Your Mac that hijacks your cursor and asks you to wait is never welcome. People call it different things, including spinning wheels, beachballs or dead wheels.
The good news is that a rotating wheel means that macOS has not crashed completely. You may be able to break back control.
What is the rotating wheel on a Mac?
The rainbow spinning wheel (whatever you might call it) is a standard macOS waiting tube. It is triggered when an application does not respond for a few seconds and signals that you should wait before giving the app more instructions.
How to fix the rotating wheels of death
A rotating wheel (or beachball) is a sign from the operating system that an app is not behaving properly. This is one of the better issues to deal with, because it means your system is likely to work well. It’s probably just an app causing the problem. If you find the app and solve the problem, you should be golden.
With that in mind, let’s run through how to find the app in question and how to get rid of the spinning wheel.
Find the app that is causing the problem
A rotating wheel generally means that macOS has detected a problem in a particular app. The good news is that it also means that your entire system (including the operating system) has not crashed. In fact, a spinning wheel does not necessarily mean anything has crashed (yet).
If it is not already obvious, you can find the app that is causing the problem by cycling through those who are active. To do so, press Command + Tab or just click around the screen (your mouse should still work even if the cursor has changed).
If you can’t tell which app is causing the problem, Activity Monitor might be able to help. You can start it by going to Applications> Tools or searching for it in Spotlight. Click the CPU column under the CPU tab to organize the list by current system usage.
This puts the thirstiest apps at the top of the list. See if someone is using more than their fair share of CPU resources. You can also see “(does not answer)” added after the app name in the list. Resist quitting the app yet, and proceed to the next step.
Wait a moment
Many times the rotating wheel of death appears when an app tries to do something. For example, it may appear when you try to render a video in an editor or perform batch edits in a photo editing app. It may even appear when you connect to a server in an online game.
In these cases, waiting is the best option. If you have already asked an app to do something, you might as well give it some time to complete the task. Sometimes this is not something you explicitly asked for. For example, the macOS Photos app can perform image analysis on a set of images you recently imported.
Other apps should work normally during this period, provided you do not put a lot of load on the system (for example, video playback or 3D models). Walk away from your computer for a few minutes and let your Mac solve the problem.
Force Quit the Problem App
If you have been waiting for a while for some tasks to complete, but your computer still does not respond, you may want to force quit and restart the app. If you have data that is not stored or working, you may lose it when you do this, so make sure you have given the app long enough to recover.
You can try to quit the app normally first. To do so, right-click (or double-click or Control-Click) the icon in the Dock, and then select Exit. The app may take a second to respond. By turning it off normally, however, you can avoid losing any unsaved work.
Unfortunately, this does not always work. You can also force an app to quit by right-clicking the icon in the Dock, holding down the Option key on the keyboard, and then selecting “Force Quit”.
Alternatively, you can start Activity Monitor, find the app and then end the process from there.
When the problem app is closed, the rotating wheel of death should disappear. You should now be able to open the app and try again.
Do you have a permanent flywheel? Restart your Mac
If the pinwheel refuses to disappear or continues to reappear, it is a good idea to restart the computer. Just click on the Apple logo, select “Restart”, and then wait. After restarting the machine, it should be fast and responsive, with no waiting pointers in sight.
Sometimes your Mac may crash to the point where it is not possible to restart it via the Apple logo. If this happens (and you feel you have waited long enough for it to respond), press and hold the Mac power button (or the Touch ID button on some MacBooks) until it turns off.
This is the last resort for major system crashes, and you will lose all unsaved work in the programs that are still running. If possible, save and close any apps that are still responding before attempting this step.
A frequent rotating wheel indicates other problems
It is reasonable to expect to see the rotating wheel occasionally, especially when it comes to resource-intensive applications. However, if you start seeing it often and across a variety of applications, this may indicate a major problem.
In this case, the state of your system may contribute to instability in the software. A common cause is lack of available storage. Your Mac needs free space to function. Both the operating system and third-party applications swell and contract the use of storage over time
So first, make sure your Mac has enough free space. Apple does not specify what the “correct” amount of free space is. However, we recommend leaving about 10% of your primary disk space (around 20 GB on a 256 GB MacBook). That should be enough to keep the gears in motion.
Lack of RAM can also cause the spinning wheel to appear regularly in memory-hungry apps. There’s not much you can do about it unless you use an iMac, Mac mini or Mac Pro that allows you to upgrade your memory.
RELATED: 10 ways to free up disk space on your Mac hard drive
Are you running Yosemite or earlier? Repair permits
If you are stuck on an older version of macOS, such as 10.10 (OS X Yosemite) or earlier, you may want to try repairing discrepancies if you see the spinning wheel a lot.
To find out which version of macOS you are running, click on the Apple logo at the top left and select About This Mac. If it is version 10.11 or later, you can skip this section.
If you are working on version 10.10 or earlier, you can launch Disk Utility by navigating to the Applications> Utilities folder or simply searching for it in Spotlight. Select the main boot drive (commonly called “Macintosh HD”) in the sidebar, and then click “First Aid.” Let your Mac scan and repair any errors it finds.
This is not necessary 10.11 (El Capitan) or later, as Apple introduced changes to the way the licensing system works.
Beachball be gone!
Hopefully, these tips will give you a good idea of how to solve any future problems with the spinning wheel (or beachball) of death.
However, keep in mind that the one good thing about seeing the spinning wheel is that the problem is probably an app. If you have instability throughout the system, you may learn to fix a frozen Mac next time.
RELATED: How to fix a frozen Mac