Making the Most of Mission Control

This post is part of a series that revisits some of our readers’ favorite articles from the past that still contain awesome and relevant information that you might find useful. This post was originally published on July 27th, 2011.

Editor’s Note: Mission Control in Mountain Lion is almost the exact same as it is in Lion, so everything here still applies even if you’ve just upgraded to Apple’s latest and greatest OS. The only real change is that there’s an option to not group windows by their application, to make it easier to see more at once.

For years Apple has been tweaking and rethinking the way we interact with open windows and applications inside of OS X. Exposé came along and allowed us to quickly view all open windows or even hide them completely. Then Spaces entered the scene and allowed us to create a number of unique workspaces or desktops, each containing its own applications and windows.

Mission Control is the evolution of this process. It represents a new and very powerful way to manage your multitasking mess inside of of OS X. Some find the new system intuitive, but many others find it completely intimidating. Today we’re going to show you how to master Mission Control so your Mac can become a beacon of productivity.

Launching Mission Control

There are a number of ways to launch Mission Control, how you do it will depend both on your personal preference and specific hardware setup.

For instance, for those using a multi-touch trackpad (older trackpads won’t work), a three-finger swipe up will launch Mission Control. However, this gesture doesn’t do anything on the Magic Mouse. Instead, the default action to Launch Mission Control from the Magic Mouse is a double-tap with two fingers.

You can also launch Mission Control directly from the keyboard via the function keys. As with trackpads, older models will differ from newer models here as Apple has changed around the default functionality in recent years. The best way to find out and customize your setup is to go to Mission Control in System Preferences. Here you can set your keys for launching Mission Control and performing some of the old Exposé commands.


Mission Control Keyboard Shortcuts

Also shown in the image above is the option to set up Hot Corners. These allow you to launch Mission Control when your mouse resides in a specific corner of your screen. For instance, I have Mission Control set to the bottom left corner because it keeps accidental activation at a minimum.

The Anatomy of Mission Control

When you launch Mission Control, your desktop image will zoom out and your open windows will be displayed in groups according to their respective applications. Simply click on a window to exit Mission Control with that item in view.


Mission Control

Already we can see some huge benefits. In one slick view, we can easily navigate between not only our various open applications, but also the open windows within each app. This was possible before Mission Control, but the visual grouping is much nicer here.

Thumbnail Strip

In addition to the primary area of Mission Control where your windows are displayed, there is also a strip of thumbnails along the top of the screen. By default, these are organized by order of last use but this can be changed in System Preferences (I prefer the standard, static order).


Dashboard, Desktops and Full Screen Apps

This area is reserved for three distinct items: Dashboard, Desktops and Full-Screen apps. You already know all about Dashboard so I won’t waste any time explaining it.

You likely already know about full-screen apps as well. This is a new feature in Lion that is currently only supported by a few apps such as Mail and Safari. When an app is in full-screen mode, it is removed from the desktop that it resided in, placed into its own area and shown here.

Desktops are the most complicated item that you’ll see here. Mastering these is the key to really understanding Mission Control so we’ll discuss them in-depth in the next section.


Many fans of Spaces become immediately upset when they update to Lion and see that the feature is now gone, replaced by Mission Control. It may not be immediately evident, but Desktops actually give you nearly all the benefits of Spaces and more.

As with Spaces, Desktops represent individual workspaces, each with their own assigned apps and windows. To place an app on a Desktop, launch Mission Control and drag it to that Desktop.

Each Desktop can have its own wallpaper! Just switch to a Desktop and go to System Preferences to set the wallpaper for that screen.

To create a new empty Desktop, click the icon in the upper right (shown below). To create a new Desktop with an application in it, drag the desired application to the same icon.


Creating a new Desktop

A little “x” will appear over the new Desktop on hover, allowing you to delete it. You can quickly switch Desktops with a swipe gesture (two fingers on the Magic Mouse, three on a trackpad) or by hitting Control plus the number of the Desktop that you want to switch to.

So we see that, where Spaces forced us to make a solid decision on our number of spaces, Mission Control allows this to be a much more fluid process that can be decided and changed at will as your setup changes throughout the day.

Assigning an App to a Desktop

One of the things that I struggled with initially is how some apps automatically appear on every Desktop. To change this behavior, right-click on the app icon in the dock and go to Options.


Assigning an App to a Desktop

As you can see, you can assign an app to no Desktops, all Desktops or the currently active Desktop.


Just as we saw that the Spaces functionality has been rethought and placed into Mission Control, Exposé functionality is also still present and even improved.

For instance, if you have a number of TextEdit files open, hitting your “All Windows” shortcut will not only show you a spread out view of all of the open TextEdit windows, you’ll also see a strip of recently open files along the bottom of the screen.


Recent files are displayed on window Exposé

If you have lots of recent files, you can use the arrow keys to navigate the thumbnail strip.


Though many new Lion (…and Mountain Lion) users are initially shocked to find that Spaces and Exposé have been wrapped into a new unified system, the news is actually great for all users because most of the functionality that you loved from Snow Leopard is still here, albeit in an improved form.

In place of Spaces, we have Desktops, which function very similarly and even allow you to assign different wallpaper images to each, keeping them visually distinct. All of your favorite Exposé commands still work, and some are even better than before.

Mission Control also gives us a completely new way to view our various open windows and applications. This new, zoomed-out view of our workspace is immensely helpful for quickly sorting through the clutter and can be instantly activated via mouse, trackpad or keyboard.

No matter how you prefer to navigate your windows, you’ll likely benefit immensely from making a serious attempt to incorporate Mission Control into your workflow. Leave a comment below and let us know what you think of Mission Control and how it has improved or worsened your Lion experience.

Note: Wallpaper images by Fifty Foot Shadows.