Improve Productivity With Virtual Desktops From TotalSpaces2


TotalSpaces2 from BinaryAge is the, self-described, "ultimate grid spaces manager". It is built on top of OS X's Mission Control and provides a great deal of control over your Mac's work environment. In an earlier tutorial, I taught you about Speeding Up Your Life With Launchbar.

In this tutorial I'll show you how to use a grid of spaces to efficiently swap between applications to improve your productivity.


What TotalSpaces2 Does

TotalSpaces2 is the new, Mavericks only, successor to TotalSpaces. TotalSpaces is still available for Lion and Mountain Lion and the majority of the information in this tutorial is still applicable. It costs $18, and there is a 14-day free trial.

Rather than the linear row of Spaces that is provided by Mission Control, TotalSpaces2 allows you to create a grid that can be navigated with keyboard shortcuts and trackpad gestures.

One of the most useful features of TotalSpaces2 is that it allows you to assign certain applications to particular Spaces. This means that if you have a 3x3 grid, you can ensure that your Twitter client is always in the top left space and that your email client is always in the middle right.

There are many ways to switch between applications on a Mac, as you can see in this tutorial. I feel, however, that none of them are as quick or as consistent between iterations as the setup I will teach you in this tutorial.

Switching between applications using Command Tab, by default, displays the applications in the order they have been most recently used. this means that your email client may require a different number of Tab presses each time you switch to it. By using TotalSpaces2 to assign it to a specific position in a grid, you can rapidly and reliably switch to it at will.

TotalSpaces2 is especially useful on smaller screened devices, such as the MacBook Air line. On larger screens it is possible to display two programs side by side, however, on 13" and smaller screens, things become very cramped if you try this.

With TotalSpaces2, you can ensure that the two programs you routinely use together, such as a browser for research and a text editor for writing, are adjacent in the grid so that you can rapidly switch between them with a keyboard shortcut or gesture.

Setting Up TotalSpaces2

Installing TotalSpaces2

To install TotalSpaces2, visit BinaryAge's website and download the 14-day free trial.

Once TotalSpaces.pkg has finished downloading, go to your Downloads folder and double-click on it to run the installation.

Follow through the steps provided by the installer, entering your password when required.

Basic Configuration

Before setting up the grid, it is worth configuring the rest of TotalSpaces2.

By default, OS X includes the Dashboard as a Space. While you may use it, I do not, and don't recommend you do either. First, I will show you how to turn it off.

  • Open System Preferences and navigate to the Mission Control preference pane.
  • Uncheck the first option, Show Dashboard as a Space to turn it off.
Turning off Dashboard
Turning off Dashboard

Click on the TotalSpaces2 menu bar icon and then click on Preferences to open TotalSpaces2's preference panel.

In the General tab you can configure whether you would like TotalSpaces2 to start when you log in, by default this is off. Unless you want to manually start TotalSpaces2 every time you restart your computer, turn this setting on.

You can also configure whether or not you would like TotalSpaces2 to display its menu bar icon. I would recommend having this on as you can use it to switch between Spaces.

The other settings are less critical. If you are on a slow machine, or using a large number of monitors, it may be worth changing the Backgrounds in overview grid setting.

General  menu panel
General menu panel

The Circulation tab's options decide what happens when you reach the end of a row in the grid. If circulation is on, continuing to navigate right will take you either to the leftmost column of the same row, or the row below, depending on what options you select.

There is also an option to circulate vertically.

Personally, I leave circulation off. My grid is set up so that I would seldom need to move from the right edge to the left edge in a single trackpad gesture. If you decide later that you would like the ability to move from the right edge to the left edge, or the top edge to the bottom edge, in a single go, turn this setting on.

Circulation  menu panel
Circulation menu panel

The Transitions tab allows you to determine how the visual transitions occur as you navigate through the grid.

The most important option is to turn Swipe to change space on if you are using a trackpad. I recommend using the 4 fingers setting, as by default, OS X uses that gesture to navigate between spaces.

You can also set the transition style and speed. I recommend you select a reasonably fast Speed and then select whichever Animation appeals to you. If you select a slow speed, you will quickly become irritated watching your computer animate between Spaces.

If you are using Natural Scrolling, turn on Invert swipe direction to keep things consistent.

If you are using a mouse rather than a trackpad, it may be worth considering turning Change space by moving mouse to the edge of the screen on and selecting a modifier key from the menu.

Transitions  menu panel
Transitions menu panel

The Hotkeys tab allows you to set the keyboard shortcuts you use for switching between Spaces and activating the overview grid.

By default, this is set to Option Shift and the arrow that points in the grid direction of the Space you wish to move to for switching between Spaces and Option Shift Space for activating the overview grid.

If you have a trackpad, you may want to consider turning keyboard shortcuts off all together and just navigating through the grid using gestures.

Hotkeys menu panel
Hotkeys menu panel

The Hotcorners tab allows you to trigger the overview grid by moving your mouse to that corner.

I recommend setting the bottom left corner to Overview grid with exposé. Exposé displays all the applications open in a Space. This means the small window you are looking for will not be hidden behind a fullscreen application.

Hotcorners menu panel
Hotcorners menu panel

Designing Your Grid

Before configuring the grid, you need to decide how you want your Spaces to be arranged, and what applications you want in each Space. Each Space can have as many applications as you like. Also, you can have almost any grid layout you want. I use a 3x3, but I have played around with 2x2, a 4x4, and even a 3x4.

To design your grid you need to consider how you will use your computer. If you are a writer, for example, you may be largely using a text editor for writing, a web browser for research, an email client for keeping in contact with editors and a Twitter client for staying in contact with your fans. In this case, a 2x2 grid with your Twitter client and email client on different Spaces on one row and your browser and text editor on adjacent Spaces in the other row would be perfect.

Alternatively, if you are a designer who spends a lot of time with Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign and Bridge, you may want to consider a layout that allows you to smoothly move between each application.

As mentioned above, I use a 3x3 grid. In the top row, I have my Twitter client and system tools in the first Space, my RSS reader in the second, and OmniFocus in the third. In the second row, I have my working Space, where Microsoft Office, and my development tools are assigned, my browsing space where all my web browsers are, and a Space with my email client. In the third row, I have Photoshop, Lightroom, and Spotify, each in their own Space.

If you use multiple monitors, TotalSpaces2 supports Mavericks default of each display having its own set of Spaces and so you can have two grids!

Setting Up Your Grid

Once you have a rough idea how you want to set up your grid, navigate to the Layout tab.

The dropdown menu at the bottom of the panel selects which display's Spaces you are configuring.

The panel also displays a graphic of your current layout.

Default grid layout with Dashboard
Default grid layout with Dashboard

To add rows and columns, use the buttons next to the graphic.

Add as many as are required for your setup.

If you do not have enough Spaces active to create your setup, an Add desktops button will appear. Press this button to automatically create the needed Spaces.

3x3 Grid
3x3 Grid

By default, TotalSpaces2 calls the assigns each Space the name Desktop X where X is the number that that Space is.

To rename the Spaces to more useful names, click on that Space in the graphic to bring up an options box.

You can also record a hotkey that allows you to automatically jump to that Space. If you have a large grid, you may want to assign a hotkey to the central Space.

Renaming the Spaces

Assigning Applications to Spaces

Once you have your grid configured, navigate to the Apps tab to assign applications to your grid.

Click the + icon to open a finder window that allows you to select applications from your Applications folder.

Select the application you want and press Open.

Once you have added an application to the list, use the dropdown menu next to it to select which Space you want to assign it to.

If you have named your Spaces, this step is simple. Otherwise you need to mentally workout which position each numbered desktop corresponds to.

Apps menu panel fully configured
Apps menu panel fully configured

Using TotalSpaces2

The Overview Grid

The overview grid is TotalSpaces2's equivalent of Mission Control. Here you can see all your Spaces, and all the applications that you have running on them.

If you followed the steps above, to access the overview grid press Option Shift Space or by move your cursor to the bottom left corner of your screen.

In the overview grid, you can jump to any Space by clicking on it. If you click on an application, that application will be the active one when you jump to that Space.

In some cases, you may want to move an application away from its assigned Space temporarily. You can do this in the overview grid by simply dragging the application between two Spaces.

Overview grid with all applications open
Overview grid with all applications open

Navigating Between Spaces

To navigate quickly between Spaces, use the gesture or keyboard shortcut you configured earlier. In my case, the primary one is a four-finger swipe.

This set up allows you to rapidly copy some information from your browser, move to your email client with a gesture, send an email and then go back to your browser with the opposite gesture.

You can also navigate between Spaces by clicking on TotalSpaces2's menubar icon and selecting the Space you want to move to.


In this tutorial I have shown you how to design and configure a grid of Spaces, each with their own assigned applications so you can rapidly and reliable switch between related tasks. If you take the time to configure your grid properly, you will never again have to hunt for a particular open application!

If you use TotalSpaces2 already, or start using it after reading this tutorial, let me know in the comments what grid setup you use.