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Improve Workflow by Avoiding the Dock

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The Dock is one of the most recognisable features of OS X, however, it has become less needed in recent years for a number of reasons. Personally, I never use the Dock. Its two main purposes, to launch and to manage your applications, are better handled by other features of OS X, or third party apps. 

In this tutorial I will show you how anything that you can do with the Dock, can be done more efficiently. I'll show you why there’s no longer a need to manage apps. I propose that you can improve your workflow by employing new techniques.

Launching Applications

The main purpose of the Dock is to launch applications. The Dock, however, is far from the best way to launch applications. There are two reasons

  • the Dock is limited by space, and 
  • there are faster, more efficient ways to launch apps

Unless you’re using a 27" iMac, screen-space on any Mac tends to be somewhat limited. If you use a MacBook and have the Dock on screen all the time, I recommend you immediately set it to autohide

To launch an application with the Dock, it first must be in the Dock. If you are trying to open an app that isn’t one of your pinned apps, or already running, then you'll have to start digging into your applications folder with Finder. Even if the app you want is pinned in your Dock, you still have to find it–no easy task if you have loads of apps running–and then click on it.

Tip: I’m not suggesting you delete the Dock. Hiding the Dock when it’s not in use–which for me is all the time–is a simple keyboard shortcut, Control-D. Pressing it makes the Dock hide offscreen. To bring it back on screen, move your cursor to the edge where the Dock is hidden. You can also press Control-D again to unhide it.

I’m a huge fan of application launchers such as Alfred and Launchbar. These apps let me launch applications with a few key presses. I can trigger the application launcher with a keyboard shortcut, enter the first couple of letters of the application name that I want to open and press Return as soon as it’s suggested.

Using Launchbar to launch an app.

If you don’t want to use a third party app, you can get the same effect, without all the extra features, with Spotlight. Press Spotlight’s keyboard shortcut, Command-Space and then enter the first few letters of the name of the app that you want to launch. When Spotlight has the app selected, press Return to launch it.

Tip: With both application launchers and Spotlight, if you launch an app that is already open, it will become the active app and brought to the front. If it's in a different (Desktop) Space, you'll be moved to that Space.

OS X Lion has made even this redundant for some people with features such as Resumé. 

When you restart the Mac, Resumé reopens all your applications to the state they were in before you last turned it off. If you only use a few apps, an email client, a word processor and a browser, say, for 90% of what you do, there will never be any need for you to manually open them.

Tip: To ensure Resumé is activated, go to the General preferences pane in System Preferences and uncheck Close windows when quitting an application.

Managing Application Windows

The Dock also serves as a means for managing, and minimising, multiple app windows.

When you minimise a document, by default, the window is minimised to the Dock. If you want to bring it back, you just click on it. Unless the Dock icons are huge, you can only see the barest features of the document window. A far better solution is to use App Exposé. 

To activate Exposé, do a three-finger-swipe-down on your trackpad. With App Exposé you see all an application’s open windows, as well as all your minimised ones. If you want a larger preview, hover over an app window and press Space to open it in Quick Look. App Exposé even shows some of your most recently opened documents.

Using App Exposé.

Managing Apps Is (Almost) Redundant

The need to actively manage apps is going away for two reasons: 

  • computer hardware has improved, and 
  • Apple has actively worked to remove the need for it

Gone are the days when, if you wanted to have more than three or four browser tabs open, you had to close every other program running on your computer. Most computers, and all modern Macs, are easily able to handle most of what you can throw at them. 

Having a load of apps open is no longer going to slow down your Mac in a meaningful way. Even entry level Macs come with 4GB of RAM, with most coming with 8GB or more. You might not be able to do detailed 3D modelling, but while doing everyday tasks, you will never need to close applications to because you are low on RAM.

In recent versions of OS X, Apple has actively worked to leverage these hardware advances and remove the need for people manage their own apps. Features like Resumé mean that you never need to manually open an app you were using when you restart. 

One of the only other reasons to close apps was to preserve battery life, but App Nap, introduced in OS X Mavericks, has removed this. 

App Nap detects when an app isn’t in use, for example it’s on a different Space or hidden behind the active window, and not doing something such as checking email. When it does, it slows the app down so it is not drawing unnecessary CPU cycles and power. As soon as you switch back to the app, App Nap deactivates and it instantly gets back up to full speed.

With features like these, it becomes reasonable to leave all your most used apps running, all the time, and never think about opening or closing them.

Other Ways to Manage Apps

If you embrace my suggested Dockless way of life, you can start to play around with different ways of working. My personal favourite, is to use a grid of Spaces with assigned apps but other Tuts+ authors have considered things like using keyboard shortcuts to launch apps.

Conclusion

In this tutorial I have shown you how you can do most of what you use the Dock for in more efficient or effective ways. I’ve also laid out why I feel that advances in computer hardware and software mean opening and closing apps is no longer as necessary as it once was.

If you think I’m crazy or if you agree with me and have other great ways to do things better than you can with the Dock, let me know in the comments.

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