Published: March 31, 2014 • Updated: October 10, 2023 • 2 min read
I have one computer monitor on my desk. Not long ago, this was common, but today, many people have two, three, or four monitors. In this post, I’d like to make the case that most professional programmers can use just one monitor. A quality, high resolution, 24-27+ inch computer monitor, or your laptop screen.
Hardware is a personal preference, and you can use any configuration you like. Some people may need more than one monitor for physical reasons. Some people may have jobs where secondary or tertiary displays perform a crucial function. I’m sure there are valid exceptions here.
So, why write this post? I’m writing to explain my longstanding preference, and encourage you to consider yours.
When I meet a multi-monitor user, they praise the ability to consume multiple streams of information, like mission control at NASA. I get it. Who doesn’t like more information?
“When I write my text file here (on the left), then I see the change instantly in the browser (on the right)!”
I have two issues here.
First, there’s a hotkey on all operating systems that does this. Peruse all
open programs with
CMD + TAB, then hold
CMD on Mac, or
ALT + TAB, then
ALT, on Windows or Linux. Toggle between the last two programs at
ridiculous speed by skipping the hold. If you aren’t using these hotkeys all
the time, you’re missing one of the most important tools on your computer. So
to the speed argument, I’d say that I can do this faster than you can turn your
head and move your mouse.
Second, twisting your neck or torso is needless wear and tear on your body. How much? It’s hundreds of movements per day, times 250 days of work a year, times a career that could span decades. You are going to get hurt. Ask any old programmer, and they’ll tell you that these repetitive movements add up.
Perhaps this is why when you see such a setup in the wild, the second screen is usually displaying Hacker News, Reddit, YouTube, or Twitter. Something that can be ignored.
Putting together that there’s a hotkey alternative and the physical wear and tear, multiple monitors are in trouble.
Okay, so multiple monitors aren’t as great as they seem. What are the arguments for one monitor?
First, mobility. When you’re comfortable using one screen, you can smoothly pivot from the office to a coffee shop to home. Multiple monitors can’t follow this adventure. Although I’ve seen people try!
Second, focus. Multitasking has taken a beating recently, and justly in my opinion. Humans just aren’t good at focusing on multiple things at once. One monitor helps me focus on whatever I’m doing right now.
Lastly, simplicity. One monitor is one piece of hardware to maintain, clean, move, and care for. It’s one cable and one outlet. One of my favorite hardware idioms is: “Once you get fancy, fancy gets broken.” One monitor is already fancy. Don’t get fancier.
Many of the most productive people I have met, not just software engineers, use one monitor. If you’re on the fence, learn the toggling hotkey and try one monitor for a few weeks to see what you think. I’m guessing you’ll be faster, feel better, and gain mobility, focus, and simplicity. You can always go back.
What are your thoughts on multiple monitors? Let me know!
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