A Year Without Extra Screens

Aug 15, 2016
Joe Buhlig
~4 mins

For the last year I’ve been running my business from a MacBook Pro and an iPhone. No iPad. No Watch. And no external monitors.

This started out of necessity. I had jumped into bootstrapping my business quicker than I wanted and knew I shouldn’t spend extra dollars on unnecessary gadgets. So I took on the bare essentials.

At first, this was painful. I had done development and data analysis work for quite a while and had been able to use iPads and at least three monitors for years. I could easily argue the validity of multiple monitors for someone doing my line of work. To go from three 27” Thunderbolts and an always-on iPad at my desk to nothing more than a MacBook Pro screen was not fun.

To be honest, the freelance development and online business world isn’t all roses and rainbows. I haven’t felt comfortable spending extra dollars on a nice-to-have that isn’t necessary for me to do my job. So I’ve spent the last year working with the same minimal setup I started with.

Despite the wounds this inflicted at the onset, I’ve discovered some unexpected benefits and learnings from this unwanted experiment. I can’t say everyone will experience these and frankly some will say these are illogical conclusions. Regardless, my feelings on the topic remain.

Multiple screens don’t increase productivity.

When forced to work from a single, small screen, you find ways to make the process as easy as possible. Instead of designating apps to specific locations on a specific screen, I found a way to quickly switch to a screen filling view of an app. With a single keyboard shortcut, I jump from program to program. But that means my need to see multiple things at once is no longer necessary because I can switch about as fast as my eyes can move to another screen and back.

The other aspect at work here is pure willpower to focus. Multiple screens increase the speed at which I can be distracted. Even if the distraction is productive, it still takes me away from my intended task. A single screen forces me to look at the application and task in front of me. I have to make a conscious decision to navigate elsewhere.

Device overlap is detrimental to focus.

When I owned an iPad, it served two purposes. It was used to read articles and watch videos and it became a dashboard for my task list, outline, or reference material. Without it, I read articles and watch videos on my phone or Mac. But honestly, I do this very little anymore. And from what I can tell, I’m better off scaling this back even further.

The lack of the dashboard has been a different story. It was a big loss initially since I’ve been using an iPad that way for three years or better. I struggled to find an alternative. As expected, I eventually found a combination of tools and techniques to simulate what I was doing previously. But what surprised me was the fact that my “new” methods were already in place. I had been switching between the iPad and my iPhone for a task list. My outlines and references were a shortcut away on the Mac. I had been duplicating the main purpose of the iPad on the Mac and iPhone already.

It’s tricky, but I found there was a split in focus when there were options about which device to use. Because I could choose between devices for a given task, I would have to make an extra decision (iPad or Mac?) about the right one in the moment. Remove the decision (the extra device) and I can get to work quicker and, in most cases, more effectively. Without the choice and the potential overlap in devices, I’m free to focus on the task itself instead of asking which device to use for the task.

Owning every Apple device isn’t logical.

I’ll say it. I’m an Apple fanboy. Every product with an Apple logo has me looking for an excuse to own it. But each time I consider one, I’ve had to ask myself, “What does this enable me to do that I can’t already do and need to do?”” It’s the last piece of that question that always throws me off. There’s a lot of new and shiny with Apple products, but at the end of the day, I’ve learned that it takes only a couple of them to do what I need and to do it well.

All that said, there are changes I would make and I would increase my screen count by one. But I would only do so in the realm of Macs. Given my work in audio/video lately, I would put in either an iMac or a Mac Pro with a single, large monitor. I’m unsure of the exact hardware needs at the moment. But to allow travel, I would pick up a new MacBook. I can do a light weight machine for this, since it only needs to do email and raw text when I’m away from my office. I wouldn’t buy an iPad and I wouldn’t go for more than a single monitor for the Mac.

When will this happen? I don’t know. But learning how to work with so little has taught me where I want to go.