Mission Control, originally released with OS X Lion, allows you to organize your windows, apps, and virtual desktops, as well as run small apps known as widgets, in a dedicated space. If it sounds like Mission Control is the Mac’s built-in window manager for users, you’re on the right track, but Mission Control does a good deal more.
A Bit of Mission Control History
Mission Control is actually a conglomeration of three earlier OS X Technologies: Dashboard, Exposé, and Spaces. Exposé, the oldest of the features, dates back to 2003, and the introduction of OS X Panther.
- Exposé allows you to hide documents and app windows, or just as easily expose a window, app, or document you need to work on.
- Spaces lets you create and manage virtual desktops, allowing you to organize activities to specific desktops, and then switch between them as needed.
Mission Control united these similar technologies under a single roof, or in this case, a single preference pane, to control, configure, and make use of the windows and desktop management system.
What Mission Control Does: The Basics
Mission Control’s main task is to help you de-clutter your desktop and be able to work more efficiently, even when you have dozens of apps or windows open.
There are six key tasks that Mission Control allows a user to do:
- View all open windows: Display all windows as thumbnails to ensure every window can be seen at the same time.
- View all windows of a specific application: Displays all windows used by a single app. If needed, the windows will be displayed as thumbnails to ensure all of the app’s windows can be seen at once.
- Hide all windows and display the desktop: All windows are hidden, revealing the underlying desktop.
- Manage windows across multiple monitors: Allows windows to be moved to additional displays.
- Manage apps and windows across multiple virtual desktops: Multiple desktops can be created, each having its own set of apps and windows assigned to it.
- Manage Dashboard widgets: Controls how Dashboard widgets are displayed.
Mission Control uses a combination of keyboard commands, gestures, and mouse shortcuts to control its various capabilities. Learning the various shortcuts is the basis for making effective use of Mission Control and its ability to help you manage the workflow on your Mac.
Setting Up Mission Control
The heart of Mission Control is its preference pane, which you can access using the following method:
Launch System Preferences by clicking or tapping its icon in the Dock, or by selecting System Preferences from the Apple menu.
In the System Preferences window that opens, select the Mission Control preference pane.
The Mission Control preference pane allows you to configure basic options as well as assign shortcuts to the various functions.
Place a checkmark in the box to enable any of the following functions:
- Automatically arrange Spaces based on most recent use: If you’re going to use multiple virtual desktops (Spaces), this allows the most recently used desktop to be the easiest to access.
- When switching to an application, switch to a Space with open windows for the application: This rather convoluted description just means that if an app you want to use is already open on a virtual desktop, it will switch to that desktop.
- Group windows by application: When viewing all windows in Mission Control, have the windows organized by app.
- Displays have separate Spaces: If you have multiple monitors you can assign each monitor its own virtual desktop.
- Dashboard: This dropdown menu controls how the Dashboard feature is used. You can find out more in the Rocket Yard guide: Get Dashboard Up and Running Again in macOS Mojave. Although the article was written for Mojave users, its information is general enough for understanding the Dashboard options.
Besides configuring the basic options, you can also set up shortcuts to use Mission Control by selecting a shortcut from each dropdown menu. You may have one or two dropdown menus for each item listed below. The second dropdown menu allows you to assign an alternate shortcut for the specific function. The alternate options are usually present when you have input devices with many I/O options, such as a multi-button mouse:
- Mission Control: Use the dropdown menu to assign a shortcut to open Mission Control and display all open windows.
- Application window: Set the shortcut that will be used to open Mission Control and display the windows of a selected application.
- Show Desktop: This shortcut you assign will hide all windows and display the current desktop.
- Show Dashboard: If Dashboard is enabled (see the option, above), this shortcut will display the Dashboard.
You’re not done assigning shortcuts to access Mission Control yet; you can also assign the corners (Hot Corners) of your display to be shortcuts to access Mission Control, as well as a few other functions of your Mac. Hot Corners are activated when you move the cursor into the corner of the display. If a Hot Corner is assigned for that corner, the function is activated.
Click or tap the Hot Corner button in the Mission Control preference pane.
A sheet will drop down, displaying a thumbnail of your desktop with dropdown menus at each corner.
Use the dropdown menu to assign a function to any of the corners. The available functions are:
- Mission Control
- Application Windows
- Notification Center
- Start Screen Saver
- Disable Screen Saver
- Put Display to Sleep
- Lock Screen
The first three are Mission Control options; the remaining ones involve other Mac OS features that are dependent on the version of the operating system you’re using.
Make your selections; you can then close the Hot Corner sheet as well as the Mission Control preference pane.
Mission Control Gestures
If you have a multi-touch trackpad, Magic Trackpad, or Magic Mouse, you have even more options for accessing Mission Control features:
- Swipe up with three fingers (Multi-touch Trackpad, Magic Trackpad): Open Mission Control and display all windows.
- Double tap with two fingers (Magic Mouse): Open Mission Control and display all windows.
- Swipe Down with three fingers (Multi-touch Trackpad, Magic Trackpad): Open Mission Control and display an app’s windows.
Depending on your input device, there may be additional gestures assigned to Mission Control. You can discover the gesture assignments, as well as make changes to them, by accessing the Trackpad or Mouse preference pane.
Create a New Space
You may have noticed in our guide to setting up Mission Control, above, that we covered both Exposé (managing windows) and Dashboard, but so far, only one option about organizing spaces and nothing about creating them or making use of them. Well, it’s time to make space for spaces.
To manage spaces (virtual desktops), open Mission control using any of the shortcuts you may have created. If you didn’t make any changes, you can use the default keyboard shortcut of Control + Up Arrow to open Mission Control.
Along the top of the display, you’ll see the Spaces bar, a banner that contains text or thumbnails of all the spaces you’ve created. By default, there will be at least one space labeled Desktop.
Move the cursor into the Spaces bar, which will cause the banner to expand from a text view to a thumbnail view.
Click or tap the plus sign in the far right corner of the Spaces bar.
A new space will be created, named Desktop 2. Each new space you add will advance the Desktop number: Desktop 3, Desktop 4, etc.
Adding Apps or Windows to a Space
Each space you create is independent of the other spaces. Each space can have its own set of apps open, different desktop pictures, etc. You can even have the same app open in multiple spaces.
Spaces allows you to set up desktops for different workflows and switch between them. You could have a space for your email, calendar, contacts, and reminders, while another space is dedicated to projects you’re working on, and a third for a bit of game playing, while a fourth is being used to run Parallels and an alternate OS.
To add an app, or a window of an app, to a space, first make sure the app is open.
Open Mission Control, if it isn’t already open.
Drag the app or a specific window to the desktop in the Spaces bar you wish to use.
Once you have apps and their windows assigned to the appropriate spaces, you can exit Mission Control.
Moving or Removing Spaces
There are a number of shortcuts and gestures you can use to quickly move between spaces, as well as directly access a space using Mission Control. Below are the default gestures and shortcuts you can use to access your spaces:
Swipe left or right with three fingers on a multi-touch trackpad or Magic Trackpad.
Swipe left or right with two fingers on a Magic Mouse.
Hold down the control and right arrow keys, or the control and left arrow keys on your keyboard.
Access Mission Control and select the desktop you wish to use from the Spaces bar.
Your virtual desktops can be reordered to ensure the order you move through them, by swiping or using arrow keys, is the pattern you wish:
Open Mission Control, and move your cursor to the Spaces bar.
Rearrange the desktops by dragging them to new positions in the Spaces bar.
The desktop names will change to indicate their new position in the Spaces bar.
Should you decide you don’t need one or more desktops anymore, you can remove them by moving your cursor into the Spaces bar, and hovering it over a desktop you wish to remove. After a moment, an X will appear. Click or tap the X to remove the desktop.
Any open windows or apps on the desktop you remove will be automatically moved to an adjacent desktop.
Mission Control Tips
Moving beyond the basics, here are a number of helpful tips for making Mission Control even more productive:
You can view all the windows for a specific app by hovering over the app’s Dock icon, and then using the Application window’s shortcut, usually a three-finger swipe down or a two-finger tap.
You can assign an app to a space from the Dock. As long as you’ve created two or more spaces, simply right-click or control-tap the Dock icon for the app you wish to assign to the current space. Select Options, Assign to This Desktop, from the pop-up menu. You can also choose to assign the app to all desktops or to none. Once an app is assigned to a specific desktop, any time you select the app you’ll be moved to the assigned desktop.
Quick Look a Mission Control thumbnail: When Mission Control is open the thumbnail of a window may be too small to see its content. You can use Quick Look to enlarge the image. Just place your cursor over the thumbnail and click the keyboard’s space bar (not the Spaces bar).
Although you can’t change a desktop’s name in the Spaces bar, you can make each desktop be more recognizable by changing the desktop image for each desktop. Switch to a desktop, and then open System Preferences, Desktop & Screen Saver. Select a new desktop image to be used. Repeat for each desktop.
Mission Control loves full-screen apps. Any app you have running full-screen is treated by Mission Control as its own separate desktop. This allows you to use Mission Control not only to switch between full-screen apps and your other desktops but if you open Mission Control, you can add a second app to the full-screen desktop, causing two full-screen apps to be displayed in split-screen mode.
Mission Control has its own Dock icon, try clicking or tapping the icon as well as right-clicking to quickly access Mission Control features.
Do You Use Mission Control?
Mission Control does a lot and the best way to get the feel for what it can do for you is to just jump in and try it. Let us know how you like and use Mission Control in the comments section, below.