Multitasking, seeing more, and distraction–Or is it?

Posted: 10.29.12

As some of you know, I am fond of saying the more you can see, the more you can do. It’s not only Peddie’s 2nd law, it’s true.

Likewise, I’ve ranted more than once about the dullness of the monitor suppliers in not exploiting multi-monitors. You’d get to sell twice as many if you’d just wake up and push the concept—consumers would get to see and do more, and you’d get to make more (money and monitors).

And, anyone who has had the, ahem, pleasure of spending more than ten minutes with me has heard my preaching about higher resolution—all part of seeing more.

There are so many ways to see more: multiple monitors, big monitors, rear projectors, and even headsets. If you’ve read any TechWatch issues, you must have seen various examples we’ve published on products and our tests in the lab. Moreover, every GPU built for PCs for the past ten years can drive multi-monitors, so the only costs are another monitor or two. In addition, the cost of monitors has been dropping faster than the Greek economy.


And yet the uptake of multiple monitors has been slow—people don’t seem to see the benefit. Why? Partially because you have to see it to believe it—poor marketing? Perhaps. But not entirely.

Things may be improving. Last year, 250 million monitors and 350 million notebooks were sold. That means up to 175 million notebook users are attaching monitors to their notebooks (minus the replacements on the desktop).

Back in the dark ages, people said their bosses wouldn’t pay for an additional monitor; this has been proven to not be true.

It appears users don’t really multi-task. It’s not just poor marketing by the display manufacturers, it’s a utilization model.

It’s taken me almost a decade to finally figure this out.


But people think they are multi­tasking!

If you really were, more displays would make you more productive.

Looking at email on your phone or facebook every five minutes might feel like multi-tasking—but it’s not productive; it’s multi-distracted. You have to look at real work to be productive.

I was once told by a senior manager in a company you’d recognize the name of, “That’s stupid, Jon. You can only look at one page in a book at a time, one page of a newspaper at a time. If you open the newspaper up and spread all its pages out across the table, you can still only read one page at a time.”

That’s true; we are serial consumers of data. But, if I had all those newspaper pages spread out across the table, and I was on page four of a story that started on page one and I wanted to refer back to a reference in the story on page one, I could do it very quickly with all of it in front of me. Likewise, in the photo at the top, I can quickly refer back and forth between a web page, spreadsheet, and Word doc. Now, is that multi-tasking? Maybe—if the context and subject change from one screen to the next and I’m doing different tasks (which include different analyses of what I’m reading).

But—if I can’t hold my concentration on the work, let’s say the spreadsheet, and I keep glancing over to the email app, hoping something interesting will come in, that’s not multi-tasking, that’s multi-distraction. In that case, for the attention/concentration challenged among us, multi-displays are a distraction enabler and should not be used. Checking your mobile phone every three to five minutes for an SMS or a tweet not only breaks your concentration, but causes you to lose time because you have to restart the thinking process to get where you were before you let your eyes and mind wander.

So multi-monitors aren’t for everyone—only those folks who can actually work on something for more than ten minutes and need multiple sources of data relevant to the task at hand. Check yourself: did you read this straight through, or did you check your email and tweets in the process? This wasn’t that interesting that it held you attention, you say? Then why did you read this far? You should have dumped it and moved on to something that was ­worthy of your time.

Maybe this is just another distraction.