Dual Monitors Do Not Double Productivity

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This past fall I used two monitors for about two months. At first, I thought it was awesome and would help me organize my screen and my day. After a week or two, however, I felt myself using the second monitor just for the sake of using it. At the end of the day, I decided that using one monitor is easier, and makes me more productive.


At first, I used the second monitor just for email, so I could work on the other screen. Bad idea. Having email open all the time is the ultimate attention diverter. At time I felt like I was watching paint dry, just waiting for another email to come in. Big waste of time.

Then I switched to using the second monitor as my “always” calendar. That was nice and convenient, but again, a big attention waster and a waste of a monitor.

Using the two monitors to view two documents was not all that helpful either. One, the monitors were different sizes, different resolutions, and had different contrasts. I found myself comparing the two monitors constantly, rather than actually getting work done.

I have been using one boring monitor for two months now, and I love it. Two monitors may impress people, but when it comes to actually using them, it is not worth the trouble or the cost.

(photo: Scott Kuperus)

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  • Jeanette

    I miss two monitors. My main computer is down and I have just one monitor right now. I know I am not getting as much work done.

    I use one monitor to hold my content like photos and articles and the other to design websites or books. Drag and drop is so much faster!

    It all depends on how you use the monitors and what you do.

  • The New York Times did a fairly-in-depth review a few years ago of the productivity enhancement of adding a second monitor.

    My sense is that a second monitor may or may not add to your productivity depending on your personal preferences and your particular computer work-flow.

  • I think the NYT study found that a 24″ monitor is slightly better than dual monitors. The key is being able to have two documents open at the same time, side-by-side. That does not require two monitors, just a big one.

    I prefer one big monitor, since I just end up watching Hulu on the second monitor when I have two.

  • June Steder

    I’ve found that the only GOOD use for dual monitors, was to display specific windows to others – such as Red Light camera videos in the courtroom. Otherwise, as you said, they are a distraction and often cause confusion.

    Also, whenever I need to connect to a client that has two monitors, I ask that they disable the second monitor because the view is either distorted or very small.

  • I respectfully disagree. I just began using 2 monitors and find it has made things much easier for me. For example, I can research on one screen and write a document based on the research on the other without having to switch back and forth. In the end, it depends on HOW you use the 2 monitors. If you simply use the 2nd one to play games or watch video, you don’t need it. However, there are many ways to use a 2nd monitor to increase productivity.

  • M.S.

    I use two monitors and I find it very helpful. I use one external monitor to read documents and my laptop’s monitor to draft documents. If find that I can work faster if I can look at case law on one monitor while drafting a motion or memorandum on the other. I don’t have to print the documents that I’m reviewing or switch between different windows on my laptpop. It saves me time and paper. I suppose it depends on what you keep open on the monitors. E-mail would definitely distract me.

  • Jason Wilson

    How you use it is key. I use a 24″ monitor at home with WinSplit, which allows me to have 2 to 4 windows open on the monitor just using the numpad. But at work, I’ve switched all of my editors to dual monitors because we write and edit so much we needed our CALR programs open on one screen, and our XML editor open on the other. We’ve definitely seen an increase in productivity and accuracy over the last few years, but would encourage anyone considering a switch to closely examine their workflow first.

  • Damien Riehl

    For me, having two monitors increases productivity immensely — and their utility increases even more if you turn them both from landscape mode to portrait mode. That way, you can see 8.5 x 11 sheets of paper in their normal, non-shrunken glory. Add a second monitor, and you can easily compare two documents — with each document maximized to its own monitor. As Sam mentions, you *can* view two docs with one large monitor, but then you have to deal with manually resizing each document to fit. With two monitors, one can simply maximize each window to its respective monitor with a double-click.

    Dual monitors are also very helpful for:
    – Research (Westlaw/lexis/Findlaw open in one, and the brief in the other)
    – Document Review (coding form in one, document being reviewed in the other)
    – Calendaring (as Russel mentions)

    Regarding Randall’s comment about two different-sized, different-resolution monitors: I wholeheartedly agree. Dual monitors work best if both monitors are of the same size/dimensions/resolution. That way, you can easily drag and drop docs from one to the other (without concerns about screen position). Also, you don’t have to make a choice whether to “demote” a document to the smaller/dimmer screen (with its decreased utility).

    With 22″ monitors running at about $140 each, a $280 investment will give you two large, portrait-mode monitors that will make you never go back to a single monitor. You may even want to add a third. You know, for Hulu.

  • I would have to agree with Jeanette’s last comment: it depends on your usage. The big advantage, I would think (Sam!) would be in a paperless office. My accountant has a dual monitor setup, and uses one monitor for his documents and the other for his tax software and other apps. One monitor is your “paper”; the other is your actual workstation. With larger screens the same setup might be possible without two monitors, but that is just a matter of how you implement the same concept.

  • I agree with all of this. The only time I have found two monitors helpful is in e-document review. I can keep the doc list on one monitor and the document itself on another and don’t have to switch between the two.

  • I completely disagree with this post. I agree with Steven. I use the second monitor to view pdf files/discovery, caselaw, prior versions of documents I am working on, statutes, etc… while I use the other as my word processing window. It has been very helpful in avoiding having to print so many things and it would take a lot to make me go back.

  • I couldn’t disagree with you more. I have one monitor vertical, one horizontal. When editing legal documents, it’s great to have a wide screen flipped vertical. When not editing documents, it use it for calendering and other misc tasks, while my main is used to manage email.

    I’m considering a third. Never can get enough screen real estate, but I am a bit of a multitasker.

  • I’ve been using 2 monitors for the past 2 years and I will never go back to one. In fact, I’m trying to figure out how to fit a third on my desk. When I’m working on a brief or memo and I have a dozen documents open at one time, it’s nice to be able to move them around and have them side by side rather than on top of one another.

  • Tom DelRosario

    I completely agree with Eric Cooperstein. Dual monitors are invaluable when you’re having to refer to one document when working on another document. I try to work paperlessly. So instead of printing out office actions or opposing briefs, I open them in a window. Then I can use another window to write my response. There are many other situations similar to that (e.g., having Westlaw in one window and Word in another or having an agreement redline in one window while working on the agreement in another.)

    Yes, you can do the same with a big monitor, but in many cases, two smaller monitors are cheaper than one big monitor.

    The complaint, “One, the monitors were different sizes, different resolutions, and had different contrasts” is solved by using two monitors that are the same size. But even if you they aren’t the same size, I don’t understand why that would change anything. Until this past month, my dual monitor setups had always used different size monitors (a laptop monitor and an external monitor).

  • Harold Goldner

    As others have said, it’s all about workstyles. I keep my practice management software up on the left monitor, with Outlook behind it, and whatever else I’m working on in the right window, usually Word.

    I also use dual monitors for document comparison, as Tom and Eric do.

    I would never go back to one monitor, not even a widescreen (which I tried first).

  • One nice thing about Windows 7 is the Aero Snap feature make it really easy to set your screen up for side-by-side editing. I’ve used one monitor for pretty much my entire life, and career. But that’s mostly been for financial reasons. How helpful the second monitor is depends entirely on the nature of the work, the workflow of the person doing the work, and their personal preferences.

  • Tri T

    Two monitors are great if you need to have references. If you do lots of programming, then two monitors are invaluable as you need to refer to API’s, code samples, while you have your main monitor. No need to alt-tab to different documents and then your main program is blocked at the time.

  • I’ll pile on and say that 2 monitors is indispensable in a paperless office . . . well, at least in my paperless office. I review medical records in PDF files as a part of my practice and I tend to heavily bookmark these PDF files. Having one monitor rotated to portrait mode (so no need to scroll to see the whole doc in native resolution) is great. You can drag the bookmark tab away from Adobe Acrobat (Professionsal version) and have the bookmarks open in a separate window on a separate monitor. When writing briefs, having a case on one monitor and the brief in the word processor is also a boon to productivity.

    As for e-mail, twitter, etc., that’s just a matter of discipline, whether you have 1, 2 or 3 monitors. You have to block out time for concentrated work and stay away from the sirens. When wordprocessing, I love the full screen feature in Pages (I use a Mac) that blacks out the rest of the screen so you focus on the writing. Many wordprocessing programs now have this feature. It’s a great aid to concentration.

  • I have two and love it. Am planning to go to /3/ monitors someday.

    One main monitor, 24″ in landscape mode. One ‘document’ monitor, 17″ in portrait mode. The 17″ in portrait mode is spectacular for displaying whole document pages.

    If cost were no object, I’d get the hugest biggest monitor Apple makes and I could do both on one screen, but I don’t have any problems with this setup.

  • Having your practice management software (or calendar, or Outlook, etc.) open on your second monitor seems like a bad use of dual monitors, and a recipe for distraction. I do think two monitors are better than one small one, but not better than one big one.

  • Jonathan

    Thank you for all of these thoughts. I had not realized that it is apparently easy now to turn monitors 90 degrees and use them in portrait mode now. I remember many years ago when this was a very special feature. I just thought that it was no longer available. It does make much more sense with wide screen monitors than with the traditional monitor proportions.

    I had been thinking of waiting for the price of 26 inch monitors to drop some more so that I could get two 8.5×11 pieces of paper on the screen full size side by side with nothing lost on the top or the bottom but that may not be necessary.

  • Sam: I’ve got a 24″ 1920 x 1200 HP monitor as my main screen and a 19″ samsung in Portrait mode as my secondary monitor. The difficulty with a single big monitor is that almost all newer monitors have 16:9 aspect ratios which really cuts down on the ability to see a single document in a high enough resolution to see it all without scrolling. Even at 4:3, some scrolling is required. A monitor in portrait mode eliminates the problem, even at these wacky TV aspect ratios. Like so many things with computers, I suppose this becomes a matter of personal preference. Nice to have some options.

  • Greta Kirkland

    I have been using dual monitors since this summer, and it became clear how much I enjoyed having two monitors when one of them died and I was suddenly down to one. I have replaced it and now have a spare so that doesn’t happen again.

    I use two 19″ widescreens. As a legal assistant, I have to have my inbox open at all times so I can respond quickly when the boss needs something. I have that on one screen and am able to work on the other screen. I am still able to utilize both when preparing documents or doing research, but the mailbox box peeks out at the edge of the screen.

  • If your monitor is big enough, you can easily display documents side by side. I’m guessing my iMac display is 23 inches, which is not huge. When I’m drafting briefs, one side is for my brief, the other half is whatever I am working off of. When I had two monitors, all I was doing was blowing up both documents to a slightly bigger size.

    That said, I’m glad to hear it works for many of you!

  • I started using dual monitors at home for blogging purposes and have been amazed by how much faster I can review information on one monitor while using the other for writing. Through my blog, I’ve heard from many paralegals who can’t imagine drafting and reviewing documents without dual monitors, and I admit to driving my supervising attorney nuts for a dual-monitor setup at work, especially when we’re attempting to use less paper. After using dual monitors at home, my single monitor at work seems like a maddeningly slow information-delivery method.

  • I should also note that part of my aversion to dual-monitors is that I like to think mobile and stay mobile. Probably 25% of my legal work and blogging is done on either a 17″ MacBook Pro or a 13″ MacBook Air. I like staying compact, and my MacBook Pro is big enough to handle two windows with ease. The MacBook Air is a little small, but it is still very workable.

  • Count me as amongst the folks loving dual monitors. It may not be for everyone, but it surely helps me crank along better with multiple documents, research, materials and drafting of pleadings or contracts all at the same time.

  • Henry Murphy

    You should never use 2 monitors just for the sake of it. On the other hand you should hook 2 up and turn on the second monitor when it is needed. For instance, when I am reviewing my electronic documents in Acrobat and am adding facts and linking them to Casemap it is an indispensable tool to have the 2nd monitor.
    It is all about knowing when to use it and when to turn it off.

  • @ Timothy and Henry – you both hit the nail on the head. Useful in certain situations, but certainly not for everyone, and not always useful.

  • Barry Wheeler

    i agree wholeheartedly that dual monitors do not double productivity. i’d say it’s more along the lines of tripling it…

    • @Barry

      I’m curious, how do you use your second monitor to triple your productivity?

      I will definitely get a second monitor if I can make it that valuable!

  • I disagree. I have been using two monitors for five years now and I love it. I am far more productive due to the second monitor. In fact, I have been considering adding a third monitor. The main application I live in is Outlook. I, of course, receive and send emails, but I also use a document management system and it is integrated with Outlook. So, Outlook is always open and is on my first screen. I also use another product specially designed for technology consulting companies(ConnectWise). I always have it open on the second screen. It is not unusual at all for me to be viewing notes from Connectwise about a client or project while drafting an email. So, I would like the third monitor for my quote creation program or for other Microsoft applications such as Word and Excel (which I also use quite often). I find myself lost when working from home and not able to spread my work across two monitors.

  • @ Shannon. It sounds like it works for you, but I do not think having Outlook or any email program open and visible at all times increases productivity. I actually think that decreases productivity. How do you focus on the task at hand if you constantly answer emails?

  • Wesley Ellis

    I have found using dual screens to be very helpful. For most administrative tasks, dual monitors serve no purpose. When running multiple programs or operating multiple databases dual screens prove invaluable.

    I deal with millions of lines of raw data and have the ability to correlate the data with an active database is very important to the day to day functions of a legal team. In addition, performing quality checks and isolating errors are made much easier utilizing dual monitors.

    If you find yourself constantly checking emails or surfing the net………..remember professionalism and productivity.

  • Darren Hereford

    I use dual 24 inch monitors and find the extra screen real estate to be invaluable. I can read documents on one screen (pdf, Word, HTML) and work on a document on the other screen. Saves time, saves paper. Some people may think that having Outlook open all the time is a distraction. Depends on what emails you are looking at. If a client emails a request, I can respond immediately and let the client know that I received the email and the request is being handled. I think any service provider who waits until the end of the day to check emails is doing a disservice to the clients. Clients appreciate responsive communication. Even if you don’t get to it immediately, you can at least set the expectation and get the timing requirements if not specified. Dual monitors help to facilitate responsive service.

  • I completely disagree, ok, maybe I’m not doubly effective but there is a productivity gain. As many others have noted, whether it’s comparing documents, having a help desk application open in one window while you work on the issue in another, have email open in one and take your pick in the other, it’s an advantage. And in the legal vertical where time “really is money” by the billable hour, this is huge. We are introducing this now at our firm.

  • I think there is a misconception among many commenters here that multitasking equals productivity. Several—if not numerous—studies have shown this to be false. Having Outlook open at all times is a distraction, not a boon to productivity.

    I agree that having two documents open at the same time—when you need to refer to one while working on the other, for example—is very helpful, all you need for that is one 22″ (or larger) monitor.

  • I have to echo Sam’s sentiments. Having email all the time is a huge distraction, and dramatically decreases productivity.

    @ Darren – answering email in a timely manner is important, that does not require answering it instantaneously.

  • Don Drewry

    Randall,

    We have been upgrading monitor capabilties for our staff for the last year. We started by giving many people two 22″ monitors a year ago. Now, we are almost done and our engineers and project managers will have two 1920×1200 either 28″ or 24″ monitors. Most of the remaining staff will have the two 22″ monitors. A few people have 3 monitors and I suspect over the next year about 1/4 will gradually go that route.

    Some people are not bothered by two different types of monitors (size, orientation, brightness, etc.), but we’ve found that most people prefer matching monitors. There is something about different types of screens that bothers people (many don’t realize that they don’t like the mismatch but when we gave them matching monitors it was clear it was preferred). Eventually, I will have everyone with matching monitors. For those people with notebooks, using two external monitors instead of a notebook plus a monitor is now our goal.

    For us the benefit of having email up all the time is modest, the more important benefit of two monitors is to have your reference material (as described above) on the second monitor and your work product on the primary monitor. I really have a hard time figuring out what task there is that does not require some sort of reference material, wether it be a spreadsheet, word processing / writing, designing, coding, …
    People that claim you can only do one thing at a time are completely missing the primary benefit of two monitors. You are using some sort of information as an input to what your are doing. Yes, it’s possible to split your screen and put both items on the same screen. But, that just makes it harder to review your product just like when I type this note, I can’t see most of the text at one time anymore.

    Given the drop in prices of monitors/memory/graphics cards and the reduced foot print of flat panels versus CRTs there really are not space or price issues that enter into the formula for 1 versus 2 monitors.

  • @Sam: Just read about a new study showing your brain can only do two things at once. No more. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/36582695/ns/health-behavior/. Add in a third task, and your accuracy drops considerably for all three. I think the one exception to being able to do two things at once is driving and [insert whatever other activity you tend to do while driving]. But that’s a tangent I’ll stay away from.

    Dual monitors (of the same size) or one monster monitor are awesome if your desk is big enough. The desk in my home office is too small to even have one monitor on the desk. There’s just not enough depth. One day I’ll upgrade the office but it’s not a huge priority right now because I do most of my lawyering from my living room. When I really feel the need to have another document visible at all times, I pull it up on my netbook (which I bought solely for running bankruptcy software). Overall I’d say not having more screen real estate is the only drawback to my new, MacBook-based solo practice.

  • Valley

    Of the people who use dual monitors (and more), I wonder how familiar are they with tiling, cascading, and splitting windows.

    I have been using dual monitors for the past few years as a software developer. I must admit that I jumped on the bandwagon because it was cool and not necessarily productive. (It was nice to have screensavers move across multiple monitors; it was cool to impress other less technical people with the way of the future.) More and more it has become a distraction.

    Recently in my life I have started focusing on one thing at a time. I have let go of multitasking efforts. I believe in doing one thing and well verses several things with lowered concentration. Relating to dual monitors, I do not see a need to have two unless one is comparing multiple documents, which is why I mentioned tiling, cascading, and splitting. Those can be done on a single monitor.

    When we are using multiple monitors are we truly focused on each? No. There is the context switch that our brains have to go through, which I believe lowers productivity.

    I believe in the future the number of monitors will increase and finally decrease just like the car industry–going from big to small.

  • As these comments indicate, I think most people have not tried resizing windows, to say nothing of tiling or Aero Snap (probably my favorite GUI tool ever).

    Like you, I stopped using two monitors when I got a monitor big enough to show two documents side-by-side (22″ for my desktop is about right, but I can do it on my 14″, high-resolution laptop monitor, too). And what the study really shows, as Lifehacker points out today, is that more pixels increase productivity, not more monitors.

  • Matthew Pennell

    I’m going to put this to rest. I am a graphics major and for me, its mostly about screen space. With 2 monitors I have the luxury of placing tools and windows from my graphics application on my external monitor while leaving almost the entirety of my main monitor for the image I’m working on.
    This is extremely helpful when using Photoshop or Illustrator for graphics and using Premiere Pro for video. If I had to keep all the tools on the same screen it would leave less space for everything else and I would need to constantly open and close palettes which can waste time and become a hassle.
    Not to mention the ability to have a reference on one screen while drawing on the other. Multiple monitors are not always just hype.