I tend to get overwhelmed when presented with too much information at once. Something as simple as a large menu at a restaurant or too many chores to do on a Sunday morning can make me mentally freeze up.
When this happens, I have to walk away from the source of the information and calm myself down before I’m able to function again.
Something similar happens when I’m working at my computer. As I go through my workday, I accumulate apps, windows, and tabs containing code, documentation, email, chat messages, UI mockups, bug reports, terminal sessions, API clients, notes—all the different bits of data that I must process in order to produce working software.
Towards the end of the day, I get overwhelmed by the amount of data being beamed into my brain. I become disorganized, make bad decisions, or just stare at my screen, unmoving, for minutes at a time as my brain goes into shutdown mode. There are many days when I have to lie down for a little while after I get back home from work.
Modern desktop environments do nothing to help me contain this chaos. If I want to hide away some of my running apps so I can focus exclusively on the ones that currently need my attention, I must manually minimize them to the Dock or move them to different Spaces. When I need them again, I must manually bring them back.
Windows and macOS have always been designed around the assumption that users want to see as much information as they can fit on the screen. So, to preserve my sanity, I must spend a significant portion of my day quitting apps, minimizing windows, and moving them to and from different virtual desktops.
On a laptop, I can deal with the mess of windows by simply making all of them take up the entire screen (shoutout to Moom). The way I use my 14" MacBook Pro is not very different from how I use my 11" iPad Pro—with only a single window visible on the screen at any given moment.
But things are not as simple when I’m plugged into a large monitor. Apps like Figma might benefit from the extra real estate when stretched out to occupy the entirety of a 27" screen, but most apps are unusable at that size.
Whenever I use a large monitor, I have to remember to arrange all the windows I plan to use just so before I start work (shoutout to Moom, again). Kind of like a digital mise en place, but infinitely more frustrating. If I don’t do this, I end up having to interrupt my work session to manually prune my windows.
Fortunately, someone at Apple has a brain that works kind of like mine.
Enter Stage Manager
Stage Manager is a new window management feature introduced in macOS Ventura and iPadOS 16.1. This video from Engadget shows it in action:
When you enable Stage Manager, macOS moves all your open windows off to the left side of the screen, where they show up as tiny thumbnails in a kind of vertical filmstrip. Only the window that currently has your focus is shown in the front and center of your display, which Apple calls the “stage”.
When you switch to a different app, it moves to the center of the stage, and the previously focused window moves off to the left. If you want to see multiple windows at the same time, you can drag them into the stage from the filmstrip on the left.
Stage Manager doesn’t change my workflow much when I’m using my MacBook’s display, but it’s extremely effective on my 27" monitor.
- I can focus on one thing at a time, which is how my brain likes it.
- I run as many apps as I need for work at once, without having to minimize them to the Dock or move them to a different Space when they’re not in use.
- Instead of having to resize windows to make optimum use of my display, I can make each window as large as it needs to be and place it in the center of the screen. Since it will always appear by itself, there’s no danger of it overlapping with another window and hiding parts of its UI.
- I can group windows together based on the task I’m working on. When I’m writing code, Firefox and VS Code can live together in one group while iTerm and Git Tower live in another. When I’m writing, I can put iA Writer and Dictionary in one group, and Safari by itself in another.
- I can assign a Finder window to each group if I need to. Multiple Finder windows can get hairy to manage, but Stage Manager makes sure that each one lives within the context where it’s being used. At the moment, I have one Finder window grouped with Mail so I can import some old mailboxes, and another one with Safari so I can add images to this post.
- Perhaps my favorite feature of all: Stage Manager remaps
Cmd + backtickto switch between all windows within a stage. With Stage Manager disabled, this switches between different windows of the app that is currently in focus.
Stage Manager even hides away the mess of icons I have on my desktop, which means I’m able to appreciate my favorite Basic Apple Guy wallpapers.
By eliminating the cognitive strain that comes from having to juggle tens of apps and windows, Stage Manager helps me focus better when I work at my computer. It helps reduce information overload and, for the first time, makes using a 27" monitor an enjoyable experience for me.
I don’t have a clinical issue with attention—depression and anxiety is more my style—but I suspect that people with conditions such as ADHD will feel a lot calmer after they enable Stage Manager.
Stage Manager is the biggest change to the desktop metaphor in decades, at least on the Mac. I found it a little hard to get used to at first, but after two weeks I can’t imagine going back to the old way of doing things.