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Second Monitor: Friend or Foe?

The perfect computer monitor setup does not exist. I find that often my needs change and my preferences shift, so that I'm rarely happy with my monitor situation for more than a few weeks at a time.

A normal path people take is to use a single monitor and then to add a second. This will likely cost you under $150 (or will be a hassle-free ask from IT) and will simply mean plugging in just one HDMI or USB-C cord. Now you'll have twice the real estate (if not more).

PC Magazine has some good tips on improving your second monitor experience. One thing they fail to mention, and it took me a long time to realize, is that a second widescreen monitor invites the same work habits as the main monitor. The dashboards, email programs, and social media accounts distracting you on Monitor 1 are easily dragged over to Monitor 2... where they still distract you, just not enough to close them out.

My second monitor was a dumping ground for things I wanted to deal with later (or never) as well as being an all to convenient fit for ever-present emails and sometimes-present Youtube videos, Spotify playlists, and similar diversions.

For a time I tried a vertical monitor in the second position. This was briefly an improvement because it forced a chance in my behavior -- windows were no longer as easy a fit so I had to think about what I was putting there. Also videos no longer looked as inviting and my email wasn't wide enough to do more than look out for incoming messages.

I found a vertical monitor could improve productivity with long spreadsheets, long documents (like specifications and contracts), and to be good for text editors where large swathes of code or multiple components could be visible at once.

Still, the distraction was there. I had used 2020 to construct a nearly distraction-free workplace, complete with a great desk, ergonomic chair, super quiet fan, tangle-free power cords, a wonderful LED desk lamp for working late, and all the other things a mind bent on productivity could come up with. I even had my pen and paper notes going, right next to my laptop... yet I had this second monitor and I couldn't stop myself from putting weapons-grade distractions on my second monitor. I'd catch myself checking into dashboards and analytics constantly when one or twice a day was sufficient.

As you have likely guessed. I'm down to a single display and I'd urge you to try the same for a time as well. Don't go too small -- 15" on a laptop or 24-27" on a desktop is great -- but one clean, well-maintained space offers a fraction of the distraction of a multiple displays.

Top comments (2)

libertasprimordium_17 profile image
Tyler Durden 2.0

I prefer a single large 21:9 ratio monitor with multiple desktop workspaces to switch between. I'll sometimes have 2-3 different coding projects open, each on their own desktop. Before Windows 10, I always used Ubuntu + Gnome, because of the ease of multiple desktops. But Windows 10 makes managing and switching between desktops very easy, and now I have all my games back when I need to take a break from coding, writing, or day-trading. Chrome browsers addition of the tab search feature also makes working on multiple desktops easier, since you can quickly find where you left that open tab you're looking for.
I agree that bigger is better, and for ultrawide monitors, I would also add that above 27" you definitely want to go with a curved one. I've absolutely been in love with my LG 34WL75C-B 34" UltraWide QHD 3440 x 1440 (2K) 60 Hz for over a year now. If I upgrade this year or next however, I'm definitely going 4k and 120Hz.

manonbox profile image

I agree it's personal and it's good to make people take a second think, does more screen estate = more productivity?

At work I've worked with an architect who was extremely organized and focused, and used one monitor with a window manager.

Personally, as a frontend dev I prefer two monitors. A 27" 1440p for coding (1 or 2 docs at a time, plus active terminal) and a 2nd screen (laptop screen) to view the site I'm developing, or results of tests I'm writing.

I tried window managers, but I prefer the multiple desktop approach, so that you can still have a focused experience one screen at a time.

Keep all the distracting windows in one desktop, and not mix them with your productivity desktops.

Also mapping play/pause/skip buttons on your keyboard, so you can manage your music without having to switch to your distracting screen.

So TL;DR for frontend work I like to minimise distractions, but prefer two screens at a time.