How to Use OS X Virtual Desktops More Effectively with Keyboard Shortcuts

We like having multiple virtual desktops on OS X, especially when we can supercharge them by combining them with a few simple keyboard shortcuts. So, on that note, here are some practical ways to use OS X’s virtual desktops like you mean it.

Virtual desktops are hardly a new concept. They’ve been around for quite some time, especially on various Linux distributions, and now more recently, they’ve been added to Windows 10.

Even Windows is getting into the virtual desktops game as seen here in the latest preview release of Windows 10.

Apple’s own take on virtual desktops Spaces, has been around since the introduction of Snow Leopard in 2009, and in the latest OS X release, Yosemite, we find it alive and well.

Out of the box, Spaces works great but it can be so much better with a few simple keyboard shortcuts. To access your Spaces, you can use the Mission Control button (aka F3) on your Mac’s keyboard. If you’ve no idea what we’re talking about when we say “Mission Control,” then you should definitely read our Mission Control 101 article.

You can also use three fingers to slide upward on your trackpad. If you’re using an older Mac without a Mission Control button or simply don’t like opening it this way, assign it a different one.

In the screenshot, the default shortcut is “Option + 1” which on a Windows keyboard translates to “Alt + 1” but it can be almost whatever you want it to be. If you’re new to creating or reassigning keyboard combinations, then we recommend you read this article to bring you up to speed.

Regardless of how you open Mission Control, you’re going to see your virtual desktops along the top, open windows and apps below. Here, we have a total of five desktops to choose from. OS X defaults to two but, as you’ll see, that can easily be remedied.

With Mission Control now open, there are a few things you can do.

If you hold the “Option” key, an X will appear in the upper-left corner of each desktop, which obviously allows you to close it. If you don’t hold the “Option” key, you can still hover over a desktop and the X will appear on it after a brief delay.

You can move apps to other desktops by dragging them where you want. You can create new desktops by dragging apps to the upper-right corner where a faint plus sign appears; you don’t have to hold the “Option” key to do this.

If you do hold the “Option” key, you can click the plus sign and create a new empty desktop.

Continue to hold “Option” and click on your desktops to quickly cycle through them, or hold “Control” and use the left or right arrows .

Let’s say you’re looking for a specific window or app in one of your spaces. Hover over the app or window so that a blue outline appears around it, then hold the spacebar for a larger preview. Once you find what you’re looking for, click on it.

All in all, using Spaces isn’t difficult once you get the hang of it. It’s very useful, especially since you can assign app groups to other desktops, thus organizing your workflow. Then you can either use three fingers to swipe horizontally on the trackpad or “Control + 1”, “Control + 2” to quickly flip through your desktops.

That certainly makes life easier, but what if you want more desktops with assigned shortcuts? And what if you want to move windows to other desktops without opening Mission Control?

More Keyboard Shortcuts? More Keyboard Shortcuts!

To round out your Spaces skills, we’ll show you how to add more keyboard shortcuts to represent other desktops.

In all our screenshots, we have five desktops, which we had to create before we can assign shortcuts to them. In order to do this, you can drag an app to the plus sign just like we showed you earlier, or hold the “Option” key and click the “+”.

In this case, we could create a “Desktop 6” by dragging an app to the “+” or hold “Option” and click “+”.

With your desktop(s) created, open the Keyboard preferences and the “Mission Control” section.

Here we’ve already added shortcuts to each additional desktop beyond 1 and 2. So we can switch between 3, 4, and 5 by using “Control +3” and so on. Of course, you can use whatever combination you want. You can even change the first two desktops if something else works better for you.

You can have up to sixteen desktops, but in our experience we rarely need more than four.

With the addition of more desktops, you need a faster way to move apps and windows when Desktop 1 becomes too cluttered. Opening Mission Control and moving stuff is one way to do this but it’s certainly not the fastest.

The fastest way to move apps between your other desktops is click and grab the title bar (highlighted in yellow) and use the corresponding keyboard shortcut.

So if our Skitch window is on Desktop 1 and we want to quickly move it to 3, we would click and hold the title bar, use “Control + 3” and Skitch would be instantly moved. Just make sure you then let go of the title bar before you return to the original desktop, or you’ll just move the windows back.

Don’t worry, you don’t need to keep switching desktops to access your apps, simply use the Dock or “Command + Tab” and your desktops will switch automatically.

You don’t need to remember where you dropped or opened your apps, you can just use “Command + Tab” and automatically switch between your running apps (and other desktops).

Using these keyboard combinations means that once you get your desktops set up, you rarely have to access Mission Control again. With a little attention and repetition, your muscle memory will improve, and you can quickly switch and move apps while your hands rarely leave the keys.

Try it for a few days and tell us what you think. Does it make application and window management easier on OS X? Do you have any tips you’d like to pass along? We’d love to hear from you and welcome your comments and questions. Please drop your two cents in our discussion forum now!

Matt Klein is an aspiring Florida beach bum, displaced honorary Texan, and dyed-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.