How To Work With Multiple Running Applications

Why Would I Want To Do This?

If you use your computer to do multiple things then chances are you are going to have different programs running to help you accomplish all that you need to do. A browser for Internet, maybe an email client, an RSS Reader, Word or Pages, a to-do list, all open and at the ready for you to use throughout your day. Being able to easily and quickly navigate between these programs as you need them can let you work more seamlessly to increase not only your efficiency but also your overall happiness with your computer.

In this guide I will share some of the more convenient ways to switch among and organize your running programs as well as share some of the potential pitfalls that I encountered when I was a new Mac user.

Understand Your Desktop, Windows and The Active Application

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Your Mac is a true multi-tasking environment and as such allows you to run many applications at one time. All of these applications have windows that contain them and all of these windows exist in various states at all times. The window or application which is currently selected is called the active window and the main Menu Bar at the top of your screen will change or adust to show you the options specific to that program. For example in the above image you can see that my menu bar lets me know that my Chrome browser is my currently active application.

Select Programs From Your Dock

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You can always just use your dock to select any application which you want to be active. Your Dock will show you both running programs and those that are set to always appear there for launching. As you open new programs throughout the day they will then appear in your dock area even if they wouldn’t otherwise. You can tell which items are running and which are merely shortcuts by the presence of a small indicator light beneath the icon. It seems that they have reduced this in recent OS versions but you can still the small dashlight beneath the icon. Clicking on the icon of any running program will bring that applications window to the front and make that the new active application.

command-tab Is Your Best Friend

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The key combination of command-tab is one of the handiest keyboard shortcuts around and probably the one I use most frequently throughout my day. Activating this combination will bring up an overlay of all of the running applications and allow you to cycle through them. Keep the command key pressed and continue to press and release the tab key will move the indicator through the available programs. When you have reached the one you want release both keys and the application you selected will become the new active application. A quick command-tab and release will let you cycle between the first two programs in the list so you can move back and forth quickly. This is great when you are copying and pasting from one source to another or are using a reference that you need to get back and forth to quickly.

Shift-command-tab will move you through the list in a right to left order as well.

Wait, What Happened?

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One of the things that is frequently confusing to new Mac users (myself included) when using the command-tab is when you see something like this. I went through and selected Chrome from my list and it appears to be the active program in the menu bar but where is the window? Right now it’s my Rdio app which was running as well. Chrome is active but not visible. This happens when the application window gets minimized – the keyboard command does indeed make the application active but it doesn’t restore the application’s window. The separation of the menu bar from the application window is a fundamental difference between the Mac OS and Windows and I guarantee it will catch you at least once.

The easiest way to avoid something like this is to just never minimize an application window. They are perfectly fine running behind other windows and don’t need to be reduced. Actually this usually happens when folks use a combination of the mouse and the keyboard. The mouse finds the minimize button easily but then can confuse you when you use the keyboard commands to access it again. The next tip will help you overcome the need to use your mouse for minimizing.

Hide – Don’t Minimize

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My next favorite key command is command-h to hide the active application, or you can access it from your menu bar. Unlike minimizing which just reduces the application window, hiding will basically just remove the entire application from being at the forefront of your screen and replacing it with the one just underneath. When you use your command-tab combination to re-access the program the window will still be open and accessible.

Use Mission Control

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A handy way to view all of your running programs is to view them using the Mission Control view accessible by pressing your F3 key or by using a four finger upward swipe on a trackpad if available. This view shows you your active desktops (more about desktops and full screen mode in a future guide) at the top and all of the currently open windows beneath it. Just click on any of the windows to quickly move to that program and to make it active. Note that niether minimized windows or hidden windows will show up in mission control, only those with visible windows. I actually find myself using this view more and more frequently because it’s so easy to activate and it also allows me to move applications among desktops, and as long as I don’t hide or minimize I can access everything in one place.

Work More Efficiently!

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The nature of minimization, hiding, active windows vs. active application and such can be confusing at first and is one of the ways that the Mac OS can be frustrating, but like many such “features” you can learn to embrace them, work around them or ignore them. All of these things allow for a great deal of flexibility and customization to really make things work like you would want them to and most likely to fit in to your workflow. I hope that this guide gave you some tips and ideas on how you can optimize your own workflow and overcome any potential pitfalls or annoyances. There is no right or wrong way to do these things but there are certainly ways to utlize these options to increase your own Zen while using your Mac.