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How I use an external monitor with my Mac for ergonomics

Written on February 28, 2021

For a very long time I’ve disliked using an external monitor with my laptop—the MacBook. My current MacBook is the 13” MacBook Pro and I like it for its portability. Paired with my Roost stand, I felt like I could work from anywhere.

But over the past two or more years, I noticed more strain on my eyes. In certain apps, I found myself preferring really large fonts so that I wouldn’t squint so hard when trying to read what was on my screen.

Then I read my friend, Nick Ang’s article on his experience with dealing with eyestrain. In the article he suggests the use of an external monitor adjusted with bigger font size.

While hesitant at first, I tried it out for a few weeks and found my eyes feeling less pain in the morning and at the end of a work day less strained.

I wanted to share how I’ve been using an external monitor with my Mac with a focus on ergonomics to help others who might also be struggling with eyestrain.

What I optimize for

Before diving into my exact set up and tips, I wanted to cover some quirks that I optimized my set up for,

  • I come from a single monitor setup—my laptop—and I like just using a single monitor.
  • I want to solve for eyestrain.
  • I care about ergonomics.
  • I care less about monitor real estate (like being able to use two apps side-by-side) and more for ease of use.
  • I don’t like dual monitor setups because rotating my neck constantly all day or having my neck turned in a certain direction hurts it.

My tips for using an external monitor with a focus on ergonomics

My external monitor setup

Now that I’ve established what I optimize for, here are my tips for using an external monitor with a focus on ergonomics.

Decrease your monitor’s resolution to increase the font

Nick Ang’s article does a really good job on explaining the benefits of using an external monitor and also increasing your system font—which could be achieved by decreasing your display’s resolution.

To change your screen resolution on a Mac, you’ll want to go to System Preferences > Displays > Resolution.

Aside from making the font size on your monitor big, the other tip to dealing with eyestrain is making sure that your monitor is at an arm’s length away from where you sit.

Elevate your monitor

Raise your monitor to a good height where it is in front of you and not forcing you to tilt your head too much.

This could be achieved with either using a monitor arm or use a stack of old reference books—in my case old computer books.

Use a single monitor

My MacBook Pro can serve as a secondary monitor, but I choose to keep it closed and use it in closed-display mode.

Use a window manager to manage windows

With more screen real estate, I often get lost with what to do with the more space. But people enjoy having more space to do things like have windows next to each other.

While that isn’t my main workflow, I do sometimes have a couple of screens next to each other when I have to make reference to material in another window.

To improve the use of multiple windows, I utilize what’s called a window manager. What a window manager does is allows you to snap windows into “hot spots” or use keyboard shortcuts to quickly resize and reposition your windows.

I like to use a window manager called, rectangle to quickly snap my main window into the center third area of my monitor.

The reason for this is, not all app developers have designed their apps ideally for writing and reading. When you expand their app to the maximum monitor size, your eyes have to travel quite far for sentences.

This traveling impedes reading. To battle this, I snap it to the center third and the window size more or less feels like what I’m used to on my 13” MacBook Pro.

I recommend rectangle which is open-source app, but I’ve heard good things from friends regarding Magnet which could be found on the App Store.

Arrange your monitor and laptop vertical to each other instead of horizontal

With this tip your mileage may vary, but I have my laptop sitting underneath and right in front of my laptop.

The purpose for this “stacked” layout is two-folds,

  1. Since I don’t have an external camera, I can use my laptop for Zoom calls.
  2. Rotating my head up and down is less strenuous then side-to-side for my neck.

External, one monitor workflow

So you might be wondering, “If you’re using one monitor in closed-display mode, how are you making your Zoom calls?” Great question!

I’m probably better off getting an external webcam at some point, but for now, what I do is simply open up my laptop when it’s time for a Zoom call.

I then press command (⌘) + F1 to turn off mirroring mode. This is important because, if your laptop is in mirroring mode, then your laptop’s resolution is all whack. Turning off mirroring mode will make sure your laptop is in the right resolution and you’re ready to Zoom.

Side-by-side comparison between mirroring mode and none mirroring mode

When you’re done Zooming, simply shut your laptop and you should automatically be put back into mirroring mode.

Hope it improves your health

While I’m not a professional in ergonomics, I’ve found an external monitor solution on the Mac that addresses my dislike for dual monitors, focuses on ergonomics, allows me to get my work done and more importantly addresses eyestrain.

If you’re using a Mac and suffer from eyestrain, I hope the tips in this article inspires some ideas on how to improve your work setup and more importantly improve your health.

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