I believe I’ve doubled my productivity since I joined the two+ monitor club in 2012.
A good number of tasks can be completed 100%+ faster with two monitors because these tasks require two or more primary windows, and two or more secondary windows. The last thing I want to do is use dressed up terminology, so let’s get these definitions out of the way:
Primary windows – stuff vital to completing “real” work for your job. In most corporate settings, these applications would be Powerpoint, Excel and Word. Re: information sources, I mean a browser window or PDF reader that has some useful information – if you’re in banking, company financials; technology, API documentation; government, a transcript of a Congressional hearing, etc.
Secondary windows – stuff that has to be monitored but isn’t the bread and butter of your job. E-mail and chat are the most obvious examples for me.
I believe the key to being productive with two monitors is centralizing primary windows and moving secondary windows away from the action. The main disadvantage of one monitor is that secondary windows have to be called front and center far too often – how annoying is it to get an Outlook or GMail notification and suddenly have your whole work space occupied by that reminder that there are still donuts in the breakroom? Like Brady reading a blitzing linebacker from his peripheral vantage point, two monitors allow you to sense potentially important distractions (the client wants a table in the presentation with their competitors’ TTM EBITDA) without losing site of the key action (that presentation due by EOD).
With this core concept in mind, I give you my unofficial guide to all the stuff I’ve learned since I joined the two monitor club in 2012:
Internalize your monitor gameplan – this will be the founding vision that guides all future monitor decisions. I have my setup below (excuse the third grade artwork) that is based on the whole centralizing primary and peripheralizing secondary premise:
Follow the law of 2s – most monitors can only house two windows split vertically. Thus, as shown above, if you have two monitors, it may make sense to divide your work space into four sections and go from there. I do use my left-most section to house up to three separate windows, mainly because email, chat and news don’t require a lot of space.
Move em with ease – Window managers like Spectacle for Mac give you shortcuts for easy splitting and moving. Even for single monitor workflows, I think Spectacle / any manager is useful (I used Spectacle before I had two monitors and use it now that I have two). Windows is actually built out with moving capabilities by default, and Win + <Arrow-Key> will accomplish a lot of the heavy lifting.
Know thy shortcuts – yes, yes, it’s old hat advice but not heeded enough. IMHO, Alt-Tab is really only the tip of the iceberg here. Since so much work is done in the browser nowadays, I think it’s worth knowing some Chrome shortcuts – specifically, moving to the search bar (Alt L), closing tabs (Alt W), opening tabs (Alt T), opening a new window (Alt N) and switching tabs (Cmd-Alt-<Arrow-Key> – note that you may have to customize some shortcuts if you’re on Mac and using the default Spectacle shortcuts, which conflict with Chrome).
So use your multiple monitors wisely. All space isn’t equal; prime real estate in the center should be primary windows, and far left / right is secondary stuff. Know the shortcuts. And that Matt Berry fantasy sleeper special can wait till after work.