Personal Productivity Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for people wanting to improve their personal productivity. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I work with my computer the whole day doing different things and using Mac OS X Lion. I have a lot of windows opened and constantly switching from one application/window to other, using Mission Control, and sometimes using Spaces as well. At the end of the day I have the feeling that I spend too much time doing this and wonder whether there could be improvements in order to be more productive when working with several programs at the same time, OS X Lion specific. I wonder whether you could share your experience, strategies and tips.

share|improve this question
up vote 1 down vote accepted

I'm not a Mac user, but from what I recall from back when I had one, Spaces are an implementation of virtual desktops, which is something I've used heavily and happily on Linux, so my experience may be relevant to your problem.

The system I use and have been very happy with is as follows:
- have quick keyboard shortcuts that take me directly to a chosen desktop (rather than just going right or left through the whole list until I find what I want)
- pick a desktop for each task (or two or three desktops, depending on how many application windows a given task requires), and remember which one it is (this is very easy for me with this setup, but might not be for other people, I'm not sure)
- almost never move windows between desktops after first opening them - everything stays in the same place, and I remember where it is because my setup doesn't vary very much.
- never minimize/hide anything, and avoid overlapping windows except very temporarily, so everything stays visible

Basically what I end up with is a very well-organized set of virtual desktops for each task, as if each task had a separate computer with its own multi-desktop setup - instead of using application-switching to move between applications, which would require going through all the open applications whether they belong to the current task or not, I just go through the task's desktops to find what I want. This requires easy

I try to limit the number of tasks going at the same time to about three (plus a desktop for email and a TODO list, one for keeping my lab notebook up to date, and three for personal stuff since this is my own computer), and they're usually similar types of tasks (say, two programming or data analysis projects, each with multiple terminals and a Firefox or documentation window for research, and one presentation or paper-writing or paper-reading, with the relevant application for that and some more windows for notes), so I don't have to make a lot of changes in my general setup even when the tasks change.

I don't know if this makes a lot of sense, but it does work very well for me - I know where everything is, it's all instantly visible if I just switch to the right desktop, and switching desktops is on extremely quick keyboard shortcuts.

share|improve this answer
  • Adding a second monitor will ease this somewhat--especially being good for eliminating the repetitive flipping between two windows such as might happen when taking notes from a pdf or learning an application from a video tutorial.
  • I have personally found that by becoming disciplined in closing down apps/windows when they are no longer needed, organization is no longer a problem. It was not uncommon for me to have 60-100 windows open.

    If you find you get tons of browser pages open, consider opening a new window for a subject and new tabs for different sites/pages within that subject. It allows quick cleanup when that subject is done. You may wish to have a single, easily located browser window with different tabs for the pages you keep open constantly, e.g. web email clients, toodledo,...

    If you have a work-burst/rest workflow such as that in the Pomodoro Technique, use a minute of your break to close down windows no longer needed. Before doing this myself, I would find windows hidden behind others that I hadn't used for months, just complicating finding things. Or alternatively, schedule a recurring reminder every few days or whatever's appropriate to 'clean up the screen'.

  • Consider reducing the number of apps you use. At one stage I was using Calibre for ebook management, Springpad for recipes and movies, Evernote and OneNote for notes, mSecure for password storage, Confluence for development documentation, Gmail/GCal/ActiveInbox for GTD and a whole succession of photo storage programs, because each had their strengths. Plus I had that essentially duplicated on every device I used.

    Now I believe the generalist approach is superior and I now have Evernote doing the job of all of those programs (except Gmail/GCal still handles appointments and recurring events in GTD). It may be the master of none but the minor loss of functionality is a small sacrifice for having everything immediately available in one place and in one window. It's cheaper, it's quicker, it's less draining on resources, it's less maintenance in updating and it's makes all those use cases automatically cross-platform.

share|improve this answer
+1 for adding monitor. However, remember it's the total amount of space on the screens that counts, not the number of monitors. One really big screen is better than two smaller ones. – ONOZ Apr 18 '12 at 8:29
I disagree with that article actually, especially under Windows. It's easier to drag one window to the other monitor and have both maximized, than trying to arrange two windows maximally on one monitor. Windows' horizontal and vertical tiling are essentially useless as they'll tile all the other windows you don't mind being hidden for the time being. I have tried three and four monitors but found that started to get disorganized. Two was my sweetspot. – jontyc Apr 18 '12 at 8:39
Even with hotkeys like Divvy provides, most apps I use just suit a 16:9 or 4:3 landscape orientation. – jontyc Apr 18 '12 at 8:48

My advice is to turn off the automatic reordering of the spaces, since it makes it harder to remember the position of a certain space. This way I position the most important application in one space and move additional stuff to the space left and right. I then can quickly navigate left and right using a four-finger-swipe.

A second tip is to force certain applications to reside on one space only (right-click on the dock icon, select entry in the option menu). I do this for my browser and for my LaTeX editor where I do most of my work currently.

Remove the Dashboard as a space: every entry in the spaces row makes the icons a little bit smaller, and you have still your trusted keyboard shortcut to activate the dashboard.

In mission control, you can fan out a stack of windows using a two-finger-gesture.

Finally the most important tip: If you open mission control, you can move all windows of a certain application by dragging the application icon rather than a single window.

share|improve this answer
that is all great. the only problem i see is, I have some application which has windows in different spaces. when I am in one space and do "show all windows of this application", the windows that are shown are the ones from all spaces and not from just this space, can this be solved? – flow Apr 11 '12 at 9:08
@flow: Unfortunately, I don't have a solution for this problem. I personally would not like to see only the windows from the current space. – 0x6d64 Apr 11 '12 at 14:14
and how can you easily distinguish among them? – flow Apr 11 '12 at 14:15
In my personal experience I seldom had a big problem regarding this: Fortunately most of the applications I work with give me the choice to open documents in tabs of a window rather than a new window (Firefox, TextWrangler, TotalFinder). The only time the problem you are describing hits me is when I open two multi-file projects in TexShop: If both projects have a file called "introduction.tex" then I'm screwed, since the path is not displayed under the windows. This certainly would be a neat feature! – 0x6d64 Apr 11 '12 at 14:28

Spaces and full screen layouts are great. I use Moom to help arrange my screen as cleanly as possible — there are other tools that let you do the same thing.

But to really make my workflow sing, I use AlfredApp and created keyboard commands to switch to my most used apps. F2 sends me to my code editor, F1 to my broswer. By not taking the second or two it takes to command-tab or switch to the mouse, I can keep my workflow going smoothly as possible.

share|improve this answer
thanks, those are very good ideas. do you know if the same thing you do with Alfred can be done with quicksilver? – flow Oct 26 '12 at 9:51
I had a look at Moom. I already use Divy, which I find very useful! – flow Oct 26 '12 at 9:52
I think QuickSilver will let you do something similar. It's been a long time since I used it. Moom, Divy, BetterSnapTool, all great choices. – Brooks Seymore Oct 26 '12 at 16:24

Instead of command-tabbing many many times. Hold down command-tab, point and click on the app icon. I 've found this little trick to save me several milliseconds each time I want to switch windows.

share|improve this answer

+1 for adding as many monitors as you can.

More imediately - I've found window managers (I use Divvy but take your pick) to be an imediate gain for best controlling how I switch between applications (Divvy let's me quickly and easily put the lots of windows in the best place for the work I'm doing.

While you're on Lion - If you do a lot of commandline work I'd also recommend totalterminal - let's you have the terminal always at your fingertips in a very quake-like way.

share|improve this answer
Ok, I will check this divvy and tell you, thanks – flow Apr 11 '12 at 9:03
Divvy is great: I use it myself constantly because it's stable and works (lags from time to time under heavvy system load, but I don't care). Friends of mine enjoy using Better Touch Tool which has some functions for resizing windows. It however focuses more on gestures to do all sort of things than on resizing. – 0x6d64 Apr 11 '12 at 14:12

Command-tab is very big. I have another big reason for using this - it works on Mac, Windows AND Linux (ok, ALT-TAB keys but basically the same in both functionality and keys 'feel', due to their placement).

Also the various 'swiping' techniques now available on the mac - two fingers scroll, 3 fingers back-forward and selecting text and even four finger swiper for showing / hiding apps.

I'm not a huge Mac fan but I really miss these features on my other laptop's with regular track pads.

share|improve this answer

I'm not working with Lion but with OS 10.6, however I know your problem quite well from my own experience.

I'm having a MacBook 13" with a second screen (22"). I tried Spaces but it did not feel good.

A tool which proved incredibly useful for me is Optimal Layout ( )

It allows you to move, scale or reposition the current window on the screen(s) without having to use the mouse and I use it very often and find it very helpful to quickly see two windows next to each other or send a window to the second screen, ...

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.