It's common wisdom in the software engineering world that having more screens translates to higher productivity. Tech companies don't really shy away from throwing money at getting additional monitors for their developers, under the assumption that it'll bring in productivity gains.
In this post, I'd like to question that assumption. My take on this is anecdotal, but I know that I'm not the only one to arrive at the same conclusion.
For the past few years, my setup has consisted of a 13/14-inch laptop and one additional screen. Given that most of my work in the last few years has focused on web development, my rationale was that since I have the source code open on the laptop, having an extra monitor would allow me to also display a terminal and a browser at the same time, so that I spend less time switching back and forth between windows.
After being on that setup for 7-8 years, this year I tried out the "digital nomad" thing for about 3 months, which obviously meant I didn't have my extra monitor with me.
And what do you know.
I didn't miss the extra screen at all. I discovered that I didn't need to have all those windows under focus at the same time, that all that window-switching was not really necessary, and that many of the things which I just assumed are requirements for me to get work done, are actually nice-to-haves.
It has now been slightly more than a month since I'm back from all the traveling, and I haven't felt the need to use the extra monitor even once. Next weekend I actually plan to put it up for sale on eBay.
Madness, right? I don't think so. Here are a few reasons why this change didn't feel that drastic.
Most laptops these days (that are worth buying) come with high resolution screens. More pixels translates to more screen real-estate, which you can use by either displaying more stuff within your window(s), or just cramming more windows on the screen.
One of the main arguments for having a separate display is that you can move a couple of windows off your main display to make it less cluttered. But if your main display can show more windows, does that argument still apply?
To be clear, high resolution screens support the argument that you need more screen space to get work done. YMMV, but I've discovered that screen space only goes so far in increasing productivity. A minimum baseline is good. Anything more than that wouldn't necessarily make you more productive.
Personally, I've found that a 1920x1080 IPS display gives me enough space to see what I'm currently trying to focus on. Having more than that wouldn't necessarily help me win the the web development olympics or something.
It has never been easier to get distracted. In some ways, I feel distraction is running our economy right now. Every single company that has anything to do with tech is competing for our attention via sending us real time updates, email newsletters, push notifications, and what not. And when the distraction is not external, we tend to distract ourselves by keeping Twitter or Email open on the side. This is in complete contradiction to the fact that humans can only really focus on one thing at a time.
Why do we do this? Why do we feel the need to display multiple things at the same time, and when those things don't fit on one screen, buy another one, when all it's going to do is make us distracted and take away from our ability to get focused work done?
To me, one screen means one window has focus. This window is what I'm working on right now, and what I intend to work on for as long as I can without getting distracted. Personally, showing other windows on the side just decreases my attention.
This one is a bit personal. I have a love/hate relationship with cables. The only cable I like is the ethernet cable because I get the warm fuzzies when my laptop is connected via ethernet. All the other wires I hate. The extra monitor I have adds two extra cables to the back of my desk. One for power and one to connect to the laptop. Two. It's nuts.
After doing the digital nomad thing, I've been making a conscious effort to reduce the clutter in my life as much as I can. This requires constant questioning at every stage. Every "thing" that I interact with, I ask myself, do I need this? Is this absolutely critical to my everyday life? And if I didn't have it, would I miss it?
For the second monitor (and all of its cables), I just couldn't find a good answer to that question.
Productivity is something highly personal and contextual. What works for me may not work for you. And what works for a software developer may not work for a designer (or the other way around). But I do believe that it sometimes helps to question the status-quo, and ask ourselves do we really need the things we use?
If you're a software developer working on similar things as I am, I would strongly encourage you to put those extra monitor(s) away for a week and see if you notice an increase/decrease in productivity. Chances are, it wouldn't matter.