How to Use Multiple Desktops in Mac OS X

Tim Brookes 08-04-2015

Multiple desktops were originally added to Apple’s desktop operating system in 2009, with the release of OS X 10.5 “Leopard” — but a surprising number of users are still surprised to find the feature exists at all.


Apple calls them “spaces” and they allow you to better organize your workspace, reduce distractions, and focus more clearly on the task in hand. It’s time to stop minimizing, maximizing, and juggling windows and take control of your precious screen space!

Why Do I Need More Desktops?

Imagine for a second you were to buy a second monitor Finally Get Two Functional Desktops With Actual Multiple Monitors Once you have tried working with a dual monitor setup, you'll never go back. While two monitors give you double the workspace and boost productivity, I found the setup is never perfect. In the end,... Read More for your MacBook — on plugging it in you would have two desktops, allowing you to position windows and work from both in unison. That’s exactly how multiple desktops work in OS X, except you don’t need another monitor in order to take advantage.

You can only ever see or use one of these desktops at once (provided you only have one monitor), but the feature still provides an excellent organisational aid that can help you stay focused by hiding distractions and reducing the need to move windows around constantly.

How to Use Multiple Desktops in Mac OS X 5831344028 3ffb00f3b4 z

Rather than opting to set up multiple work and home accounts on my MacBook Pro, I use spaces to keep work and play separate. I have one desktop dedicated to two Google Chrome windows, side-by-side for editing, writing and researching. I have another for my personal Safari browsing session, along with Messages and Mail open at all times. Evernote and Apple’s Calendar app is reserved for a separate space. I also keep one dedicated to software like Photoshop, Audacity and TextWrangler. And not to forget entertainment — my last desktop is for music in the form of Rdio and iTunes.


You can have as many as 16 desktops at any one time (which is probably excessive) and you can use them however you like.

Spaces & Mission Control

Apple’s multiple desktop feature can be found within OS X’s Mission Control screen, accessed either by pressing F3 or using a three-finger upward swipe. You will also find Mission Control in the Applications folder, and you can pin it to the dock or search Spotlight for it if that’s your thing.

How to Use Multiple Desktops in Mac OS X missioncontrol spaces

To add a new desktop you can hover your mouse in the top-right corner, or hold the Option key to reveal it straight away. When you click this button you will see another desktop is added to the list, and clicking on it will take you straight to it.


How to Use Multiple Desktops in Mac OS X newdesktop

In addition to clicking on them in Mission Control, you can navigate between desktops using three-finger horizontal swipes on a trackpad or control+arrow keys on a keyboard.

You can move applications from one desktop to another either by launching Mission Control and dragging them to the space of your choosing or you can grab the window by its title bar and drag it to the edge of the screen. After a brief pause OS X will skip to the next desktop, if it exists.

You can reorder desktops — simply click and drag them. To delete a desktop, hold the Option key and click on the “X” that appears and any applications or windows will be moved to another desktop, rather than closed or lost.


Advanced Tips

There are a few more handy tips that can make navigating and using applications with multiple desktops even easier.

Keyboard Shortcuts

How to Use Multiple Desktops in Mac OS X keyboardshortcuts

Head to System Preferences > Keyboard > Shortcuts to find several shortcuts you can enable for quickly switching to a designated desktop. By default these take the form of Control+Number key depending on the desktop you want to quickly access, though you can change the shortcut if you like.

Assign Apps to Specific Desktops

How to Use Multiple Desktops in Mac OS X thisdesktop


It’s possible to assign applications to specific desktops, so they can always be found in the same place. To assign an app to a desktop first create the desktop (if you haven’t already) and navigate to it. Open your application of choice, and two finger click or control+click its icon in the dock. Under Options select Assign to This Desktop and in future the application will always open in the currently selected space.

Assign Wallpapers to Each Space

How to Use Multiple Desktops in Mac OS X desktops

Once you’ve created a new desktop, you can use the standard System Preferences > Desktop & Screensaver menu to pick a wallpaper. The wallpaper you choose will remain the same, even if you reorder your desktops.

Speed Up Mission Control Animations

Do you use Mission Control a lot to organise your desktop as you open more apps? Save precious milliseconds by adjusting the time it takes Mission Control to appear by defining how long the animation should run for. Open a Terminal window (either search in Spotlight or find it under Utilities in the Applications folder) and paste the following:

defaults write expose-animation-duration -float 0.05; killall Dock

You can change this number to whatever you feel like, a larger number introduces more delay so if  0.05 feels a bit sudden, feel free to increase this to 0.15 or higher. In order to restore defaults, simply paste the following into the command line:

defaults delete expose-animation-duration; killall Dock

It’s also possible to customise the OS X dock with hidden Terminal commands 10 Hidden Terminal Commands for Customizing the Mac Dock From simple tweaks like adding hidden stacks for recent items, to only displaying the currently open applications – there's a lot you can do to customize your Mac's dock. Read More .

Mission Control, Quick Look & Dashboard

If you have a lot of windows on one screen it can be difficult to see what’s what. If you highlight a window with your mouse and press spacebar, Mission Control will zoom in and provide you with a better view. Of course, you also have third-party apps to enhance multitasking on your Mac.

How to Use Multiple Desktops in Mac OS X quicklook speed

Wish you could work on more proper desktops? Check out how to use Apple Remote Desktop to manage multiple machines.

Organization is key to a productive workspace, so you might also check out ways to automatically delete downloads on your Mac for a cleaner machine. And how about using these tips to make everyday tasks easier on your Mac 11 Small Tips to Make Everyday Tasks Easier on Your Mac Want to work more efficiently on your Mac? Try implementing some of these small but useful changes to save you a few minutes. Read More ?

Image credit: Current Setup (Matthew Van Kampen)

Related topics: OS X Mavericks, OS X Yosemite, Virtual Desktop.

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  1. Pat DePuydt
    September 12, 2017 at 12:16 pm

    Hey Tim, great post!

    I was wondering if there was a way I could create new workspaces via Terminal. I find myself constantly needing to break out a new workspace with a specific set of applications. My ultimate goal would be to issue a single command and spin up a workspace with all the applications I need there, and collapse it when I'm done.

    • Tim Brookes
      September 15, 2017 at 3:12 am

      An interesting request! I've asked a few fellow writers if they know of any ways of accomplishing this since I've turned up a blank. If we can make it work, we'll write about it!

  2. Ivan Podrug
    July 29, 2016 at 6:36 am

    Hi Tim,
    I could't find an answer for my problem, so hopefully you will know how :)

    Is there a way to set different kind of display settings per multiple desktop on MBPr ?
    As I have need for mail to be fe. at lowest resolution and largest font, but some of my graphic application to have as more working space as possible.

  3. Dave
    January 25, 2016 at 5:47 am

    Hey Tim,
    Great post. Is it possible to permanently pin specific documents to a desktop space? So for example lets I turn on my computer and open two documents and add both of them to the same desktop space. Right now when I shut off my computer I lose that space and the next day I have to repeat the process.

  4. Anonymous
    November 29, 2015 at 10:07 am

    I need help for a very annoying problem.
    I can simply not live without several desktops/work spaces.
    I use dual monitors and 4 desktops (This gives 2x4 desktops)
    each desktop has its background picture different from the other desktop.
    however the order of the screens shift constantly.
    e.g. desktop which is pos 1 will be in pos 3 if I go to another desktop for a second.
    is there any way to "freeze" the order of the desktops/work spaces.
    so desktop 1 is always pos 1, desktop 2 is always pos 2 etc, ??
    Anyone can help me please ???


    • Katie
      February 5, 2019 at 2:27 am

      System Preferences -> Mission Control ->
      uncheck the first box that says "Automatically rearrange Spaces based on most recent use". It is basically putting the desktops in the order you use them most, which is why you see them change a lot.

  5. Phil
    November 17, 2015 at 10:50 pm

    I have a question. Just found out about this multiple desktop today. Is it possible to have one regular desktop with all my regular icons on it, and a 2nd desktop that has no icons at all? Basically have two totally different desktops. Possible?

  6. Tricia
    November 16, 2015 at 9:49 pm

    thank you for the info! i accidentally created several desktops that i'd like to delete. However, when I hover over the small desktops in mission control, the X does not appear. the top edge of the small desktops appear to be underneath a blank menu bar that is blocking the X. Does that make sense? Quite annoying!

  7. Anonymous
    October 6, 2015 at 4:46 pm

    Hi! thanks for the article it was very informative!
    But what about folders? is there any way to assign those to a certain desktop? i clicked over it and the options, option did not appear, hahaha

  8. Anonymous
    September 24, 2015 at 5:27 am

    Great article! I've liked using multiple desktops ever since I found out about them. One problem I've had with them, that has become more common recently, is when I use the finger swipe to change to a desktop with adobe reader open on it, it will immediately go back to the desktop I was on before. If I swipe back a second time it will stay but it is annoying to always have to change over twice. Has anyone else experienced this or have any ideas as to why this happens?

    • Tim Brookes
      October 1, 2015 at 12:00 am

      I've certainly had this issue before but never with Adobe Reader (probably as I don't use it). I find that the Mac OS X in-built Preview app does everything I need from PDFs so maybe give that a go?

      I've definitely seen this happen with web pages trying to steal focus, except generally the browser will keep "stealing" focus for as long as you leave the tab open. It can be really annoying, and a setting to stop this happening at all would be nice.

      So yeah — I'd say ditch Adobe Reader in favour of Preview!

  9. Anonymous
    August 14, 2015 at 11:26 pm

    I love Workspace Screens, but I constantly connect and discconnect my MBP 2015 from an external HDMI monitor. Every connection and disconnection randomly scatters the workspaces and all the applications everywhere. I also use Parallels for Win7 Ent and Win10. WIn 7 is in Coherence mode so the appliccation windows float on Mac desktop. I just wish this was easier to manage with consistancy.

    • Anonymous
      August 31, 2015 at 3:50 pm

      I'm looking for something like this, also. I have a MBP and a big external display that I use at the office. I would like my windows to be in the same places when I connect my external display that they were in the last time it was connected (obviously, they can't be in the same place when it's disconnected... the laptop display is much smaller). I remember seeing a utility to do this once (it was commercial software), but I can't remember where I saw it.

      One thing that might help you is to turn off the automatic jumbling of desktops. In System Preferences -> Mission Control, turn off "Automatically rearrange Spaces based on most recent use". I don't know why you would ever want that. I also have "Displays have separate Spaces" turned on, which might or might not help (and might be contributing to my issues as the spaces associated with the external display go away when it's disconnected and all those windows have to go somewhere).

      If I find that app I am thinking about, I'll post a followup.

  10. Anonymous
    August 9, 2015 at 2:17 am

    Does anyone know if there's a way to lock individual windows to a desktop?

    For example, I open two separate internet windows and I want one to stay in one desktop while I put the second in another. So that if my computer were to shut down for whatever reason, when I turn it back on, the windows will still be in their assigned spaces?

    Thanks so much guys!

    • Tim Brookes
      August 10, 2015 at 1:54 am

      This should work fine, I do it with two Chrome windows pinned side-by-side on one desktop and a Safari window on the other. I also restrict Photoshop and other heavyweight apps to open on desktop 5 so they're out of the way.

      Basically (and I think this was explained in the article but I'll go through it again):

      Assign your windows to the desktops you would like to keep them on permanently, create any extra desktops you need.

      Now click on each app to focus it, then control+click (right click) the respective dock icon and choose "Options > Assign to: This Desktop".

      You'll have to visit each app individually in order to this, as you can't assign a window to a desktop you're not currently using.

      Good luck!

      • Anonymous
        August 31, 2015 at 3:43 pm

        You're missing the point... let's say I have two Chrome windows. I want one of them on Desktop 1 and one of them on Desktop 3. I can't assign the app to a specific desktop because then both of them would have to be on the same desktop (they're the same app).

        In your scenario, you have Chrome on one desktop and Safari on a different one. Two different apps.

        • Mihir Patkar
          August 31, 2015 at 3:49 pm

          Well, you could use Chrome and portable Chrome, I suppose...

        • Tim Brookes
          September 1, 2015 at 1:34 am

          This is just an inherent limitation, a result of the way the OS identifies running processes.

          As you say, Chrome is — to OS X — one single app, regardless of how many windows you have open. There's very little you can do to circumvent this, besides dragging windows to their rightful place each time you restart.

          I'd recommend using both Chrome and Chromium (or a portable version of Chrome), or use a third browser like Safari or Firefox.

        • Anonymous
          September 1, 2015 at 6:53 pm

          I agree, this is an inherent limitation of the way Mac OS X handles windows, apps, and desktops. Personally, I use Chrome heavily and with multiple user profiles (which it supports nicely). I use one profile for work and have windows on that profile on multiple desktops, and a different profile for personal use on yet another desktop. I have not found a solution that handles this, and I suspect that no solution is possible.

          I am exploring some of applescript's capabilities, though, and if I can work out a way to uniquely identify windows based on some property, there might be a way to do it.

  11. Susan
    April 18, 2015 at 10:53 am

    Thanks Tim for your reply before, sorry for the late response. My mbp is 2011, does that make it "old"? Guess so. I already did a couple of reinstallations last year and it´s been into the Genius bar a few times too and apparently, all is "good". So anyway, back to the topic about desktops, I will try again, see what happens. Thanks for your help :)

    • Tim Brookes
      April 20, 2015 at 1:19 am

      Hi Susan

      My girlfiriend has a 2011 MacBook Pro and it’s still going strong like a trooper, despite recently having the fan replaced. Your Mac definitely shouldn’t be that slow, so it might be worth getting someone to take a look at it (I’d suggest a friend who knows a thing or two).

      Without seeing the performance it’s difficult to gauge whether or not you have a problem, but if everything starts crawling when you open too many programs this could signify a problem with the RAM (or alternatively, a software issue that can be fixed by reinstalling your operating system).

      Good luck!

  12. Steven
    April 12, 2015 at 8:16 pm

    Switched from the Dark Side to Mac in 2009, I must have been in a parallel universe all this time, this is the first I've heard of multiple desktops! Lost my MD virginity when this MakeUseOf article came out a few days ago, and love it! FINALLY no more constant opening/closing and dock clicking. Great article, as are all the MakeUseOf suggestions-kudos!

    • Tim Brookes
      April 13, 2015 at 11:46 pm

      Glad to hear, that was after all the intent — it's a bit of a hidden feature that many users won't go looking for unless they know it's there. Apple even hides the "new desktop" button until you're hovering right next to it!

  13. Brian Tkatch
    April 12, 2015 at 1:48 am

    @Tim, thanx for the response. Yosemite does seem to address some issues, but i strongly dislike the changes to the look. Thanx for the report though!

  14. Susan
    April 11, 2015 at 9:14 am

    Hi Tim thanks for your reply. I have a 13" mbp which runs really slowly so I have to make sure I never have too many programs open at any one time although I would love to have both Safari and FF, Evernote and whatever else open all at once. Could using these desktops help or would it slow the system down even more?

    I read through your response but still don´t see how they could help me although I want to know because it appears they are good to work with but I seem to be blind at the moment.... thanks again :)

    • Tim Brookes
      April 13, 2015 at 11:43 pm

      Hi Susan,

      I can't say for sure whether or not spaces will slow your Mac down more than it is already, though I wouldn't have thought the performance hit would be too bad. What's really slowing your Mac down is the number of applications you have running (including background applications). So I'd say try it, if it's too slow you can revert to your old methods.

      Is your MacBook Pro old? Generally even older Macs can run more than two browsers and a note-taking app at once, so I wonder if you would benefit from a fresh OS X installation. Have you ever reinstalled the OS?


  15. Susan
    April 10, 2015 at 3:56 pm

    Excuse my ignorance here but I´ve read this and gone through it with my mac and cannot see any difference between using these desktops or just using Cmd+tab to move to a desired app... this is how I´ve been working for years with my mac. What am I missing? :S

    • Tim Brookes
      April 10, 2015 at 11:18 pm

      I think it depends a lot on how you work. If you use lots of different software all day long, it can be a real drag having to cram everything onto one screen. I personally prefer having windows laid out across several desktops (I can still cmd+tab).

      The skip-desktop gestures become second nature, and you can even use control+number keys to switch straight to a desktop (including when dragging windows, files etc).

      I think it's one of those features that you start off not really using very much but come to rely on.

      I should point out I do have a Retina MacBook (scaled to a higher resolution to fit more on screen), so if you use a giant 27" iMac this might be less appealing as you'll have that much more screen space!


  16. Brian Tkatch
    April 9, 2015 at 1:13 pm

    I never cared for multi-desktops. I've tried them under Linux and Windows (95 or 98, iirc, a powertoy) over the years. It's just another way to sub-categorize open windows. To me it seems like more confusion than its worth. Much akin to having separate browser windows for different sets of tabs. It's not something that people don't know about; it's something they don't _care_ about.

    I'd much rather see better multi-monitor support. On Mavericks, it's so bad i don't use the second monitor. (After it goes to sleep, the second monitor doesn't turn back on but does does cause resizing in the first monitor, continuously, until the next reboot.) OS X's features tend to be cool until you actually use them. I stopped saying, "i love my mac" some time ago.

    Thanx for the article though. It's always useful to remind us what some of the basic features are of any OS. They're often overlooked at first, until they are forgotten, and then when you need them most, you haven't the slightest idea they are already there.

    • Tim Brookes
      April 9, 2015 at 11:50 pm

      Hi Brian,

      I also had terrible issues with using external monitors on Mavericks. My MacBook Pro would simply refuse to output a signal to my TV via HDMI (no adapters), and when I did get it working there was a visible lag between input and the monitor (including sound issues).

      After upgrading to Yosemite this has all been fixed. I haven't had a problem with any external monitors, either in mirrored display mode or when using the monitor to display an extra desktop. The lag is drastically improved, and sound no longer goes out of sync. I can even shut the lid on my laptop and have the TV has the sole laptop, without everything going nuts and destroying itself.

      So if you're having such issues I'd wholeheartedly suggest updating your OS to Yosemite. It does introduce a few other issues, and things are bound to get a bit slower as with every software release, but if this is something that's impeding your enjoyment or productivity then I'd say it's worth it.

      All the best,


    • Tim Brookes
      April 9, 2015 at 11:50 pm

      *sole display, of course

  17. David
    April 9, 2015 at 4:34 am

    I believe older Windows can use third party apps for multiple desktops functionality like:

    • Tim Brookes
      April 9, 2015 at 11:46 pm

      Ah yes, thanks for the link David — though from past experience (albeit a long time ago) some of these third party solutions can be a bit unreliable at times.

      But I'm sure native support in Windows 10 will solve that.

  18. Travis Bigrigg
    April 9, 2015 at 12:17 am

    Multiple desktops are wonderful, I have been using them in Linux for a long time. Nice to see some of the other operating systems finally starting to include them.

    • Tim Brookes
      April 9, 2015 at 12:31 am

      Well Windows is the only major OS that has yet to add them, but that's being fixed in the summer with the release of Windows 10. Macs have had them since 2009 and Linux long before that (I remember first seeing it as part of KDE on an old Debian installation).

  19. Steven
    April 8, 2015 at 8:11 pm

    I use Spaces everyday. I started using it on a 13 laptop, but find that muscle memory makes it just as useful when using a larger monitor. You can set default desktops to mimic the your workflow which saves a lot of time each day - browser on one, text editor on another, mail, iTunes, and so on. Make it your own.

  20. Dan
    April 8, 2015 at 7:13 pm

    If you want to manage resolutions for different displays it's also best to use QuickRes. Check it out here: