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Productivity hacking: Extra monitors can give you the edge

The amount of usable space on your screen can help you accomplish more in less time.

How much time do you spend in front of your computer every week? You don't have to tell me. You spend a lot of your life sitting in front of your laptop screen or computer monitor. We all do.

A Microsoft study from way back in 2013 determined that US workers spend an average of six working hours per day in front of a computer. That's obviously gone up, especially in the pandemic era. Most of the more modern studies don't break out work time from play time, but an astonishing Eyesafe Nielsen report claims that during COVID, the average adult spends a whopping 13 hours a day staring at screens -- much of that streaming, watching TV, and using apps on phones.

In this article, we're going to focus primarily on your work-related screen usage. Whether you're at home or in an office, we have a couple of easy suggestions for getting more work done in the same number of hours, or getting the same amount done in less time.

It all has to do with screen real estate -- the amount of usable space on your screen. That's measured by both pixels per inch and overall screen dimensions. 

The more densely packed the pixels, the more detail can be presented in a given space. Unfortunately, even though pixel density has gone up over the years, there are diminishing returns. Even though very small letters might be presented in excellent detail, you don't want visuals too small to be useful. 

But screen size has some very big upsides. Once you have a pixel density that produces crisp text and images, having the physical space to display multiple windows side-by-side can be a productivity game-changer.

Two are better than one

Whether you use a laptop or a standalone tower PC, you can easily add screen real estate by adding a second (or even a third) monitor. Most Windows 10 machines come with at least one HDMI port, and you can often connect an external monitor via USB-C, as well. Dell, for example, offers a number of USB-C monitors, such as this 4K 27-inch model.

(Note that this is a sponsored column, and since I have used many excellent Dell products over the years -- including a much-beloved Dell monitor -- I'm happy to use Dell gear to illustrate my recommendations.)

If you're using a laptop, an easy way to get started is to add an external monitor, then use the laptop screen as a second display, as shown below:

External Monitor & Laptop as Second Display

I worked for a long time with two 27-inch monitors connected to a tower. One monitor was placed in front of my face, while another was placed off to the side. It was very similar to the laptop/monitor setup above, except with more screen real estate.

More screen real estate

Both of these have the advantage of allowing you to see multiple documents at once. As my work projects got more complex and I was comparing and citing information from a bunch of windows, I added a third monitor. This was my favorite configuration for quite a while.

Three Monitor Configuration

The only problem with this approach, regardless of which side the additional monitors lived on, was that my neck started to get tired after a while. It wasn't quite as easy to compare documents.

I've noticed that a lot of people take a different approach and arrange two monitors side-by-side, but with the gap right in the middle:

Two Monitors with Gap in the middle

The only problem, and it's a big one, is that documents tend to get split in the middle, which can be incredibly distracting.

The ultimate approach is to get an ultrawide monitor like the Dell UltraSharp 38 Curved USB-C Hub Monitor or the Dell UltraSharp 40 Curved WUHD Monitor. These represent the best of all worlds. You can see how much more information can be represented:

Curved USB-C Hub Monitor

With this configuration, you can move windows around to see information side-by-side without craning your neck, and without splitting information down the middle.

Your own video wall 

Depending on your budget and desk space, you can go wild. You can put a standard 27-inch monitor on one side of the ultrawide (this is my desk setup, which I love for comparing data, documents, coding, or editing video), or you can put one on both sides. You can even -- assuming you have a massive desk and don't mind swinging your whole body around to see everything -- set up two or three ultrawides, side by side. 

Don't underestimate the benefits of additional screen real estate. Although this article is mostly about improving work productivity, a fascinating study on gamers was published in Volume 19, Issue 2 of the Journal of Interacting with Computers. According to the research, expert gamers of equal skill were pitted against one another with the only variable being screen size. For nearly every game, the gamer with the larger screen won against the gamer with the smaller screen.

Multimedia and graphics analysis and consulting firm Jon Peddie Research has been conducting multi-monitor productivity research since 2002. In their most recent study, evaluating 1,000 end users' productivity patterns, the company found that "information workers, designers, and engineers can realize up to a 42% increase in productivity through the use of multiple displays."

You may not be able to get away with putting in only 58% of your work hours just because you buy a second monitor. But based not only on the research, but on my personal experience, adding more monitors -- and especially that curved ultrawide -- will undoubtedly make your job easier, likely reduce the time it takes to do complex comparative tasks, and maybe even free up a few hours.