December 12, 2014

multiple screens

Could multiple screens actually help people multitask? Credit: Yutaka Tsutano / Flickr Creative Commons

When you're working on your computer, how do you avoid getting distracted? If you're like me, you've got your real work in one window – like Microsoft Word, or Google Docs. But in other windows there are apps constantly tempting me to stop working – like Twitter, email, Facebook or even Wikipedia. And so I glance at them and get tempted and ... whoops, I've gone down a Twitter hole and it's a half an hour later.

Is there a better way to manage things? Some technique to keep a cleaner division between my work and my play?

In my job as a technology reporter, I've recently spied a new trend. People put different tasks not in different windows ... but on different devices. They use their laptop for one thing – and their phone or tablet for another.

Here's an example. Karen, a manager for a Toronto incubator, does all of her long reading – like big reports or white papers – on her iPad, sitting away from her desk. But, crucially, she has no email on the iPad, and no Twitter either. It's just reading. When she's done the reading, she goes back to her laptop, where her email and Twitter await.

Other folks do similar tricks. One programmer told me he puts his work on his computer, his calendar on his tablet, and his email on his phone – and lays them all on his desk. To shift to a new task, he physically changes his focus – by picking up a new screen. He says it helps him keep each task separate, so they don't bleed into one another.

I think he's right. There's a cool paradox here, a paradox of our attention span. The multi-screen life might actually be better, and calmer, than trying to do everything on your laptop screen.

I think this trend is going to continue – because screens are getting cheaper all the time. Lighter, too. In labs, I've seen e-ink screens that look and work like paper. You'd spread seven or eight of them across your desk. One's got a document, one's got some email, one's got Twitter. You glance at them when you need them – then toss 'em aside when you don't. Screens will have the natural ergonomics of paper. We'll have lots of screens around us – maybe dozens.

And, counterintuitively, it'll be a good thing. It makes me hopeful for the future of our attention spans in a digital world. When you're trying to focus – many screens make light work.

From a piece originally published in Wired Magazine: How Working on Multiple Screens Can Actually Help You Focus

commentary, Clive Thompson, multitasking, Culture

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