. Utilizing large screens is no different. People are creatures of habit and changing behavior can be difficult. When someone gets another monitor, provide support to help them figure out the best way to take advantage of their new screen. One way to do this is to identify members of your team who can serve as subject matter experts to help others maximize the usefulness of their set up.
Choose the Right Applications
On smaller screens, using cloud-based applications in the browser isn’t that bad. Applications like G Suite and Salesforce are fantastic but using these inside a series of browser tabs makes it difficult to work in a multi-windowed environment and take full advantage of the extra screen space.
Just because something can be full screen, doesn’t mean it should be. I often see people using email full screen on their second monitor. It’s funny to see them turn their heads back and forth to read two-foot long lines of text on their 27-inch monitors. Once you open the necessary applications and documents to complete your task, arrange them in a way that provides easy access while minimizing clicks, scrolling and distractions. One helpful rule of thumb is to put your main task on the screen in front of you and any reference material or other applications on the side screens.
More space also creates room for more distractions. Many people feel compelled to fill the space they’re given. Keeping anything open other than what you’re working on is a great way to distract yourself from the important stuff you need to get done. And distractions ruin productivity and undermine the whole point of having multiple monitors.
Change it up
One mistake people make is keeping the same things open throughout their entire work day. What’s on your screens should change depending on what you’re doing. Only put the things you’re using. Everything else is a potential distraction.