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.


Add Yours
  • One thing I do miss is the ability to also see the windows that have been minimized down to the app.

    • Second that! That’s almost a deal killer!
      Who am I kidding… Welcome to the R.D. bubble. People warned me…

    • My 2 cents on that too. Snow Leopard’s Expose was already perfect for me. I hope they’ll be able to add it to Lion’s next update.

    • on the bright side it’s great because the previous expose got in trouble when my rents catch me playing games rather than doing homework lol

    • Actually it’s there. If you activate All Windows, it shows the minimized apps right in front of the latest opened files. ;)

    • you can actually go to system preferences and change it so that the minimized windows go into the icon its running from. (safari goes into safari icon on the dock, etc)

  • Amen to that Darius – I miss being able to quickly see all minimized windows in Expose (it’s application by application) – and Mission Control doesn’t show minimized apps. There are workarounds, but it will take some getting used to.

    • Which workarounds?

      • You could set a hot corner to display all windows of the active App. It’ll then show the minimized windows of the App in focus. Still a bit nasty not to see all of them.

  • What do you mean by ‘hitting your “All Windows” shortcut’ in the expose section above?

    • Hitting F10 when a program is open, show all the pages that are open and a strip with recent files if there are some.
      example : open coda, open files, hit F10 and you see the files that are opened + a strip with recent files.

  • I agree with Darius,
    As well as the ability to see all the apps open in each desktop has gone.
    That one hurt me. Now you can only see the front app

  • What I miss most is the (Pac Man style) ‘wrap around’ feature of Spaces where if you got to the end of the columns in your ‘Grid’ it’d jump back to the first column.

    Also, because Mission Control doesn’t have the Spaces ‘Grid’, you can have a single VERY long row of Desktops & Full Screen Apps which takes a LOT of swiping to get from one end to another because there’s no ‘wrap around’ or rows to go up and down quickly.

    Obviously you can use the cmd ‘number’ to navigate (if you know the location in this long row) but that seems to be going against Apple’s new gesture-sentric policy. :(

  • One thing that really upset me, is that “full screen app” opens at the end of the line, that is they do not enlarge to full screen in the same “desktop”. It’s frustrating and, until now, it forces me not to use this feature.

    I didn’t found Mission Control this great update. I’d already used twelve desktops and the control above applications was clearer: now you have to open an application to know in which desktop it will open. You don’t have a list as in Spaces. To me, there’s nothing better than before.

    • Sorry for the tons of mistakes… :(

    • I agree, it’s a retrograde step that practically killed by mac use stone dead.

      Change is all very well and good, but interfering with complex workflows that already are an ideal solution is less progress than interference for the sake of change. It has taken me until today (Mar 2013) to even figure out how it works (so one day my work flow was abruptly taken away by an update, that’s not progress, it’s damage), but still all my old spaces have disappeared and replaced with these tiny “desktops” which no longer present me with 9 or 12 or whatever spaces I can actually see and work with.

      Sure give us change, but not at the expense of business workflows being broken overnight with no useful replacement and no warning.

      I have to use a third party app now, to re-instant spaces (Total Spaces). They took away the best (most useful) feature of the entire window management process.


      • sorry for typos, there doesn’t seme to be an edit tool to fix them.

  • Being unable to sort the order of your ‘spaces/desktops/full screen apps’ in Mission Control is also annoying.

    The only option available is to sort them in the order you most use which means trying the ‘cmd+number’ to drop into one is total guess work! :(

    • You can, though. Just drag them where you want them. The only ones that don’t move are dashboard, and the first screen.

  • The layout is nice, but some features are really gone, and that’s a big lack of productivity for me. AMong them :
    – we can’t see the windows that have been minimized in Mission Control. We have to do an “Expose App” to see them, which means we have to remember which application has minimized windows…
    – I use to have 4 Desktops, in a grid (2 rows 2 columns). Thus I could easily switch from one desktop to any other using keyboard shortcuts (Cmd+up/down/left/right). Now with the “long row” of spaces you cannot switch from one desktop to any other one (in my case).
    – Moreover, when you reach the last desktop/fullscreen app, you have to go back ! There is no “wrap around” feature as in Spaces.

    Those are only examples of features are really miss from the Expose/Spaces couple. Mission Control is nice, but using it efficiently means doing mroe gestures/keyboard shortcuts than before. I don’t see how it can improve productivity.
    And I hope Apple will quickly release an update of Mission Control. I don’t understand at all how it shows the windows : when I have only two windows opened, sometimes they are shown like Expose would have show them, and sometimes they are shown one on the other (which I found a little bit annoying).

    • Uh sorry for the several mistakes =/

      Btw : “In place of Spaces, we have Desktops, which function very similarly”
      I just totally disagree0. I see a lot more of differencies between Desktops and Spaces than similarities. No “grid”, no “wrap around”, no specific assignment (or at least not as easy as before with the Pref panel), … The almost only improvement seems to be the option to have specific wallpaper on each desktop.

      Another feature I miss is the aesy way we had to show our desktop in SL. Four fingers up (for me) and I could see my desktop – four fingers down and I had Expose. Now with Mission Control (four fingers up for me) and Expose App (four fingers down), Apple has introduced a new gesture to show our desktop. I could deal with the fact that we cannot change the gesture if it was an easy one. Maybe I suck, I don’t know, but I often activate Mission Control or Expose App when trying to do this new gesture ! Am I the only one ?

      • I agree, I find the spreading gesture difficult to get the 1st time every attempt. I don’t know if everyone thinks this or I just have big hands. Chalk it up as another huge loss in productivity due to lion.

        I can at least see the rational for this one. The spread is more intuitive for the action you want. But the replacement of windows and spaces with mission control was a deal breaker for me. Apple is implementing too much of iOS into OSX at the users’ expense. Their cash cow has always been mobile devices and it’s obvious they’re trying to pull some of that market over into the mac relm, but do they have to screw us in the process? Just give us an option of the old expose and spaces!

    • Control+1,2,3,4,etc. will allow you to jump to a specific space.

      • Ctrl + any_number is annoying when you have a laptop with no numeric pad. Or I misunderstood this shortcut.

  • Hate Mission Control. It makes it much hard to find what you are looking for. If you have 8 or 9 windows open in a single app the stack looks messy and it is hard to find / click on the window that you are looking for. F10 is not a good work around unless you are only working in one app. As I am often using 3 or 4 different programs with 5 or more windows open in each program for work Mission Control is pretty much useless – it reminds me of the expose clone microsoft introduced with Vista – how is cycling / digging through a stack of windows easier than just clicking on the window you want?

    • The stacking of windows of an application really makes my day harder, too! I used to use expose to make a quick viausl choice of the window I was looking for, but now I’m really back to square one on that, as I only see parts of most of the windows for each app. I wish it could be an option to have it like it is now, or the right^H^H^H^H^H old way.

  • I’m going to second most of what has been said above about annoyances, and I’ll second third fourth and fifth the inadequacy of strip navigation instead of a grid layout. The other thing that is also pretty much unusable (not only with mission control, but with full screen apps) is moving windows between spaces: I can only move from the desktop I’m currently working in. . . so if I’m writing an e-mail on desktop 2 and I need to reference a safari window in desktop 1 I have to (1) access mission control (2) select desktop where safari window is (which switches to that desktop) (3) go back into mission control (4) move the safari window to the other desktop (5) select that desktop (6) finally get back to work. If I’m running mail in full screen I have to first dump it back to windowed mode before I can do any of it.

    • Try holding down Option while you are in Mission Control to select between Desktops without fully entering them. Discovered this little trick the other day and it’s helped out a bit. ;)

  • Where is the Space’s Preferences? We lost. I like control my apps in the spaces, but It’s so many complicated. Although they was imported

  • A bunch of inside-Mission-Control shortcuts that can be useful :
    – two (or three ? depending on your prefs I guess) fingers up on a stack will provide a “better” view of the different windows in this stack
    – space when pointer is over a window will show it better (kind of “Quick Look” on this specific window)
    – three (or four, depending on your prefs) fingers left/right will change the desktop shown in Mission Control. It can be useful to change a window from one dekstop to another I guess (I haven’t try it to do this). But it’s not as easy as it was with Spaces, I agree…

    • You can also option-click on the Desktops at the top of launchpad to move between them

    • Also, clicking on the little app icon badge in front of the window groupings will bring all of that app’s windows to front, instead of just one particular window. Useful, say, if I want to switch to a set of Finder windows I’ve been using side by side; both will pop to front, out from behind any other app windows.

  • Snow Leopard’s Expose is an improvement on Lions App Expose. I have experienced it and upgraded my Mac from Lion to Snow Leopard to get the added functionality. I don’t know how this article can suggest otherwise – it undermines your credibility.

  • I like the new mission control. But desperately miss the old style expose. I liked being able to expose my windows clearly, without the need to see my spaces/desktops whatever.

  • I havent used spaces nor expose, so ill start with MC, what is better 4 me to learn 1 concept instead to 2 separates ones

  • I really dislike Mission Control, and just sent a “feedback” to apple. Everyone should try to do the same.

    Just go here:

    and write what you think about it…

  • Completely stoked on Mission Control! Awesome. Its a hundred times better than the old expose and spaces. It so much easier to manage windows and spaces. In a single app I may have 10 windows open at a time, and half a dozen apps open at once. Now super easy to find and arrange them between spaces :)

  • Something I just discovered. If you double tap an application icon, you get the “all windows” without having to right click and select it.

  • I use a track ball. One of the things I miss most about spaces/expose in snow leopard was the ability to assign a hot corner to spaces and then a hot corner to expose. It was truly wonderful to open spaces and with a second flick of the wrist use expose thereby viewing all open windows in all spaces at the same time. mission control is certainly affecting my productivity. I hate not being able to see everything on every desktop and choosing whatever I want from any desktop instantly. Not to mention it is awkward to move a window from one desktop to another. They should have made mission control much much more customizable. This is definitely a minus in my user experience.

  • I’m brand new to Macs… just bought a MBP and started it for the first time today. I was really excited when I was doing my research before buying it (I’ve been a PC person for years) when I read about Spaces. It sounded as if they were completely separate desktops. I’m kind of let down when using it. I thought it was essentially going to be completely separate desktops where you could literally run, in a way almost, different computers. I was irritated to see that opening Safari in one Desktop, and then clicking on Safari in another, brings me back to the other Desktop. I had to fiddle with the settings to say when switching apps not to go to a desktop that has that application already open, but I also don’t like that when I special click on Safari, it shows all windows of Safari open on ALL Desktops. I only want to see the Safari windows open in THAT Desktop… and I want to be able to click on Safari and it open a new window… not switch Desktops. I don’t know… maybe I’m too used to Windows… but when I click on a web browser icon when a window is already open, I expect to get a new window.

  • Mission control is IMHO most horrible Apple invention so far, why did they drop spaces and expose is beyond me, they were just perfect.

    I have dual screen setup that I’ve been using for years, now I have to reconstruct my entire workflow just because those dumbfucks “forgot” the essence of spaces/expose, wich is usability.
    Apple, your developers are getting dumber, maybe time to re-staff?

    I’m regretting of my upgrade to LION.

    Pardon my French, I’m just really pissed off.

  • Another annoying limitation in Mission Control is that you cannot within the app manipulate the positions of the various screens and full-screen apps. For an example of why this would be a key feature. When your using two or more full screen apps in a work flow it is faster and more elegant to five-finger scroll between them rather than zoom out to mission control to switch apps. It would be nice and seems intuitive to allow the user to pick which screens are next to each other.

  • This is a tip which worked in SL as well and works similarly in Lion with Mission Control so is worth repeating.

    As soon as you save a document, the little icon in the titlebar next to the document name changes from slightly greyed to full colour. When the icon is full colour you can drag it wherever you want including onto applications, the desktop or onto a finder window. Most people know this far.

    However you can also drag the titlebar icon onto applications in other spaces! In other words you can drag your newly saved word document into your new mail window in another space and have it added as an attachment in one step.

    Here is how:
    1) In preferences->Mission Control->Hot corners, set one corner to activate Mission control
    2) Open mail in one space and compose a new mail.
    3) Switch to another space, where you are working in a Pages document.
    4) Drag the titlebar icon from the pages document to the corner you have allocated for mission control. (In other words click and hold the titlebar icon until it turns black and then drag)
    5) Mission control will open.
    6) Without letting go keep dragging the icon to the space with Mail in it. After a second the space will blink and will open.
    7) Drag and drop the icon into your new mail and it will be added as an attachment.

    The description sounds complicated but it is in fact one fluid step that makes working with different spaces with different application very smooth

    You can do the same drag and drop manoveur using the amazing ‘spaces slide’. In my case I have four finger swipe set to scroll between spaces. if a grab an icon off the titlebar, I use my thumb on the trackpad to activate the drag and then swipe my other four finger to move to another space and then drop the icon wherever its needed.

    Here is yet another variation on theme … Start to drag a titlebar icon and then press Cmd-Tab to bring up the switcher. Drag the icon over the application icon in the switcher, the icon will blink and will then switch to the last opened window in that application where you can complete the drop. You can even activate app expose with Cmd-` if you need to.

    This works for anything you can drag, including files from the finder.
    Most people I have watched don’t use drag and drop nearly enough. Most of the time its the quickest way to open a document from one application into another.

    • i’m a long time mac user and to this day i never realized you could drag the title bar like that. This is brilliant! thanks ;)

  • I do like fullscreen apps and the integration within Mission Control but i don’t like that you can’t close fullscreen windows from Mission Control.

    when I close for example 1 safari window it goes ALL THE WAY BACK to my desktop. this is annoying when i have 10 fullscreen safari windows open! it means i have to swipe my way back to the window i was at, every time i close one.

    if you could just close fullscreen windows in mission control this would’t be as annoying.

    i also miss the ability to put my fullscreen windows in a custom order.

  • What really bugs me is the inability to rearrange the desktops and apps to our own custom order.

    Its not like a deal breaker, i still love lion, but it sucks anyway :p

  • Loving the new lion, was frustrated for a little while though so thanks for making this post. :-)

    Being able to arrange and name the desktops would be a huge advantage!

    Feedback given to Apple of course, hopefully someone is listening. :-)

  • I like the updates to the new lion, but one request, to keep the space number at the top right corner, like in the previous version. This helps with quick glance at which space you are in without having to go to mc.

    Thanks for all the updates!

  • Mission control is seriously dumb. If I have 5 different apps open, the size of desktops becomes so small that is extremely hard to know what is where. If I am referring to multiple files on two different softwares for a single task, it is extremely complicated to do basic copy-paste operation. Expose+ spaces was perfect. Why spoil it?

    • I don’t like it either.

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  • Sorry, but MIssion Control is just awfull. Why ?

    With the old Spaces, we could just drag an drop application between the workspaces. Now we need to select a space and then drag the application to the destination space. One more step for absolutely nothing.

    M.C. is awful when you’re dealing with multiple monitors. Old Spaces way was much more efficient. Try to drag an application running from, for example, monitor 1 workspace 3 to monitor 2 workspace 2.

    Even better… Try put a full screen application on Monitor 1 , WS1 and another windowed app. on Monitor 2 WS1. It’s impossible.

    I need to run Parallels Desktop in full screen on monitor 1 and Lotus Symphony on the sencondary monitor, but I need to see both at the same time. This is not possible anymore.

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  • One thing I wish Lion and Mountain Lion brought over from Snow Leopard is the ability to assign apps to desktops. It was so simple with Snow Leopard, now however, you have to open each app or put it on your toolbar and then assign the desktop you want to use. It takes too long now. It was so fast before. I wish someone would make an app that would make it easier.

  • I think Mission Control and “Application Windows” (for lack of a name like “Exposé) are a step backward in usability and efficiency. For me, it is now difficult for me to manage my various concurrent projects which was fairly easy with Exposé and Spaces (barring a few minor annoyances). The big thing for me was to be able to activate Exposé and view all windows of a single applications **from a single space**. All my projects are organized consistently and I use a lot of Text documents, terminal windows, and Safari windows (among others). They each have a notes file where I keep track of progress and a number of terminal windows. Now, when I activate “Application Windows” or Mission Control, all the windows from all the projects are mixed together and in some cases, I have absolutely no way to distinguish between the projects. Mission control is a complete wash for me and has reduced my efficiency/productivity back to the state it was in almost before Exposé and Spaces. For those of you who are not huge multi-taskers and for whom different projects use different applications, it’s great for you, but for me, Mission Control (and “Application Windows”) is virtually unusable.


  • The original concept of Spaces was pure genius on the part of Apple — recreate a typical user’s physical desk on the computer screen, i.e., the various stacks of documents and papers on a typical user’s physical desk are represented by different Spaces.

    However, IMHO Apple never took the concept of Spaces to its logical next step — allow users to assign individual files and documents to individual Spaces (in addition to the ability to assign apps to Spaces). The ability to assign documents/files and even Safari windows to Spaces would represent Spaces organization by project. (“Project Spaces”)

    Coupled with the “Reopen windows when logging back in feature” of Lion/Mountain Lion, a Project Spaces implementation would be a huge leap forward in productivity.

    Instead, MC is a huge step backwards in productivity. Apple is confusing the primary function of OSX (productivity) vs. the primary function of iOS (consumption).

    What Apple needs to do at a minimum is to provide an option to be able to switch back to Spaces. To preserve the look and feel of iOS, the default setting can be Mission Control.

    Diehard OSX fans buy Macs for their productivity, not for watching movies, listening to music, etc. That’s what iOS does best. I hope that Apple gets this and will release a fix in the next update of OSX. Then again, Snow Leopards are the longest jumping big cats (translating to productivity)…