portrait picture

TIMO ZIMMERMANN

balancing software engineering & infosec

Screens, believes & productivity

posted on Tuesday 17th of December 2019 in , ,

There are some topics which can can cause a very controversional discussion when you put software engineers in a room. Vim vs Emacs. Favorite Linux distribution. Generics and static typing. But one thing a significant amount seem to agree on is that a multi screen setup is a requirement to be productive.

Over the last 24 years I looked at many computer screens. Different kinds, different sizes and obviously a different amount of screens. And for a long time I would have agreed that you should run a multi screen system to increase your productivity. There are blog posts, studies and anecdotes all over the net advocating for multiple screens.

My first dual screen setup was a mix of an 17″ and 15″ CRT. Later on 19″ and 17″ LCD. At some point dual 24″. With the 2015 MacBook Pro I moved to dual 27″ and when upgrading to the iMac Pro to triple 27″. But something changed for me. I actually got rid – read: upgraded my parents offices – of two LG Ultrafine 5k and now only work with my 5k iMac Pro.

The most important part in the above paragraph is for me. I did not conduct a scientific study. I did not run multiple tests. I reduced my setup one screen at a time, working two to four weeks with a setup to see if anything changed. Your mileage may vary.

The physical change is pretty obvious: I do not move my head all day. At some point I used anything but the iMac as an “informative” screen in my peripheral vision and when something happened I moved the window to my main screen. Not moving my head a lot during the day is actually more pleasant – who would have thought?

From a productivity perspective I made some changes to account for the lack of a second and third screen:

I never kept email, chat, etc open all day to immediately react to every single message. Before I had them sitting on the left screen but simply did not look at them, so my availability is the same. If I am being pinged or get a notification I can choose to open the app or move to the virtual screen with one click. I can catch up with the random and music channel at any other time, I do not need to know that there is activity.

I often had a web browser with documentation open on the right screen. Now I mostly just Command-Tab to my browser, read what’s relevant and Command-Tab back to my editor. It is rare that I need the editor and documentation at the same time, but on 27″ 5k I can fit both next to each other if I really need it. Thanks to Magnet this is only a matter of a few key strokes.

I have my 12.9″ iPad Pro next to my iMac and played a bit with Sidecar, but I mostly use it to move apps to the iPad when I want to use the Apple Pencil. Initially I thought it might be a nice compromise if I need some docs open, but I find it more comfortable to rearrange windows than moving my head.

Overall 27″ simply proved to be large enough to comfortably work with a single screen setup. Having a multi screen system is something I setup out of habit. And I believe with smaller screens this still makes a lot of sense. But hardware evolved into large screens. (A single 34″ slightly curved widescreen might be the sweet spot – not a lot of head movement, no bezels and a little bit more vertical space to fit a small window in for some convenience and a little bit less rearranging.)

Why am I writing this post? To enlighten people on how to be productive? To advocate minimalism? To kick off a long study of productivity related to size and number of screens? Nope, nothing fancy or hip. Just a reminder – primarily for myself – to reevaluate old believes and habits from time to time.