How to Force Applications and Processes to Quit on OS X

If you’ve ever been using your Mac and had an application hang (Spinning Beachball of Death anyone?), you know how annoying it is. One stuck app can bring your system to a crawl, but it’s well within your power to do something about it.

Normally, most applications run fairly well on OS X and the spinning beachball or pinwheel doesn’t factor in, or only makes a brief appearance before the system sorts itself. But every now and then, an application freezes or can’t handle the task(s) you’ve assigned it and the result is the much-loathed animated cursor.

Haters gonna wait!

If this occurs and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to resolve itself on its own, it may be time to take action. There’s actually quite a few ways to do this but several are just minor variations on the Force Quit method. Today we’re going to show you three, any of which should do the trick.

Remember, forcing an application to quit should be a solution of last resort. Forcing an application to quit will cause you to lose any unsaved work. While this won’t matter much with some apps, if you’re writing a document or editing an image, it could mean lost time and productivity.

Getting Your System Unstuck

Windows users know full well the power of the Task Manager. With it, they can easily and quickly select a stuck application or process, click “End Task,” and be done with it.

On OS X, users can stop stuck applications with the Force Quit window, which can be accessed from the Apple menu and then clicking “Force Quit…” or using the keyboard combo “Command + Option + Escape.”

When everything is okay, all your running apps will appear normal.

Looking good, for now …

When an application hangs, however, it will turn red and “(not responding)” will appear next to it. You can wait to see if the application starts responding again, or you can click the troublesome item and then click the “Force Quit” button.

The Force Quit window is the easiest way to take care of a troublesome application in short order. You can also relaunch the Finder if that too bogs down for some reason. Alternatively, if you know which app is giving you fits, hold “Control + Option” and right-click on the app’s Dock icon, then choose “Force Quit” from the resulting menu.

What if your system is so stuck that it won’t respond quickly enough to perform these actions? In that case, you might want to try using the keyboard combination “Command + Option + Shift + Escape.” Hold this combination for three seconds, and it will force the foremost application to quit.

The Activity Monitor

OS X’s Activity Monitor is similar in many ways to Windows’ Task Manager. It divides system activity up into five categories (Windows shows four), which you can sort into columns to see what applications and processes are doing what. So, if you want to know which apps are gouging you for RAM, you can check out the “Memory” category. Similarly, if you’re not getting the battery life you’re expecting, you can see what your energy hogs are.

For our purposes, we can see that our troublesome app TextEdit is hung up and not responding. Of course, something may not always show “Not Responding.” If it seems your system is staggering and stumbling along, you can still diagnose the cause of your troubles using the Activity Monitor by checking your CPU and Memory usage.

In our specific case, it’s easy to see what the problem is and so we click the black “X” in the toolbar. The resulting dialog will ask you if you want to Quit or Force Quit. Click “Force Quit” because the application will just continue to hang if you try to simply quit it.

No further confirmation dialog pops up to make sure you know what you’re doing. Like we said, if you force quit anything, you’ll lose any progress or unsaved work.

Using a Command Line

Okay, so the first two options we’ve shown you are pretty powerful ways to quit stuck items, but there is another. You can open the Terminal and use the command line to gracefully quit any app or process. If you already use the command line, then you probably already know all this, but if you don’t or if you’re the least bit curious, then this may interest you.

The “top” command is our go-to tool. There’s many ways to use top but for our purposes, we add the -o flag, which lets us sort the readout by memory, CPU, and other categories.

To sort by CPU usage, type “top -o cpu”.

On the resulting screen, you see all our running processes sorted by CPU-use percentage.

Similarly, you can sort by memory using the command “top -o rsize”.

Notice how once again, the readout is sorted in descending order by memory usage, so you can get a clear picture of what’s gobbling up RAM on your system.

For the sake of completeness, we’re going to once again target our original problem app TextEdit. In this example, we make note of the PID or Process ID, which is a numerical identifier the system assigned to it. The PID is unique, so if you fire up TextEdit at another time, it will be different. In this case, we make note of its PID – 39630 – and then hit the “Q” key to quit top.

We return to our command line and type “kill 39630” and the hit “Enter.”

If you successfully kill a process, there won’t be any kind of confirmation or fanfare, the terminal will simply await another command. If you run the top command once again, you’ll see that TextEdit (or whatever process you killed) will be gone.

The command line method is probably a little overkill for the purposes of day-to-day use. The Force Quit method and Activity Monitor are likely more than enough for most users but top and kill is still a cool method to have in your back pocket.

Those are the basic ways to handle stuck applications on OS X. Let’s now hear from you. Did you find this article useful? Have any comments or questions to add? Please sound off in our discussion forum and make your voice heard.

Matt Klein is an aspiring Florida beach bum, displaced honorary Texan, and died-in-wool Ohio State Buckeye, who fancies himself a nerd-of-all-trades. His favorite topics might include operating systems, BBQ, roller skating, and trying to figure out how to explain quantum computers.

  • Published 02/18/15
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