Part 2: Tools & Environment
Part 2.1: I like big monitors and I cannot lie
Buying a big monitor can be one of the best investments you can make, as someone interested in improving your own productivity. This will be a guide to buying a big monitor for the purpose of increasing personal productivity, and will have tips for what to look out for. By my own personal anecdotal evidence, I feel that I work at least 10% better with a bigger monitor. That may sound like a small number, but over time it really adds up. As someone trying to make money or build a huge project, ten percent of your project is usually worth much more than the cost of a big monitor.
You shouldn’t just take my word for it either; here are some specific ways that a bigger monitor can help you save time:
1. Laying two documents side-by-side on a big monitor, instead of needing to alt-tab between the two windows, saves valuable seconds. Work will often require at least two windows, perhaps one browser window for reference, and one text document for editing, for example. Imagine that every time you needed to look up some information in the browser, you’d need to alt-tab to the browser window, then alt-tab back to the text document to edit. And if you have a momentary lapse in mental acuity during that moment, you’ll probably need to do that whole process again. Depending on the specific industry you work in, or specific project being worked on, three windows or four windows can be required, and repeatedly cycling through the windows uses up valuable time when your mind is focused on the actual work. And not only does it save time, but it’s also helpful that your mental focus isn’t diverted away from the task at hand. Simply glance over at the desired information, instead of rushing to cycle through windows searching for it. I’ve found that around a third of my work, often the most involved and most difficult parts of my work, involve at least two windows, and a fraction of that will require three or four windows. I have a big enough monitor to stack four windows into a rectangular configuration, and that gives me both a ton of time savings and decreases the amount of frustration I experience trying to find the right information.
2. No matter whether you use MacOS or Windows or Linux, you will need to browse through and move your files every so often. Sometimes you’ll be lucky and will be browsing through a small set of files, but every so often you’ll need to navigate to a folder with a huge number of files, potentially with thumbnail previews of each file. A good example of this is when organizing photos, which is a common use case for home users, and an even more common use case for photographers. Not only do the photo files need to be shown, but it would be ideal to simultaneously be able to see the contents of the photo within the thumbnail preview, to get a quick idea of where the photo is from and which photo it is within the series. On top of that, organizing the photos would often require moving the photos from one folder into another folder, in which case it would be helpful to have a second window open to drag and drop files to (ideally without needing to overlap them, so that you can see the contents of both simultaneously). Not everyone uses this feature, but I tend to browse files using a column view, where the whole hierarchy of folders is displayed at once. This way I can navigate up and down the folder structure quickly using the keyboard, and I can see my exact place within the file hierarchy. The bigger monitor enables me to do that (it enables me to see more information at once, and enables me to work using the particular workflow that I prefer).
3. Having a big monitor can make sorting through all those open tabs in Chrome (insert your choice of browser here) easier too. Especially when researching a new subject, or trying to get to the root cause of a problem, I often do a Google search and open a bunch of links in new tabs, pumping out a dozen or more new tabs almost as a todo list for myself to read those search results to find the information that I’m looking for. Then I’ll slowly go through each tab and read through them. This is just one workflow that suits myself, but others may have other workflows that require having a bunch of tabs open, or maybe you’re just the type who tends not to clean up unused browser tabs. Whatever your particular workflow, being able to see at once the titles of all your open browser tabs can be a time-saver, instead of having lots of tabs being shrunken and bunched up automatically by the browser due to not having enough horizontal space on your screen.
4. Sometimes your work becomes so complex that one single window could take up a huge amount of space. One good example of this could be a giant financial Excel spreadsheet, with many formulas connecting different cells within the Excel spreadsheet, and charts in various places to better analyze the data. Or perhaps you’re editing a photo or drawing a complex flowchart. In these situations, the main window of your work may take up a whole screen, and the bigger the screen, the more data you can keep in sight at once, making analysis easier and also reducing the amount of times you need to scroll around the screen to reach the portion of work you need to edit. Doing extra scrolling is especially annoying when you have a mouse that only has a vertical scroll wheel – to scroll sideways you’ll need to take your hand off the mouse and move to either the keyboard arrow keys or the trackpad. Again, it’s a very small benefit, but when you’re pressed for time and need to complete huge projects, these little time savings here and there do add up.
5. A lot of apps have toolbars for tweaking a document, or info windows that make it easier to inspect a particular area of work. This is a problem that anyone familiar with the Adobe Creative Suite would know all too well. When editing a photo in Adobe Photoshop, or drawing in Adobe Illustrator, there are a ton of toolbars that take up a large fraction of the screen, and it would be great to have more space for the actual image being edited. For myself, I am not a graphic designer, and so haven’t had a ton of experience with the Abobe suite, but I do use a lot of programming IDEs (for editing code) that do have a lot of toolbars. An example is when debugging a website by looking at its code and any errors that popped up, I’ll upload some screenshots below.
Now before going out and buying the most expensive giant monitor in the store, definitely calculate the ROI (return on investment) of your potential purchase. Say that you’re looking to upgrade to a 30-inch monitor that costs $500, and afterwards you can resell your current 21-inch monitor for $50. That’s an investment of $450. Maybe you do $2000 worth of paid projects each month, and if you get a 10% improvement in work speed, it can mean over the course of a year you’ll be able to take 10% more projects than you would have. That’s $2,400 of extra project income. Of course this is assuming that you working faster makes the project go faster; if you are still blocked by external decision-making or inefficiencies, you can at least alleviate the situation by working on another project while waiting for those external blocks to disappear. If you’re working on a salary, then perhaps you could get a bonus if you get work done more efficiently, or at least you could get everything done faster and go home earlier to spent time with family or friends, so being more efficient should still be useful (and if you’re on a salary most likely you can sweet-talk the company to buy the monitor anyway).
Now the major disclaimer here is that a bigger monitor doesn’t just magically make your lazy butt complete work without trying. The bigger monitor is enabling you to work harder and faster by removing some of the efficiency blocks of not being able to see all your work at once, but you’ll need to push yourself to get in front of that monitor and start working in the first place, instead of deciding to watch a nice movie on it instead (of course that’s another benefit of the big monitor for when you’re done with work).
Big monitor buying tips
When purchasing a monitor for being more productive, there’s a few big factors to consider:
1. Resolution – Resolution of a monitor simply means the number of pixels that are displayed on the monitor. The more pixels, the more content can be crammed onto the screen. Usually, more is better here, so do research the resolution specifications of a monitor before purchasing, though usually the price of the monitor goes up as well with higher resolutions. I’m currently typing this blog on a MacBook Air whose screen has a resolution of 1440×900 pixels (this means that its screen is 1440 pixels wide, and 900 pixels high). Usually on this size screen, I would need to maximize windows to be full screen, and simply alt-tab (or more accurately command-tab on a Mac, it’s a keyboard shortcut to switch apps) when I need to look at a different app or window. I’ll go over cool keyboard shortcuts later in the guide for those who would like to learn more. On the MacBook Air, having two windows side-by-side on the screen is possible, but it feels just a little bit too cramped, especially if both windows contain a large amount of actual useful content. When plugged into an external monitor with 1920×1080 resolution, I tend to find myself being able to have two windows side-by-side fairly comfortably, especially when the windows are just webpages or text files. With bigger Excel spreadsheets though, maximizing the window is still needed just to see all the columns within the spreadsheet, and very little room is left for a second window, with perhaps enough space left over for a reference text file or a narrow window of some sort. Now I do also own a large 2560×1440 monitor, and that, is a joy to use. Putting two windows side-by-side, even some somewhat wide Excel spreadsheets or coding windows, is no problem. Sometimes I will put four windows on screen simultaneously, one on each corner. For my own workflow, I can have a browser window open for testing and researching, a code window for editing, a text file for notes and other reference materials, and a Slack window for communicating with the team. It’s like having four small monitors arranged in a rectangular configuration, and has been a huge improver of productivity. Now of course, a big 2560×1440 monitor split into four, is four 1280×720 tiny windows, roughly the size of a very cheap 10-inch netbook. What if, there was something just a little bit bigger still? Welcome to the world of 4K monitors. Also known as UHD (Ultra High Definition), there are monitors that have a resolution of 4096×2160 pixels. At this size, you literally can put four 1920×1080 windows into a rectangular configuration. That’s four monitors stacked together, four monitors that are the size of what those normal unproductive people buy, and that should make you very, very, happy. As a suggestion from personal experience, I would recommend monitors with more than 1920×1080 resolution to anyone buying new (e.g. don’t buy the 1920×1080, go for something bigger), because the increase in price becomes small relative to the productivity gained over the perhaps 10 years of owning that monitor.
2. Size – Of course if you purchased a 13-inch monitor with a resolution of 4096×2160 pixels, that will not do you much good. Each pixel will become extremely small, and the things that are being displayed on your screen will appear very small as well. A character in a text document, which would normally take up 10 pixels of space, would appear much smaller than you would be used to, simply because each pixel would need to be much smaller in order to cram all those pixels into a space of 13 inches. A common technique many laptop manufacturers have used is to use a 4K screen with small physical dimensions, and simply make elements on screen take up twice as many pixels as they used to. This makes your text readable again, but the screen acts more like a 1920×1080 screen in terms of productivity (you won’t be able to cram four huge windows together on screen). The one benefit of this setup is that your screen looks amazing, and text and graphics on screen look extremely nice, even though you won’t have the benefit of cramming more content on screen. The moral of the story is, if you wanted to buy a monitor with high resolution but for the purpose of jamming more content on screen, you’d need to buy a monitor that was big enough for its resolution. My 2560×1440 monitor is 27 inches diagonal, and that seems to work out pretty well for my eyes (this does depend to an extent on personal eye health, typical sitting distance away from the monitor, and other factors). If I were to upgrade to a bigger monitor (and boy do I really want to), it would probably be something along the lines of a 40-inch or bigger 4K monitor. If you are nearsighted and prefer to not wear glasses while doing work for example, a 27-inch 1920×1080 monitor would be a good size, or if you are sitting far away from the monitor, buying a 4K LED TV that’s 55-inch diagonal might make sense. Just keep in mind that size and resolution need to go up together if your goal is to cram more content on screen for productivity.
3. Ratio – Most monitors come in a 16:9 aspect ratio; what this means is that the number of horizontal pixels divided by the number of vertical pixels is in a ratio of 16 to 9. If you’re not too excited by math, this just means the monitor is somewhat flat and wide, similar to a piece of printer paper that’s laid sideways. This is fairly well suited to watching movies, since they are generally similar in proportion. This is also fairly well suited to playing games, since the wide-ness feels very immersive in games. However there are a good number of professionals who would much prefer their computer monitors to be 16:10. It’s still wide, but a little bit taller. Examples of 16:10 resolutions would be 1920×1200, or 2560×1600. What this gives you is just a little bit more vertical space, especially when menu bars and toolbars (the dock on MacOS, the taskbar on Windows, many toolbars in various apps) often take up a lot of vertical space. When we’re trying to put more content on screen, that little bit of extra space is always welcome. Recently Microsoft has also been using 3:2 monitors in their latest Surface laptops and all-in-ones, for even more vertical space (the width is only 1.5 times larger than the height). The one problem with these aspect ratios is cost, as 16:9 screens are cheapest to mass produce, mostly because they are the most commonly mass-produced (and things get cheaper to manufacture if they’re produced in bigger batches). For me personally (and this now comes to personal taste), I’m not very picky about aspect ratio, and am perfectly fine with whatever ratio is provided in a monitor. I’d take a 16:10 (1920×1200) over a 16:9 (1920×1080) monitor, simply because it has more total pixels, as long as it wasn’t too much more expensive, but I would personally prioritize total resolution over aspect ratio. I would definitely prefer something that’s 2560×1440 over another monitor that’s 1920×1200, since despite the latter having a taller aspect ratio, I’m still getting more vertical space with the former (1440 is bigger than 1200) simply because it’s a bigger monitor.
4. Quality – I’m going to preface this section with a disclaimer that I’m not very qualified to talk about monitor quality. I go for the cheapest monitors that have the biggest size and resolution, and have been happy with them. I’m typing this on a 2013 MacBook Air, which uses a TN panel (this means that the screen was produced with a technology whose acronym is TN – I don’t know how it works). Many people who are pickier about monitors will say that they don’t like the viewing angles on TN panels (the items on screen are not as clear or bright when you’re not looking at them straight-on), and are very sensitive to monitors displaying colors extremely accurately, etc. Many would prefer IPS panels (they’re made with a technology whose acronym is IPS – I don’t know how it works) for their better viewing angles and color accuracy. I’m not sure if it’s just the way my eyes developed, but I’m okay with most monitors. I can definitely see the difference in higher quality monitors, and they’re pleasing to look at, though I’m not annoyed by lower quality monitors at all, as long as it’s a good resolution. You’re on your own for monitor quality unfortunately, but just go look at them in the store and judge for yourself.
5. Ports – Some nicer monitors will include extra ports such as USB ports, ethernet ports, etc, that are useful as docking stations for ultraportable laptops that don’t have many ports themselves. For example, the new MacBook (just MacBook, not MacBook Air or MacBook Pro) from Apple has only one port – it’s used for charging, monitor output, plugging anything into the laptop really, and as you’d suspect, that’s not enough ports for most people who want to do serious work on it. In this case a monitor that can connect to the MacBook, then in turn allow USB drives and printers and mice to be connected to the laptop through the monitor, can be a very valuable investment. Otherwise, you will need to choose between charging the MacBook, using a mouse, or using a USB drive, because you can’t do more than one of those at a time. Speaking of ports, one of the most important pieces of information you’ll need to research before buying a monitor is: how do you connect your computer to the monitor? There’s a variety of connectors for this: VGA, DVI, HDMI, Thunderbolt, Mini DisplayPort, DisplayPort, USB-C, etc, and it can get a little confusing. But just remember that you’ll need a cable with one end that’s able to plug into your computer, and the other end that’s able to plug into the monitor. Usually that means finding a monitor that has a port with the same name as whatever port is available on your computer – for example if your computer has an HDMI port for plugging in monitors, then go and buy a monitor that has an HDMI port, so that you can use an HDMI cable to connect the two. Sometimes you’ll need an adapter to change one type of port into another, this can get complex so ask your computer manufacturer’s tech support or the monitor manufacturer’s tech support.
6. Multiple monitors & extra-wide monitors – You most likely have seen photos of stock trading floors or computer programmer offices having several monitors connected to a computer, each monitor jammed full of content. You don’t need to go overboard with six monitors like the stereotypical geek’s office (nor will your computer likely support that), but you can still improve your productivity by getting a second monitor. Windows can be dragged between two monitors, and both can be useful space – for example you could have different windows open on each monitor so that it’s easier to see more content at a glance. I often use an external monitor with my laptop, and if my workflow requires three or four windows open, I can keep one open on the laptop screen, and two open on the external monitor. One more exciting way to be productive is curved monitors, which I haven’t actually tried myself, but the basic principle is that the monitor is created to be very wide, giving you a lot of space to work with, but with such a wide display, it’s hard to see the information on the edges of the display because it’s so far from your eyes that the angle of the screen is no longer ideal. So the monitor itself is curved so that the left and right edges are ever-so-slightly wrapped around your eyes for easier viewing. Often, these monitors will have resolutions much wider than usual, so instead of 1920×1080, you might be looking at 2880×1080 (1.5 times wider than 1920×1080) so you can have three documents laid side-to-side for more productive use of the computer. One benefit of an extra-wide monitor, or simply a huge monitor even if it’s not extra wide, is that you don’t have the layers of plastic monitor bezel in between your usable screen space, instead, it’s all fit onto one screen (It’s also easier to pack up if you tend to move apartments or homes frequently).
7. Other – There are many other cool features of monitors that could be useful to you in certain cases, most of which come at a cost (these features cost more to make, and can gain manufacturers some bigger profit margins). Some business monitors, I’ve used some from Dell, can turn so that it’s in portrait mode (taller than wide). This can be useful if you’re working with long documents, or simply prefer to stack windows vertically for some workflows. When you no longer need it, just turn the monitor and it will be back in landscape mode (wider than tall). Some monitors also have height adjustment bases, so if your desk is too low, or you switch chairs, simply adjust the monitor’s height (it’s nice to have, though you could use a book as well). Pen inputs are also fairly useful for some, especially those working with art and needing more accurate ways to input their art, and other examples might be people working in Chinese language who are used to handwriting text as their preferred input method. Touch screens are a useful input method as well, and this does tie into personal preferred workflows whether it’s worth it for you to pay more for the feature. I find myself using mouse and keyboard most of the time, but occassionally want to touch the screen for getting rid of dialog boxes that don’t have keyboard shortcuts assigned to its buttons (for me, it’s all about the speed of getting around the user interface of the computer). As already mentioned earlier, some monitors also include a feature where a screen with extra resolution is used despite the user being presented with a screen that is scaled to a lower resolution, resulting in a lower resolution workspace that looks very clear and nice to look at. How that works is beyond the scope of this guide, but when purchasing, it’s called “Retina” in Apple’s brand-speak, and HiDPI in certain Windows laptops. If you’re buying your own large monitor, perhaps to connect to a desktop or as an external display for your laptop, you can define the “scaling” of the resolution within your operating system’s display control panel.
8. Monitor positioning – This is less of a buying tip, but just a side note on ergonomics of your monitor. I’ve noticed most people’s monitors are lower than they should be. Especially when on the go, people will put their laptop on a desk to use. The keyboard is the right height for typing, but the monitor is attached to the keyboard and therefore very low near the desk. The screen being so low relative to the eyes can cause a lot of strain on the neck (or back, depending on how you adjust your body to make your eyes level with the screen). Using a laptop would be the extreme case; there is no way to raise the laptop screen without raising the keyboard, so there will be discomfort whatever height you move the laptop to. But even with external monitors, many people located the monitor much below eye level, causing unecessary neck or back strain. Take a few heavy books and put them under the monitor, or get fancy and buy a nicely constructed monitor shelf, to raise the top of the viewable screen to eye-level. Whatever your most comfortable and natural sitting position (e.g. you’re not hunching over), move the monitor to the corresponding eye level, and you’ll find over time that your neck or back will no longer be as strained.
I realized that even talking about just monitors, we’ve taken up quite a long blog post. That’s why the whole Part 2 that was supposed to be productivity hacks with all your office equipment has now been split into two sections. Hope that it has been helpful though, and stay tuned for Part 2.2 soon to come!