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How to see what programs are running on mac

how to see what programs are running on mac

As someone who has navigated the intricacies of macOS for years, I’ve learned the importance of keeping tabs on the applications and processes running in the background. It’s not just about ensuring optimal performance; it’s also about security and understanding how your machine works. In this detailed guide, I’ll share the methods I’ve used to see what programs are running on a Mac.


Common Scenarios:

When Your Mac Slows Down 😵

  • Identifying the resource-heavy applications that may be causing your Mac to slow down.
  • Checking for background processes that could be using up your system’s memory unnecessarily.

During Trouble Shooting 💯

  • Locating problematic apps or services that might cause your Mac to crash or behave erratically.
  • Identifying unwanted applications that could have been installed without your consent.

For Security Checks 🔑

  • Spotting potential malware or suspicious activities running in the background.
  • Performing regular checkups to see what programs are initiating network connections.

Step-by-Step Guide. How To See What Programs Are Running On Mac:

Method 1: Using Activity Monitor 📈

  • Open Activity Monitor by going to your Applications folder, then Utilities, or by using Spotlight search (Command + Space).
  • View all running applications and processes under the CPU, Memory, Energy, Disk, and Network tabs.
  • Use the search function at the top-right to filter for specific programs.

Note: Activity Monitor also allows you to force quit troublesome apps by selecting them and clicking the X at the top left.

Conclusion: Activity Monitor is a comprehensive tool for monitoring all sorts of system metrics.

Method 2: Using the Dock 🚦

  • Look for indicators beneath app icons in the Dock that show which are actively running.
  • Right-click on the app’s icon to see options such as Quit, which lets you stop the application from running.

Note: Not all running applications will always show up in the Dock.

Conclusion: The Dock is a straightforward method to get a quick view of some of the active apps.

Method 3: Checking Login Items 🔐

  • Open System Preferences and go to Users & Groups.
  • Select your user account and click on the Login Items tab to see which programs are set to launch at startup.
  • Modify the list as needed to prevent certain programs from running automatically.

Note: This does not show what’s currently running but helps you manage what could be running without your knowledge at startup.

Conclusion: Login Items is useful for long-term management of your Mac’s startup process.

Method 4: Using Terminal 💻

  • Open the Terminal app from Utilities.
  • Type ‘top’ to see a live list of all processes or ‘ps aux’ for a static view.
  • Use filters like ‘grep’ to narrow down the list to specific programs (e.g., ‘ps aux | grep Safari’).

Note: Terminal commands can be advanced and require some knowledge of Unix.

Conclusion: Terminal provides a powerful way for more tech-savvy users to monitor their system.

Method 5: Through the Force Quit Window 🚫

  • Press Command + Option + Esc to open the Force Quit Applications window.
  • This window shows a list of currently running apps and allows you to select and force quit any that are not responding.

Note: This method only shows applications, not background processes.

Conclusion: The Force Quit window is a quick way to manage unresponsive apps.


Precautions and Tips:

Optimizing Performance 🔧

  • Regularly checking the CPU and Memory tabs in Activity Monitor can help you pinpoint and address performance issues early.
  • Updating your apps can reduce the chances of them becoming unresponsive or using too many resources.

Security Vigilance &#shield;

  • Keep an eye on the Network tab in Activity Monitor to spot unknown programs that might be sending data unexpectedly.
  • Consider antivirus software like Malwarebytes to help monitor for malicious software in real time.

Additional Resources

Understanding what’s happening under the hood of your Mac can involve more than just the basic monitoring tools. For comprehensive insights, I often use advanced system monitoring tools such as TinkerTool System or Little Snitch, which provide detailed control and visualization of background activities and network connections.

When seeking to optimize your Mac, consider cleaning out unused apps and clearing caches. Tools like CCleaner for Mac can assist in this process.

Educating yourself on macOS’s built-in features, such as App Nap and automatic graphic switching, can also help manage the energy usage of apps more effectively.


Whether you’re troubleshooting an issue, checking for malware, or simply curious about your system’s performance, there are a variety of ways to see what programs are running on a Mac. By utilizing tools like Activity Monitor, Terminal, and managing Login Items, you can maintain control over your Mac’s operations and ensure it runs smoothly.


To swiftly see active applications, press Command (⌘) + Tab. This brings up the App Switcher, displaying icons of all running apps.

Open the Utilities folder and launch Activity Monitor it lists all processes, including system processes and user applications.

Yes, use the Activity Monitor. Click on the CPU, Memory, or Energy tab to sort processes by resource usage.

Absolutely. Open Terminal and type ‘top’ or ‘ps aux’ to display a real-time list of running processes.

Yes, go to System Preferences > Users & Groups, click your user name, then select Login Items to manage startup programs.

Press Command (⌘) + Option + Esc, select the unresponsive app, and click Force Quit.

Press Command (⌘) + F3 (Mission Control) or swipe four fingers on the trackpad to temporarily clear the screen and view the desktop.

Press Command (⌘) + Tab to switch to the last used app or continue holding Command (⌘) and press Tab repeatedly to select an app.

Yes, click the three-lined Mission Control icon in the Dock or swipe up with three or four fingers on the trackpad to see all running apps.

Navigate to System Preferences > Users & Groups > Login Items and remove undesired apps by clicking the ‘-‘ button. For more detailed information on Mac features, you can visit Apple’s official support webpage at https://support.apple.com.