A tip for writers: how I maximize productivity with 3 monitors

When people find out I work with three monitors, they’re always curious. Here’s how that works for me and why I think it makes me a more productive writer and editor.

The three-monitor setup

First, the basics. I have a brand new MacBook Pro 16-inch, replacing one that I had used since 2013. (None of what I’m writing here relates to having a Mac, or a newer Mac; it would be the same regardless of what computer you use.)

My two monitors are nothing special. One is an older squarish 1280 x 1024 VGA monitor; the other is an HDTV monitor (1920 x 1080) connected with an HDMI cable. Both were castoffs, I didn’t even need to pay for them. The new MacBook requires adapters (“dongles”) to connect them to its ports.

To be productive, I have the monitors arranged into a virtual desktop, which allows me to drag things back and forth between them. (This is easy to set up on the Mac by using the Displays item under System Preferences.)

I also have an external keyboard and mouse. That’s essential, because without that, you can’t sit far enough back from the computer to easily see all the monitors. I have a beautiful custom-made L-shaped desk surface (purchased here), but the top surface is so smooth that the keyboard tended to slip around. I solved that by purchasing a silicone mat, usually use for baking, and putting it under the keyboard.

And yes, those are two books that I edited raising the height of the HDTV monitor. Whatever works!

Why all that monitor space?

As a writer and editor, I frequently need to work on things while referring to or researching other things. I might be reviewing a document against an email checklist; writing a blog post while looking up new articles to add as links; creating a PowerPoint presentation while referencing a document or searching for photos; looking up references and content to insert into a document or citation; comparing two drafts; referring to numbers in a spreadsheet as I write; or reviewing a document and summarizing items in an email.

Naturally, you can do all of this with a single laptop monitor, but it requires maintaining context in one document while referring to something else. I find it extremely helpful to have the document I’m working on up where I can see it at all times while I track down other bits and pieces to put into it. This, more than anything else, is the benefit of multiple monitors in an extended desktop for me.

I frequently do videoconferencing. The camera is in the MacBook, which is in the middle. This setup makes it easy for me to see the other participants, but to share content from one monitor or the other (for example, a document we are working on together). You have to be careful when you do this, so you don’t inadvertently show another client’s work, or your latest medical test results, or your email inbox.

Long ago, I would sometime work while referring to paper. That’s rare now, because everything I want to refer to is online. About the only time I do that is when entering content from a physical book. (I won’t even work with people who do red-pen corrections on paper.)

These monitors have morphed into virtual “spaces” in my workflow

The thing that’s most interesting to me is that over time, these monitors have differentiated in my mind. They’re not just big rectangular pixel fields. They have different functions.

The HDTV monitor on the right is always the work monitor. I do my writing and editing there. It’s also where I check my work email and interact with social media. Interestingly (at least to me), this cuts down on distraction; I am either working or reviewing emails and social media, never both at the same time.

The VGA monitor on the left is for references and business stuff. If I’m looking up something to put into a document on the right, the thing I’m looking up is on the left. It’s often full of news articles, Amazon book pages, and downloaded PDFs that I’m checking.

The left monitor is also where I keep track of bank accounts, invoices, and other material related to the business, but not part of my creative work. I might check my Google sheet of unpaid invoices on left monitor, then send a reminder email about an overdue bill from from the right monitor.

Finally, my personal non-work email account is on the left. I check this less frequently.

One productivity trick I learned is to set up different profiles or identities and logins for different browser windows. The window on the right is for my main bernoff.com email and identity, and is always logged into WordPress so I can more easily do blogging. The window on the left is for my personal email address and identity and while it maintains logins for sites like nytimes.com, it is never logged into WordPress. This allows me to see blog posts as they appear to the outside world.

This method of using the same application in two windows extends to other parts of my workflow. I might have two Microsoft Word or Adobe Acrobat screens up on the two larger monitors at the same time for making comparisons or copying content.

In the past, I’ve used the central laptop screen itself as a sort of auxiliary screen for when I need to check three things at once. It’s also where I do “system” activities like changing settings or scanning documents. Now that I’ve switched from a 13-inch MacBook to a 16-inch, I’m beginning to see that the middle screen can be more useful. I’m sure it will begin to occupy some new virtual workspace in my brain.

On the road

Of course, I can still be productive on road trips. It’s not that I can’t work with a single laptop screen, just that it takes longer and is less conducive to creating flow because of all the application and windows switching.

I’ve recently needed to visit my parents’ house for periods of days or weeks. I set up a computer table there and I’ve borrowed a couple of my Dad’s monitors (one used to be a TV set) and got an external keyboard and mouse that live there. All I need to bring is my MacBook and, once plugged in, I’m just as productive as I am in my home office.

Should you set things up like this?

I think all writers should have at least two screens to work from. It preserves flow, and flow is crucial to good writing.

Monitors are cheap. Monitor quality is less important than having enough surface available to create virtual spaces to work in.

I’m curious about your setup. Do you use monitors as virtual workspaces? How do they help you become more productive?

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  1. I use 2, rather than 3, monitors, but yes, tremendous productivity boost, and I really miss it when working with only one monitor. I’ve got an old-fashioned tower PC, with two 20″ low-cost wide-screen monitors (both from Acer, slightly different as bought at different times). My use is very similar to yours. Typically I’ll read, write, or edit on the right monitor, which faces me directly, and use the left, which tilts towards me slightly, for references. This holds for writing, for reviewing / editing , and for writing code. This morning I was reviewing a proposal for a client, and had the government’s request for proposal up on the left for reference, and marked up the draft proposal on the right. For code, whatever editor I’m using is open on the right, and I look up what I need to learn or check the syntax of on the left monitor. For web conferencing, I usually have the web meeting open on the left, and then any relevant document and a Word document for typing notes on the right that I switch between.

  2. Yup, I’m all over this! Speeds up writing time because it’s so efficient. Left side is research, right side is email, center is active document.

  3. In a similar set up, my monitors are all set up in ‘portrait mode’. Only the center monitor goes to landscape when working on graphics or sound.

  4. I am a techie and also use 3 monitors. I disagree with your statement about monitor quality though. Screens are what we look at all day so I think it’s important to invest a bit of money on good monitors.

  5. Use 2 monitors here and sometimes think about adding a 3rd. It works for more than writing. I’d suggest that anyone doing a lot of work on a computer would benefit. Depending on what you do (and how good your eyesight is), monitor resolution is important (affects the “size” of your workspace). Quality for visual work, of course, would be a priority too. Once I moved to 2 monitors (2560 x 1440) it was an absolute luxury. Also, a good docking station is a must.

  6. Good topic! I use the 3 monitors for dedicated to email, active work area, and source documents. It greatly improves mental flow and calm when I reduce the visual distraction of flipping views on a single screen. I often work remote to help my aging parents so I appreciate the tips on making that work. I like Phil’s shopping list. I just use a book (Good to Great was handy) to give my laptop a tilt up.