There is a team in my company where people steal each other’s monitors. Everyone already has 2 monitors, by default. But still, after 2 week holidays you can be sure your monitors won’t be where they used to be.

“Why do they need 3 monitors?”, you may ask. Maybe to feel more comfortable. To have separate monitor just for Spotify or for writing e-mails. Maybe to be more productive. To put unit tests window on the first monitor, test class on the second one, and the thing that is being implemented on the third.

I had an opportunity to work on three monitors. And I lasted in that state for about 4 days. Now, I’m pretty sure that it is one of the best things you can do to lower your productivity and I would never do that again.

Multitasking

If you look on your screen you can see that there is a lot going on. If you are a web developer, as I am, there is probably:

  • one instance of Skype (or any other communicator)
  • one instance of e-mail client
  • one or more instances of web browser (Chrome, Mozilla, Opera and IE for testing a website, another window just for thousand StackOverflow tabs, some online documentation etc.)
  • one or more instances of your favorite IDE
  • a music player
  • some folders
  • some files
  • some other apps and/or files not related to work

Sometimes, there is a cellphone on your desk, constantly vibrating because SMS. But that’s a different story.

Looking at the list above it is easy to neatly arrange all those apps on 3 monitors. You can even create nice setup and be proud of yourself that now you can do more, be more productive.

4 monitors setup example

(source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pyrogenic/4278352264)

I’ve been thinking like that during my work on 3 monitors, and then I started too feel paranoid.

I didn’t know what to look at. On every monitor there was something I should pay attention to. I thought that having a 3rd monitor will prevent me from using [alt+tab] so much and I will be productive and happy.

The fact was I couldn’t focus on anything. I always saw something interesting on the other screen. It was hard to choose what to do next - to reply to an e-mail, respond on Skype or fix a failing test. Having a 3rd monitor forced me to multitask.

You might not see that there is something constantly blinking on your monitor(s). Constant notifications, pop-ups, track changing on your playlist, multiple people writing on Skype, app build failing, test passing, Chrome hanging up (because of thousand open tabs), apps updating, files finished copying… Never-ending flow of information you don’t even notice because it is so natural already. But your brain would notice, he’s more clever. Mine did and I’m grateful he rebelled against me.

There are many studies that find multitasking being wrong. You may feel that you are more productive but in essence it hurts your performance. Researchers at Stanford University claim that multitasking can even damage your brain.

It sounds ridiculous and you can laugh about it. But there are reasons (and I have mine) to believe that.

Boosting productivity

After dumping my third monitor I immediately started to notice that on 2 monitors the information hum is smaller, but still there.

At this time I was really into boosting my productivity. I discovered that most of productivity tips boil down to four things:

  1. dump all distractions
  2. focus on the most important thing for some amount of time
  3. take a brake and do whatever you want
  4. repeat

The most basic productivity technique is Pomodoro:

  1. Decide on the task to be done
  2. Set the pomodoro timer to n minutes (traditionally 25)
  3. Work on the task until the timer rings;
  4. Take a short break (3–5 minutes)
  5. After four cycles, take a longer break (15–30 minutes)

    source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pomodoro_Technique

So, even the most basic productivity technique is telling you that you should focus only on one thing at a time.

There are many specialist at being productive to the extreme that will tell you the same - limit distractions and don’t do multiple things at the same time.

Two of my favorite productivity gurus are Chris Bailey and Scott Hanselman. I really recommend reading their blogs and watching eye-opening talk from Scott - “It’s not what you read, it’s what you ignore”.

Encouraged by all those productive people and researchers I started to change my life by implementing various productivity techniques. It wasn’t easy because there is a wide range of possibilities. Yet, I chose those that work for me and now I feel my life has changed.

I made a lot of big changes. One of them is completely changed, übersimplified way of working on PC.

My improvements

Notifications

The very first thing I did was turning off all possible notifications.

Many people cannot even imagine how it is possible to work without notifications. What if your co-worker, right now, is trying to inform you about something absolutely important?

Well, I have a brilliant quote to answer this question:

“Remember that anything important that happens in the world, in the news, in you life, in your work , will come your (way) many times”
– Scott Hanselman

So I started to check my Skype and e-mail when I felt like it. I’m working like that for a few months right now and no one is complaining.

I check my e-mail during pomodoro break or when someone tells me that there was an important e-mail.

One less distraction.

Desktop

The second thing I did was cleaning up my desktop.

A lot of people are treating their desktops as garbage collectors. I often see something like this:

Desktop mess

(source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/intelfreepress/8703259974)

Now, multiply that by 3, because 3 monitors, right?

But if your desktop is a trash can then you probably don’t look there often, maybe never. So why you should care? Remember what I said - your brain is more clever than you and he’ll notice. Every time you see your polluted desktop you are polluting your mind, without even knowing that.

My desktop used to look like the one above, now it is like this:

My desktop

No icons at all, all tray icons are hidden, except BatteryCare.

I’ve been considering using Emma Stone as my wallpaper but I came to a conclusion that it’s a distraction :sadface:.

Cleaning up my desk

In this paragraph I should copy all the information from the previous one. Clutter on your desk is the same as clutter on your desktop.

Not always, I know. I’ve once read a book that describes the workflow of famous NYC painter. He needed to work having this artistic mess in his room. For the painter everything in this mess is something that they can use during the act of creation.

Nevertheless, it’s different when we talk about software development. All the tools we need are inside of a machine. If you need an artistic mess you have the Internet.

So I cleaned up my desk and at some point in time I would like it to look like this:

Clean desk

Sadly, I don’t have a MacBook yet.

Turning off PC

I was a fan of hibernating my machine. I always had something to do, zillions of windows open and constantly some work in progress.

Of course there was also zillions of open tabs in my Chrome. It was sad every time when my Chrome crashed back then.

Thanks to my new workflow of doing one thing at a time I am now able to turn off my computer. When I need to keep some tabs open I use OneTab extension for Chrome. But please - don’t make it your second trash just after you’ve cleaned up your desktop.

Now every day I have a fresh start. I don’t need to think why I kept something open and what I am supposed to do with it (that happened a lot).

Cleaning up IDE

This is my favorite part. I was participating in many trainings that included live coding. Trainers were showing their examples using projector. Everyone was focused on what was shown. I was thinking - why am I so focused on those examples? Why are they so clear?

Then it struck me - there were no distractions. One big screen, big font, one thing to be focused on - the code trainers were writing. Nothing else.

So I had a mission - to create a similar, simple environment on my computer.

I use two IDE’s - Sublime Text and Visual Studio.

I use Sublime Text because it makes it easy to work without using mouse, and it’s incredibly fast, and has a lot of extensions, and it’s minimalistic, and has many, many other advantages.

My Sublime looks like this:

My Sublime

I increased the font size and hid the sidebar. I search the files by [ctrl+p] - shortcut that opens very intelligent open file modal window:

Sublime Text 3 open file modal window

I tried to mimic the same look and feel in Visual Studio. Resharper also has a very intelligent open file modal window so I mapped it to [ctrl+p], hid solution explorer and other stuff, installed Hide Main Menu extension and voilà:

My Visual Studio

When I run unit tests the unit tests explorer is opening itself, then I click [ctrl+tab] and I’m back in my file.

As you can see it’s the same as on the trainings:

  • one screen
  • bigger font
  • no other windows
  • no distractions - just code

I’m working like this all the time and it is very effective. Now I know why some text editors have distraction-free mode. Sublime also has one and I’m using it to write blog posts.

Distration free mode in Sublime Text 3

Avoiding distractions

We all love distractions. Facebook, Skype, e-mails, talking with friends in the office etc.

It’s very hard to stop doing that during work. To cure myself from distractions I stopped using Facebook for 30 days. I blocked Facebook using some Chrome extension, and started the fight.

My visit counter states that I tried to open FB 10 times - not bad. I must admit that dumping FB was one of the most interesting experiments I did. It turned out that when I couldn’t open the site I didn’t know what to do. I had a lot of free time and that forced me to manage it somehow.

My brain had less work to do because he didn’t need to process all the informations I always have on my FB wall. I felt like I had more power to do things. Things that matter for me - reading, becoming a ninja in coding (most time consuming, never ending activity), and planning when to meet with my friends in real life (that’s always better than talking on FB).

I had the time to think about what am I thinking about every day.

Mind Dump

There is this technique called Mind Dump. When you feel overwhelmed by your thoughts, get them all out of your head and write down on a piece of paper. Some people have special notebooks for this.

After your mind becomes clear you can go back to the stuff you were doing, without distractions.

It is normal that our mind keeps wandering, and I find it useful to put my thoughts on paper. Because aside of getting rid of garbage I can sometimes find useful ideas that are worth diving into.

One of the best examples of Mind Dump is TDD.

As explained by Kent Beck: you write one test and more of them keep coming to your mind, so you write them down and go back to them later. Thanks to that you remember about every test you should write. Some of them will be invalid so you can dump them.

The second example is famous GTD technique by David Allen.

You are using Mind Dump to write down your daily chores and important tasks you need to take care of. This is your inbox that you segregate later.

The important thing is that you are not keeping those intrusive thoughts in your mind. You are less stressed because you are not going to forget anything.

So maybe just one monitor?

After I introduced all those techniques my workflow became simple. I feel comfortable with using only one monitor. Every time I see someone working on 3 monitors (or more) I believe he’s not he might be not well-organized.

Of course some people are brilliant and are able to manage working even on 3 monitors. Some people need to, for example stock exchange employees.

But most of the people are not brilliant and don’t need to work like that.

In my opinion 3rd monitor doesn’t solve any problems. The only thing it can do is to make new problems. I really recommend trying one (or more) of those well-tested techniques. If you feel like your workflow is complicated - just try.

P.S. Gaming on 3 monitors is probably great :)


[Update 2015-04-06]

Thanks for all comments. Some people pointed out that I’m overgeneralizing here and I need to agree with that.

But, the key thing is that there are plenty of options to boost productivity instead of using 3rd monitor. Some people use 3rd (or even 4th) monitor because it makes their lives easier, not because they want to solve their problems - and that’s good.

Nevertheless I’m still convinced that’s not the right tool to boost productivity. If it is - you may be the special case :)