Why one screen can be better than two

Does having more screens mean battling more distractions?

Earlier this month, I cut my arm off. At least, that's what it felt like at the time.

For the last few years, I've both used and raved at every opportunity about the joys of computing with multiple screens - two at least, and three if you can possibly get away with it. Now though, I'm down to one. More or less. Most of the time.

No, I'm not begging for sympathy here. It was a completely voluntary decision, which I made for a couple of reasons. The first is that I suddenly realised that my laptop - a MacBook Air, I feel no shame - was actually more powerful than my desktop in many ways, and that it was a waste to leave it sitting on a shelf all day.

What it lacks in graphics firepower, it more than makes up for with an SSD, and being much easier to pick up and carry downstairs whenever I feel like slobbing out on the sofa. It switches out of standby quickly and easily, takes up much less room, and if I pick it up, having it ready to go all the time means that I know that it'll be fully charged. All things considered, it's working out pretty well.

That's a side benefit though. What pushed me to even consider the idea in the first place was that while the advantage of a dual-screen setup is having easy access to lots of information at once, that's also the downside. The specific moment I realised there was a problem was when I was watching a movie while checking my email and downloading, and I said to someone on IM... well, you get the picture.

Call it a sudden moment of clarity. I was getting in the habit of always having something on my second screen, always glancing over to it just in case some new collection of pixels was jumping up and demanding my attention... and almost feeling bad if it wasn't. After all, there's always something going on.

This was having a massive knock-on effect on everything I was doing. Work was hard to focus on with other stuff going on, but trying to do it without just felt flat. Watching a movie or TV show was only a half-brain thing, resulting in everything merging together into a cultural slurry. I couldn't remember the last time I'd sat down on my sofa to actively savour something instead of turning it into background noise.

So I went laptop cold turkey - or, since it's a Macbook Air, possibly lightly-chilled cappuccino. One monitor and one monitor alone. Wherever possible, one window to focus on. A personal pledge to start watching things on my TV again instead of just slinging them up in my peripheral vision.

I even downloaded a little application called Freedom (despite the URL, there's a PC version too) whose sole job is to switch off the internet for a number of minutes. You can always put it back on in an emergency, like desperately needing to browse TV Tropes.

This is enough of a pain though that it has to be an active decision, rather than you merely finding yourself staring at an internet window like a glutton suddenly waking up in a room full of disturbingly moist chocolate bar wrappers. The fact that it was a difficult transition strongly hints that it was a transition that needed to be made.

The first week was mostly spent glancing over at the blackness of my second monitor, now given over completely to my games PC, as if expecting something to pop up on it. The idea of actually going downstairs to watch a movie seemed strange. Old-fashioned even, with the lack of distractions replaced by simply wondering.

New IM? New e-mail? No! Doesn't matter! Embrace culture, damn it! Or at least the reasonable facsimile provided by a shiny new box of Game of Thrones episodes.

I'm not sure what my future plans are for when these devices become small and ubiquitous enough that we all have them implanted into our eyes and similar, although I suspect this would be a good time for any civic-minded entrepreneurs to start considering how best to sell Faraday cages with sofas in them. It may just be our only hope as a species.

Only this month, I came across a story about teenagers complaining that they're not allowed to text in the middle of movies, with the general gist of it being that given a choice between that and breathing, there'd be lots of bereaved parents staring down at the words "i regret nothing lol'.

That said, since I fully approve of the death penalty for people who text during movies, along with those who make phone calls, talk, throw popcorn or support the career of Michael Bay, let's not rule out giving them what they want.

As long as their mates don't mind rolling the carcasses onto the floor to stop them getting in the way of the screen, I doubt many people would shed a tear for their early check-out.

I miss my second screen, but I can do without it. At least, for now. It's served me well, but I'm better off without it, and my new distraction-free computing environment feels… one second. Someone just sent me a new turn on Hero Academy over on the iPad. Would be rude to keep them waiting...