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Window management workflows on macOS

10 December 2022 (3 minute read)

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AI generated image of windows on a macOS system.

macOS window management

Every Mac user seems to have a different way of managing their open applications and windows.

Some people prefer to view each window in “full” mode, in which they take up the entire display and the user can cycle apps or use the dock to change the active window. Other people use full-screen mode and/or swipe between desktop spaces to find their apps, or a mixture of several approaches.

Personally, I only tend to use one desktop workspace and I keep all my application windows open, which I click or cycle between with ⌘-tab (or ⌘-` for windows in a single application). At any one time, I usually (at least) have open Mail, Calendar, Spotify, Firefox, Nova, Slack, Teams, and Sorted. And although I do minimise windows (to the dock) occasionally, things can get messy very quickly.

Some may think I’m crazy, but I’ve lived like this for over a decade now, and things have been mostly fine so far. However, I’ve recently noticed that app windows behind my currently-active one can get distracting (for example, new Slack messages, or emails arriving), causing me to lose focus on my current task.

The visual complexity of the screen may also be having a toll on my ability to concentrate or find the things I’m looking for, especially since the visual hierarchy of the current window is interrupted by everything else going on around it.

The window-hiding workflow

These factors weren’t anything I was particularly concerned about, but a semi-recent episode of the Accidental Tech Podcast, which I frequently listen to, talked about this exact problem. The hosts discussed the concept of “hiding” windows as part of their normal workflow.

Window-hiding in itself isn’t a new concept to me, and I even knew about the cmd-H keybinding before hearing the episode. However, listening to how people use this feature as part of their usual workflows really interested me.

The general idea for this type of workflow is that, once a task is completed (e.g. choosing a new Spotify playlist or sending an email), one “hides” the app until it is needed again. This can be achieved by using the cmd-H keybinding (which hides the app and automatically switches the focus to the next-most recent app in the stack) or option-clicking another window (which leaves and hides the current app).

The effect of this workflow is that one only has a single (or very few) number of application windows showing at any one time. When you need to re-show a hidden app, you can just cycle to it in the app-switcher or select it from the dock.

I’ve been using this workflow now for a few weeks, and have noticed a big improvement in my focus on tasks that, when combined with an effective to-do list system, has had a big positive hit on my work effectiveness.

Earlier in the year I blogged about how I spend more time working on iPads these days, which is partially down to a preference of the single-screen context afforded by iPadOS. I can certainly see why I enjoy replicating this process on macOS too.

Addendum: Stage Manager

Stage Manager was recently released along with macOS Ventura. I haven’t given this a proper go yet, but I plan to soon since it looks like workflows based on this could also help boost productivity and focus.

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