Do More, Better: Enhancing Multitasking in Mac OS X
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Multitasking is not always a choice. When you have to write up a report, you need access to your text processor, but also to your reference material. While working, I often end up working with five applications at once.

Sometimes multitasking in Mac apps is a necessity, but if you’re working off a laptop, it can also be a real annoyance. Windows are lost between countless others, and you switch to the wrong application every five minutes. Likely, juggling these applications works out, but you’ll lose a lot of time (and more importantly, motivation) in the process.

There are a lot of ways to enhance multitasking in Mac OS X – built-in and external tools. Knowing of them is one part of the equation. Getting familiar using them, the other.

1. Mac OS X’s Built-In Productivity Booster

Most Mac OS X users know about Mac OS X’s built-in application switchers, but not a lot of people use them on a daily basis. That’s a shame, because Mission Control and Exposé are great productivity booster.

Mission Control

Activating it lets you look at all the active applications and their windows, almost as if you were looking down on your applications from above. Instant overview and the ability to jump to specific windows make Mission Control a great way to switch between applications on the fly. This is especially true if you have a lot of windows open.

multitasking in mac

The easiest way to activate Mission Control is with gestures (if you have a multi-touch gesture). The default gesture is a three-finger swipe upwards. If you find yourself activating Mission Control by accident, you can change this to a four-finger swipe in the Trackpad preferences pane in your Mac OS X System Preferences.


Exposé is similar to Mission Control, but works on an application-specific level. If you’re running a spreadsheet application, for example, opening Exposé will show you all the application’s windows. Meanwhile, windows from other applications won’t clutter up your view.

mac multitasking

Similar to Mission Control, you can activate Exposé easily using a multi-touch trackpad by swiping three fingers downwards. To prevent accidents, you can change this to a four fingered swipe in the System Preferences.


Spaces is a Mac OS X feature that allows you to manage multiple virtual desktops at once. This allows you to open your work-related apps on one desktop, your reference material on another, and so on.

mac multitasking

In later iterations of Mac OS X, Spaces isn’t as visible as it once was. However, you can still open new desktops in Mission Control. Hover over the top right corner of your screen and click on the plus icon. This lets you open as many desktop instances as you want.

Full Screen Switching

Full screen applications, as promoted in more recent versions of Mac OS X, allow you to make better use of a limited screen real estate. On a laptop, every inch can make a difference.

mac multitasking

You can switch between the desktop and different full screen applications by using Mission Control, as we discussed above. However, you can also switch between adjacent full screen instances by doing a three fingered swipe left or right on your multitouch trackpad. This allows you to effectively drag over the screen next door. Because the desktop functions like its own full screen app, you can even use this to switch between multiple desktop instances.

Mastering Exposé & Mission Control

We talked about Exposé and Mission Control above, but only considered the rudimentary features. Exposé and Mission Control have a lot of other, lesser known features. Mastering these lets you squeeze every last drop of productivity out of your Mac’s application switching.

mac better at multitasking

If you hover over a window in either Mission Control or Exposé, you can view its contents by pressing space. This activates quick look, which will temporarily zoom in on the window. Pressing space again brings you back to the standard Mission Control overview.

Learn more about Exposé and Mission Control by reading Jackson’s article on the subject: Become a Multitasking Master With These 6 Exposé Tips [Mac] Become a Multitasking Master With These 6 Mac Exposé Tips Become a Multitasking Master With These 6 Mac Exposé Tips Read More .

2. TaskBoard Brings iOS Like Application Switching

With TaskBoard, you can bring the iOS task manager to your desktop computer. The iOS task manager opens up as a tray below your desktop, allowing you to switch between applications with a single click. Unlike the iOS task manager, TaskBoard doesn’t order your applications chronologically. Rather, it provides an alternative to the dock for switching between full screen applciations.

mac better at multitasking

By default, TaskBoard is mapped to a five fingered swipe up. You can change this to a five fingered swipe right in the TaskBoard pane in the System Preferences. Maybe my hands are too big, but I found the latter to work better.

In any case, you should be careful not to go to Mission Control or Dashboard, which are mapped to similar three fingered swipes. Doing a small swipe will open TaskBoard, while doing a larger swipe will switch to Mission Control or Dashboard. It takes a bit of practice to get this right, which is the biggest problem with TaskBoard.

3. Master Keyboard Shortcuts

Like any operating system, you can hugely speed up your multi-tasking workflow on Mac OS X by getting to grips with the keyboard shortcuts. Using Command + tab to cycle through active applications is one of the most prominent, but keyboard shortcuts are legion.

multitasking in mac

If you haven’t experimented too much with keyboard shortcuts, Angela’s Everything You Need To Know About Mac OS X Keyboard Shortcuts Everything You Need To Know About Mac OS X Keyboard Shortcuts Everything You Need To Know About Mac OS X Keyboard Shortcuts No matter what operating system or program you're using, keyboard shortcuts are a tool you can use to make things quite a bit easier for yourself. Simply not having to take your hands off the... Read More is a great primer. Afterwards, let Jeffry help you define your own keyboard shortcuts The Most Useful Mac Keyboard Shortcuts to Know The Most Useful Mac Keyboard Shortcuts to Know A printable cheat sheet containing the most useful Mac keyboard shortcuts you'll ever need. Read More . Finally, use CheatSheet (which was reviewed by Bakari for MakeUseOf Learn Your Keyboard Shortcuts Using CheatSheet [Mac] Learn Your Keyboard Shortcuts Using CheatSheet [Mac] If you're growing tired of constantly moving your hand back and forth from your mouse or trackpad to the keyboard in order to launch or quit an application, pause iTunes playing, or copy or paste... Read More ) to list and help you master the keyboard shortcuts for a wide variety of applications.

What tools and tricks do you use to better multitasking in Mac applications and windows? Let us know in the comments section below the article!

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  1. Anthony
    March 25, 2013 at 9:14 pm

    It isn't very clear from the article, but TaskBoard isn't a native OS X feature - its an add on bit of (free, but beta currently) software - hope that helps someone, as I was hunting around System Preferences without success!

  2. Scott M
    March 25, 2013 at 10:10 am

    I would sooner do a complicated multi level project with windows.ios wasn't designed for this type of work.

  3. sonnylim
    March 25, 2013 at 5:48 am

    Thank you for an informative article. Helps me appreciate my OS better!