Multiple Monitors Does Not Mean Multitasking

I am a big proponent of using multiple monitors. Given this, you might be surprised that I agreed with much of what John Heckman had to say in his recent post Dual Monitors and Multitasking–A Contrarian View. John explains:

I recently reorganized my office and wound up with an extra monitor.  Since “everybody” swears by dual monitors (or more) I thought I’d give it a shot.  Much to my surprise I found the extra monitor distracting and somewhat annoying.  After using the second monitor for a couple of weeks to see if it would grow on me, I finally dumped it.

This will probably stir up vigorous protests, but in thinking about it, I realized that dual monitors is a special case of multi-tasking. While I can see certain cases where it would be useful, in general I think people are kidding themselves if they think they are being more productive when multi-tasking.  Some exceptions include things like sending emails on your Blackberry during boring meetings (which by definition aren’t very productive anyway), or having multiple documents displayed side by side when you are trying to consolidate them.

John then goes on to talk about a Stanford study that shows that humans are not good at multitasking. And that what we often think of as multitasking is really just dividing our attention between multiple things for short periods of time.

The fact of the matter is that “multitasking” in a real sense (or as a computer would understand it) does not really exist. What multitasking really amounts to is that you divide up your time into more or less small “slices” and simply switch rapidly from one “slice” to another. You are still doing one thing at a time, but switching back and forth in rapid succession. So if you “multitask” by doing four things in twelve minutes, you actually focus (for example) on each one of them three times in one minute “slices.” For better or worse, human beings simply do not have quad core (or even dual core) brains.

I agree with everything that he has to say here. Multitasking for humans just means we do more things less well. However, that is not a reason to abandon a multiple monitor set up. Now, if you are using your multiple monitors to monitor Twitter, constantly check your email, follow your Facebook friends, watch the stock ticker, and monitor the score in your favorite game, you are likely not increasing your productivity at all. In fact, I feel pretty comfortable that your productivity is abysmal.

Multiple monitorsHowever, I do believe that multiple monitors can benefit many attorneys. An example of this how I use multiple monitors in my practice. At my office, I work with a three monitor set up. I have my laptop monitor along with two external monitors. the external monitors are the same size and resolution.

The external monitors provide more space to work on and they are my primary working monitors. On my laptop, I keep open my time and billing program, thus helping to ensure that I do not forget to keep track of my time. I also use this monitor to stash any programs or documents that I have open that I am not using at the moment.

I use the monitor in the middle as my main working monitor. In my experience, when I am working on something, I am almost always looking at something else. Sometimes it’s other pleadings, sometimes it’s discovery documents, other times its legal research. Regardless, it is usually something. This something, is what I have on the left monitor.

Thus, I regularly use multiple monitors, however, I am not using it for multitasking, I am using it to keep the information I need to do my job in the best position for me to work with it.

Obviously, my set up will not work for everyone. However, I think it is something to consider.

Note: I believe that John acknowledged these benefits in his post.

3 thoughts on “Multiple Monitors Does Not Mean Multitasking

  1. I agree Brian. I also have three monitors, although my middle one is in portrait view (great for editing documents). Most of my time is spent working on documents and referencing either other documents, caselaw, or information on the web. We are pretty much a paperless office, and having multiple monitors is really the only practical and efficient means of working with the material we hold electronically. I have introduced multiple monitors throughout our office, and invariably, once someone has got used to using more than one screen, there is no going back!

  2. I find that having multiple monitors helps concentration. So much of my reference material is in digital format these days, that if I only used a single monitor I would be alt-tab switching among programs constantly. Having a second monitor is similar to the convenience of having the hard-copy of a treatise on my desk. I can have the electronic version of a treatise or case open on a side screen and the Word document I’m working on open in the main screen in front of me.

    Multiple monitors are also handy during web-meetings, allowing me to keep the presentation open on my main window but having my apps for chat and note-taking readily available in another window.

    I find that most people who don’t care for multiple monitors still rely on paper a lot. They reference hard-copy sources and take notes on paper. If you take away the notebooks and hard copy, I think it would be frustrating to work using a single monitor, unless you have a very large land-scape monitor where you can have multiple windows and gadgets open side by side.

    Currently, I use a two screen set up, but I’m seriously considering a three screen set-up for the same reason you do this. The middle screen would be for the documents/communications I’m working on, the right screen would be for reference materials, and the left screen would be my widget desktop where I would put my world clocks, forex calculator, timers, task lists, and not pad.

    One thing I do NOT recommend is having your e-mail or social media open in a side screen. I know many people with multiple monitors do this, but constantly monitoring your e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, what have you, erodes your productivity. The only thing worse is pop-up notifications and sounds for incoming communications. Your better off checking these every 1/2 hour, hour or so (go for the longest interval your work environment will allow). Chunking your time this way is more productive than constantly glancing at your e-mail while trying to concentrate on the work before you.

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