OS X Dock Becomes Irrelevant (sort of)

Sep 4, 2015

Screenshot of OS X Dock containing Finder and Trash Bin, cannot be removed

The Dock has been a staple of OS X since Apple acquired NextStep, oh so many years ago. But, for me, it gets pretty cluttered down there, and switching to the app I want can be pretty cumbersome. Despite purposefully arranging the apps on the Dock, grouping apps by desktop, using Launchpad, and Mission Control, I still find myself going to the Dock and sliding the cursor across. I figured it was time to experiment with something different; removing everything I could from the Dock seemed a logical first step.

App Switcher

Screenshot of OS X app switching capability

If you hit Command+Tab, the OS X app switcher comes up showing all of your open apps from the most recently used to less recent. The details of navigating the app switcher are pretty well documented; therefore, no details here on that score. However, one hiccup remains with the app switcher.

If you’re working primarily in two apps, it’s very easy to jump between them. But, if you jump to a third app for a brief second (say referencing a website), now the ability to quickly hit Command+Tab and switch between the two causes the browser to pop up. Then you have to reconfigure your flow and get your head back in the game, which is probably why I tend to avoid using the app switching capability of OS X (or Windows for that matter).

Spotlight to the Rescue

Screenshot of OS X Spotlight popup

Spotlight is Apple’s global search solution (and with the most recent releases of OS X, I do mean “global”—internet included). Using Spotlight you can search file names, file contents, apps, mail, and so on. You can quickly access it by hitting Command+Space.

This method of accessing Spotlight allows you to search your entire computer and then some; including apps. Therefore, if you start typing in the name of an app, when it comes up, you can hit enter and the app will launch (or it will become the active app if it’s already launched).

If you have the app assigned to a desktop, and the desktop is still available, it will launch in that desktop (adding a previously removed desktop back will not reassign the app). However, this might be a minimal concern, because multiple desktops can become unnecessary in this type of paradigm.

Hide or Quit the App

One of the reasons for using multiple desktops is to assign an app, or group of apps, to a desktop and out of the way. For example, I used to have five desktops running at all times; this setup followed me from Snow Leopard:

When I first started using this methodology I was constantly jumping from one desktop to another (not horrible), then maybe hop into Mission Control or default to the Dock anyway; comparable to the time it takes to open Spotlight and launch an app. So, I got to thinking, why maintain separate desktops at all?

In Mac OS X the problem of a single desktop presents itself when all of your windows are stacked on top of each, which can be a burden and a blessing and makes the desktop cluttered and claustrophobic. (Windows has the problem of the cluttered task bar—multiple icons for each open app, a la the Dock, and for each open window related to that app.) Luckily, we have a couple of options to overcome this problem in a single desktop model.

The first would be to hide the app.

You are working in Safari. You decide you are done. You hit Command+h. Hit Command+space type “Pages”. Hit enter. The Pages app launches in a visibly empty desktop. And, of course, you could leave Safari visible—just depends on how cluttered you’re feeling. This method works particularly well with Mail, because if you quit the Mail app, it won’t fetch in the background; however, it will if you just hide it.

The second option is to quit the app.

You’re in Safari. You launch Notes via Spotlight. Make a quick note about something. Hit Command+q (quitting Finder will hide things stored in your desktop; use hide instead). Because of the fast launch times for apps these days, and their ability to maintain state between launches, there is almost no reason to keep an app open if you are not actively working in it.

Mission Control Becomes More Interesting

When an app is hidden, it won’t appear in Mission Control. So, if you find yourself working in multiple apps for a certain workflow all in the same desktop, Mission Control becomes much more interesting.

When I’m doing web development I have four or five apps open to manage my workflow. I’ve tried a lot of methods for a better experience; including, changing the size of all the windows so I can see a corner of one of the windows no matter which one is active. That can become problematic because many apps have clickable items in the left or right channel, leaving the middle area open for your content, and OS X will try to do the right thing, performing some action in that other window without having to click to activate the window first. Unfortunately, all I was trying to do was make the window active. This is where Mission Control comes in.

The idea with using Mission Control, coupled with hiding or quitting apps, is you can have all your apps related to a specific workflow open at once. Then, swipe up and you see all of the apps for that workflow in one place, click to switch apps, and you're back in the game.

The Sort of Bit

Being a productivity coach, I’m a pretty big proponent of minimizing interruptions. Interruptions, no matter how small, will break you out of a flow state. There are plenty of articles out there1 related2 to interruptions3 and context4 switching5, and I’m not looking to add to those treatises here. Instead, I will simply say: notifications are interruptions we inflict on ourselves.

On a computer, most recurring interruptions are going to be of the new mail or instant message variety. However, this animation popping in and fading out distracts your attention from what you are actively engaged in doing. Therefore, I recommend turning 99% of them off. The fact that most apps have them on by default, but we have a single switch to turn them all off, should point to something (a misapplied default perhaps?). To that end, the Dock remains a hidden helper.

Let’s imagine you are in the flow of, I don’t know, writing a paper. And you're on a roll. Then you find yourself at a breathing point. Bring up the Dock real quick to see if you have any new email. Maybe this is a perfect time to take a break from the paper to process those emails. The point here is that the four new emails that came in during your writing extravaganza didn’t interrupt you.

For this purpose: The Dock is a wonderful thing—and I'm not sure the Notification Center is as effective.


This pattern is pretty new to me. Having said that, I have decided to still operate two desktops for now. The aforementioned Desktop 1 holding Calendar, Reminders, Mail, and Messages—these are apps I have opening on launch—they are my personal Mission Control. Desktop 2 is where everything else opens. Other desktops are created temporarily and rarely for cases like running YouTube in a separate Safari window, and not wanting to deal with tabs (swiping left and right is easier and requires less precision).

It feels a bit choppy right now, but the habits weren’t formed overnight, have been with me for a while, and will take time to adjust6…it’s not like riding a bike after all.7

  1. Today: Stop bugging me! Work interruptions mess with your productivity return to text

  2. New Republic: Interruptions Are Even Worse Than We Thought return to text

  3. WSJ: The Biggest Office Interruptions Are... return to text

  4. Coding Horror: The Multi-Tasking Myth return to text

  5. APA: Multitasking return to text

  6. The Power of Habit return to text

  7. The Backwards Brain Bicycle return to text