If you’re a Mac Voiceover user, there’s one thing you absolutely hate hearing, that an app is “Not responding.” This may happen occasionally and only last for a few seconds, causing only minor annoyance, or it can happen frequently and significantly disrupt your workflow.
If it happens frequently or for more than a few seconds at a time when performing basic tasks, there is likely an underlying problem with your Mac, either software or hardware related. In this guide, I will give an overview of some of the most common problems and solutions, but keep in mind that slower than expected performance is a nonspecific symptom, so there might be other explanations for the issues you’re experiencing.
Maintenance tasks on your Mac can either be performed manually or with the help of third-party maintenance utilities. Whichever method you prefer, it is important to update your software so you have the latest patches, and to backup your data so you have it in the unlikely event that something goes wrong. For information about backing up with Time Machine, the Mac's built in backup utility, check out this guide.
The announcement that an app is “Not responding” refers to a state of intense processor activity that limits your ability to navigate within the focused app, and in extreme cases, your entire system. Thus when performing resource-intensive tasks such as media editing or complex video rendering, this is normal and should resolve when the task is complete.
Officially known as the wait cursor, it is frequently referred to by sighted users as the “Spinning beachball of death” or “pinwheel of death.” Therefore, if you are seeking help from a sighted user, describe the problem as something like “I’m getting the beachball” or “It’s beachballing.” Likewise if you are helping a sighted user who describes a problem this way, you know it is the same as if a Voiceover user says “It’s not responding.”
A basic overview of hardware components
In this guide, I will refer to several key hardware components that, while not necessary to know a great deal about in order to use a Mac, may be helpful to have a basic understanding of in order to enhance your knowledge of how problems can occur and how they can be addressed.
The processor or central processing unit (CPU) is the chip that provides most of a computer's computational power. Therefore, if your Mac is slow or unresponsive, it’s possible that there are apps or other processes that are taxing the CPU; quitting these processes should make more power available.
Storage, as the name implies, refers to the capacity of media such as a hard disk drive (HDD) or solid-state drive (SSD) to store data. If your Mac is running slower than expected, one of the most common causes is that the storage media is full or failing.
Random access memory (ram) refers to a computer’s capacity to multitask. Therefore, in a nutshell, the more ram your Mac has, the more apps it can run at once.
You can view information about these, as well as other components in your Mac, by choosing Apple > About this Mac.
Some quick tips for unresponsive apps
If an app you’re using has stopped responding for no apparent reason, the first thing to try is to Command-Tab away from it, wait for Voiceover to announce that the app in question is ready, then Command-Tab back to it. If that doesn’t work, Command-Tab away from the app and turn Voiceover off, wait a few seconds, then turn it on again.
Finally, if all else fails, force quit the app by Command-Tabbing to it and pressing Command-Shift-Option-Escape, or Command-Shift-Option-Function-Tab if you're Mac's keyboard doesn't have an Escape key. Alternatively, you can press Command-Option-Escape (or Command-Option-Function-Tab if you're Mac's keyboard doesn't have an Escape key) to open the force quit window and select the problem app from the table. Command-Option-Escape is the closest thing to Control-Alt-Delete on Windows.
If one app does this consistently, it’s possible the app doesn’t work well with Voiceover or your version of macOS, or has some other bug that substantially affects its performance. On the other hand, if the issue spreads to the point that your Mac has become completely unresponsive, there is likely a deeper problem with your system. If such a problem occurs, perform a force shutdown by pressing and holding the power button for about ten seconds, then pressing it again to turn the computer back on.
Important: If you force shutdown your Mac, you’ll lose any unsaved work, so do this only as a last resort.
Third-party maintenance utilities
Third-party maintenance utilities can improve the performance and responsiveness of your Mac by offering to bulk-delete unnecessary files, providing a central interface for performing various maintenance tasks that macOS would typically complete in the background, and allowing you to configure macOS settings and parameters that may not be visible or easy to locate manually. While there are many apps that perform these functions, the one that I recommend in most cases is Onyx, which is free and accessible.
If you’re looking specifically for an app that will remove leftover files from previously installed apps, I would recommend AppCleaner. This free and accessible app displays a list of installed apps and allows you to delete them along with their associated support files, and can also be configured to trigger any time you move an app to the trash.
One important thing to note about Mac maintenance is that as you brows the web, you may encounter ads for apps that claim to speed up your Mac, free large amounts of storage space, remove malware, and generally resolve other nonspecific symptoms. However, if your Mac is running as you’d expect, some app being pushed in a web ad is not going to magically make it faster, and could potentially pose a security risk, as web ads are a common way for malicious actors to trick users into installing malware. That is why in general, I only recommend users install third-party maintenance utilities in order to address specific issues.
If you decide to go the manual route, here are some things to get you started:
Check system resource usage
If specific apps are persistently slowing down your Mac, you can use Activity Monitor to check how much of the CPU and ram they’re using, as well as their impact on energy usage and disk and network activity. To do this, open Activity Monitor, located in the Utilities folder, or find it with Spotlight or Siri. Select what you want to view in the “Segmented control” radio group in the toolbar, such as CPU or memory, and review the table of processes to the right of the toolbar to see which processes are most resource-intensive. You can quit processes by clicking the stop button in the toolbar to make more system resources available, but only quit them if you know what they are.
If you find that a particular app is using a disproportionate amount of system resources, try reinstalling it or contacting the developer with your findings. If you decide to contact the developer, it may be helpful to track the app’s resource usage over time, which could help identify patterns in the app’s behavior that’s causing it to run inefficiently.
Declutter your desktop
While it is convenient to place your most used files on the desktop, the desktop process is constantly running. If there is an excess of files, it’s possible that the amount of ram needed to display all of them in the window is subtracting from what would be available to complete user tasks. Therefore, if you have a lot of files on the desktop, it is a good idea to organize them into a couple of folders.
Review login items
If you find that your Mac is slow to log in, you may have apps configured to open automatically, which can slow the login process. To view your login items, choose Apple > System Preferences, click Users & Groups, and select the login items tab. Review the apps in the table and delete anything you don’t need to use immediately after you log in.
Optimize your storage
As mentioned earlier, a lack of available disk space can be a leading cause of slower than expected performance. To make the best use of your Mac’s internal storage, macOS includes tools that let you store files remotely in order to save space locally, as well as other options to delete unnecessary files.
To view recommendations and set options, choose Apple > About this Mac, and select the “Storage” radio button in the toolbar. In the scroll area, click the “Manage” button next to your startup disk, usually called Macintosh HD. The resulting dialog shows common space-saving recommendations such as only storing recent iCloud Drive data locally, removing watched movies and tv shows, reviewing and removing space-intensive apps and resources, reviewing large files and folders where files commonly accumulate, and automatically removing items from the trash after thirty days.
If you opt to only store recent iCloud Drive data locally, the entire contents of iCloud Drive will be displayed when you open the folder, but only recent files are stored locally; files are downloaded as you open them. More information about iCloud can be found in this guide.
Manually locate large files
In addition to viewing large files in the storage settings discussed in the previous section, you can manually search for large files using Spotlight. If you have large files that you no longer need, you should delete them to save space. To do this:
- Press Command-Option-Space to open the full search window.
- Choose “Other” from the criteria popup menu, then choose “file size” in the resulting table. Tip: you can press the letter F in the table to jump directly to this option. If there is no popup menu in the window, click the “Hide search criteria” toggle button to reveal it.
- Specify your search criteria. For example, you could search for files larger than 1GB.
The search results should show all the files matching the criteria you defined. Delete any files you don’t need, empty the trash, and restart the Mac.
Verify your disk
If your Mac is persistently unresponsive, or if apps frequently quit unexpectedly, there may be a problem with your internal disk. If it is a problem with the integrity of the file system, it can usually be repaired with Disk Utility or in some cases, by reinstalling macOS. If you believe your disk is physically failing, however, you should back up your data and take your Mac to a professional for service. To assess the health of your disk:
- Start up in macOS Recovery:
- On a Mac with Apple Silicon, start up the Mac while holding down the Power button, and select “Options” in the resulting table.
- On an Intel-based Mac, restart it while holding down Command-R; note that you’ll need either a built in or USB keyboard for this to work.
- Select your disk in the grid and click continue.
- Select your user account in the grid, click next, and enter your password.
- In the macOS Utilities window, press VO-Space on Disk Utility, then click continue.
- In Disk Utility, choose View > Show all devices (or press Command-2) select the item at the top of the table, and click the first aid button in the toolbar.
- When the first aid process completes, repeat the process for the containers and volumes below the physical storage device.
If Disk Utility reports problems with any of these items that it cannot repair, you should back up your data and erase and reinstall macOS. To do this:
- Start up and open Disk Utility in macOS Recovery as described earlier.
- Choose View > Show all devices (or press Command-2) and select the item at the top of the table.
- Click the erase button in the toolbar, enter a name for the disk, choose “APFS” from the “format” popup menu, and click erase.
- When the erase process completes, quit Disk Utility and press VO-Space on “Reinstall macOS” in the macOS Utilities window.
- Follow the onscreen instructions to install macOS on your newly reformatted disk.
If the installation is successful, the Mac should restart into the macOS Setup Assistant, as if it were new from the factory. If the process fails or you continue to have problems, however, your disk may be physically failing; you should take your Mac into a professional for service.
Clear browser data
Over time, data from your web browser, such as history, caches, and cookies can accumulate, occupying valuable storage space and potentially degrading performance. Therefore, it is a good idea to periodically clear this data.
To clear history and associated website data in Safari, choose Safari > Clear history. To clear cookies while keeping history intact, choose Safari > Preferences (or press Command-Comma) click the privacy button in the toolbar, and click manage website data. The resulting dialog shows a table of websites that are currently storing cookies and other data on your Mac; select the individual websites you want to remove, or click remove all to remove all data. Clearing cookies will sign you out of any websites you were previously signed into and which remember your computer when you visit them.
Clear caches and logs
Like browser data, caches and log files from macOS and your installed apps can accumulate, which have the potential to become corrupted and degrade performance. To clear this data:
- In Finder, choose Go > Go to folder (or press Command-Shift-G) and type or copy and paste the following path. ~/library
- In the folder that opens, open the caches folder, select all the files in it by choosing Edit > select all (or pressing Command-A) and move them to the trash. Important: only delete the files in this folder, not the folder itself.
- Go back to the Library folder and open the logs folder. Repeat the process, select and delete everything in that folder.
- Choose Go > Go to folder (or press Command-Shift-G) and type or copy and paste the following path. /library
- Repeat the process for the caches and logs folders in this location. Note: in the Library folder at the root of your startup disk, you’ll be prompted to authenticate to delete files, as these are system rather than user files.
While you’re in the library folders, you can look for leftover files from apps you may have uninstalled. While apps place files in various locations inside the Library folders, much of them can be found in the “Application Support” and “Preferences” folders.
Caution: The library folder’s contain essential files needed for macOS to function. Therefore, only delete files if you know what they are and know you don’t need them. When you’re done, restart the Mac and empty the trash.
This guide contains a number of possible solutions I am aware of to clean and speed up your Mac. More help is available in your Mac’s built in help, Apple Support, and the AppleVis forum, to name just a few good sources. If you believe any of the information in this guide is inaccurate, or if you know of other tips and tricks, sound off in the comments.