Leveraging Desktop Real Estate To Decrease Distractions


I use a dual-monitor setup. In my setup, the main screen sits centered directly in front of me. The secondary screen, which is slightly smaller, is off to one side. The real estate provided by the two screens gives me plenty of pixels across which to splash my applications–ample “screenery.”

I use my screenery productively when recording podcasts. I display a script, conferencing app, and recording tool without having to switch between them. Research productivity is also enhanced. I display a note-taking app front and center, with research subject matter like a video presentation, Kindle book, or PDF off to the side.

No Pixel Left Behind

Acres of screenery has benefits, but lots of screen space is also a potential distraction. I fight the desire to fill every pixel with an application. If I don’t use all the pixels, I must be wasting desktop space, right? I don’t want to waste my not inconsiderable investment in fancy monitors. Hmm. Sounds like an example of the sunk cost fallacy.

Desktop operating system developers have catered to my craving, adding sticky edges to windows that ensure not a single pixel is wasted. I can make my window edges stick to each other and the edge of the screen itself! That’s perfect!

Only, screens filled edge-to-edge is anything but perfect when there’s a lot of screenery to fill. A small laptop screen, where every pixel counts? Sure. There’s no space to waste. But in a dual-monitor configuration with bountiful space? I’m learning to resist screen-filling temptation.

The Lie That All Apps Must Be Tended In Real-Time

Of necessity, I am a Slack user. I interact with humans and Slackbot frequently as a standard part of my day. Although I carefully limit notifications, I leave a few notifications on to react in a timely way to people that might need me to weigh in. Lots of screenery means that I can keep Slack open all the time for near instantaneous reaction times to those important messages.

Which…is good, right?

Maybe not. Perhaps you recognize this common knowledge worker problem. Even with only carefully curated notifications making it through, chat apps are a distraction from the task at hand. Oh…a notification in my company’s #blahblah channel. I should check that!

Oops–flow state broken.

An App Windowing Strategy To Improve Focus

In a dual-monitor setup, carefully planned application placement can help avoid broken flow states, improving productivity. In my central monitor, I place the app (or perhaps apps) that are required to complete the task at hand. I do not cluster chat apps, email, or music players around the app I need for productivity, as these are distractions.

Instead, I put distracting apps in the side monitor. And then I minimize them.

1. Place productive work apps on your center screen. Ideally this is a single application–the tool you are using to create. A text editor. An IDE. The GUI you input information into. If it’s time to work on email, your email client. A web browser with minimal tabs open.

But there’s so much wasted screenery! I could pop my music player up in the corner and…

NO. Bad you (and me, to be honest). Resist the temptation to fill pixels with information that does not directly support the task at hand.

2. Place additional applications that directly support your creative work and need a lot of real estate into the secondary screen. For example, the output test screen for an application you’re developing. A report you must reference to support the piece you’re writing. A monitoring tool that helps you visualize changes you’re making.

What if there are no other applications that support your task? Then display nothing at all on your secondary monitor.

Nothing at all? You mean, a screen with nothing but wallpaper?

Exactly. And if pretty wallpaper distracts you, not even that.

Surely, my calendar can go over there…I’d hate to miss an appointment!

NO, bad you. Do you get notified before your next appointment through your operating system’s notification tool? Of course you do. You don’t need to check your calendar minute-by-minute. You’ll get an alert when you have somewhere to be.

Yeah, but my to-do list would look so good over there, and I could impress my boss when she walks by. And to-do lists are all about productivity, so it’s got to be okay.

NO, bad you. Task lists are to be used when you need to add a task, cross a task off, or get your next set of marching orders. They aren’t there to stroke your ego and make you feel good about how organized you are. Task lists are tools to help you maintain focus–not distract from your current task while you ponder the next ten tasks.

3. Minimize applications that are not directly related to the task at hand. For me, this is difficult. When I say, “NO, bad you,” in my points above, I’m foremost scolding myself. When applications are minimized, I experience the same fear of missing out (FOMO) that I feel when recovering from the addiction of checking social media.

What if there’s something crucial in my calendar? What if someone sends me a Slack message and I don’t respond to it in two minutes or less? What if I hear a really cool track in Spotify, and I can’t glance over and know exactly what it is? What if…

Stop. None of those things are crucial in the moment. All of those things can be addressed eventually, when you’re done the task at hand. Give yourself permission to minimize non-essential apps. To waste pixels. To let some screenery run free.

4. Minimize apps in the appropriate monitor. For example, keep chat apps, music players, and your calendar in the secondary monitor, but minimized. This drives home the point that non-productivity apps are not to be front and center when you’re looking at them.

Oh, I’m looking at my secondary monitor. I’m allowing myself to be distracted by this app I opened from the task bar. I’m using an app that I normally use in between tasks. I must be on a productivity break.

There is nothing wrong with taking a break. You need to be reasonably productive, not constantly. But, your goal is to get done with the non-essential apps, put them away by minimizing them to the task bar, and then get on with your next productive task. Minimize interruption to flow state so that when you are working meaningfully, the result is your undistracted best.

I don’t think you comprehend this multi-tasking world we live in. We’ve all got to multi-task. That’s how things get done, and I can do it! I’m great at multi-tasking.

I agree that multi-tasking seems inevitable. I don’t think we’ll ever get away from it entirely. Even so, perhaps the key is in not wishing for a distraction. In allowing yourself to be fully immersed in the topic that you’re working on.

The information universe tempts you with mildly pleasant but ultimately numbing diversions. The only way to stay fully alive is to dive down to your obsessions six fathoms deep.

David Brooks in The Art Of Focus, NYTimes.com

Making screenery your friend can help you become totally immersed.

About the author

Ethan Banks

Most people know me because I write & podcast about IT on the Packet Pushers network. I also co-authored "Computer Networks Problems & Solutions" with Russ White.

Find out more on my about page.


Most people know me because I write & podcast about IT on the Packet Pushers network. I also co-authored "Computer Networks Problems & Solutions" with Russ White.

Find out more on my about page.

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