Your Mac hijacking your cursor and asking you to wait is never welcome. People call it by different names, including the spinning wheel, the beach ball, or the grinder of death.
The good news is that a spinning wheel means that macOS hasn’t completely locked up. You may be able to regain control.
What is the spinning wheel of death on a Mac?
That spinning rainbow wheel (whatever it’s called) is a common macOS wait cursor. Triggers when an app is unresponsive for a few seconds and prompts you to wait before giving the app further instructions.
How to fix the spinning wheel of death
A spinning wheel (or beach ball) is a signal from the operating system that an application is not behaving as it should. This is one of the best problems to come across because it means that your system is probably working fine. Only one app is likely causing the problem. If you find the app and fix the problem, it should be golden.
With that in mind, let’s go over how to find the app in question and how you can get rid of the spinning wheel.
Find the application causing the problem
A spinning wheel generally means that macOS has encountered a problem in a specific application. 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’s still not obvious, you can find the app that’s causing the problem by scrolling through the active ones. To do this, press Command + Tab or just click on the screen (your mouse should still work even though the cursor has changed).
If you can’t tell which app is causing the problem, Activity Monitor might be able to help you. You can start it by heading to Applications> Utilities or by searching for it in Spotlight. On the CPU tab, click on the “% CPU” column to organize the list based on current system usage.
This puts the thirstiest apps at the top of the list. See if any are using more CPU resources than they are entitled to. You can also see “(Not Responding)” attached after the application name in the list. Resist exiting the app just yet and proceed to the next step.
Wait a minute
Many times, the wheel of death appears when an application tries to do something. For example, it can appear when you try to render a video in an editing program or do batch edits in a photo editing application. It could even appear when you connect to a server in an online game.
In these cases, waiting is the best option. If you’ve already told an app to do something, you can also give it some time to finish the task. Sometimes this is not something you explicitly requested. For example, the Photos app in macOS might be performing image analysis on a set of photos that you recently imported.
Other applications should function normally during this period, assuming you are not putting a heavy load on the system (such as rendering videos or 3D models, for example). Get away from your computer for a few minutes and let your Mac solve the problem.
Force close the application Problem
If you’ve waited a while for a task to complete, but your computer is still not responding, it may be a good idea to force shut down and restart the application. If you have any unsaved work or data, you may lose it while doing this, so make sure you’ve given the app enough time to recover.
You can try to exit the application normally first. To do this, right-click (or two-finger click or press Control + Click) its icon in the Dock and then choose Exit. It may take a second for the application to respond. However, by turning it off normally, you can avoid losing any unsaved work.
Unfortunately, this does not always work. You can also force quit an application by right-clicking its icon in the Dock, holding down the Option key on your keyboard, and then selecting “Force Quit.”
Alternatively, you can launch Activity Monitor, search for the application, and then exit the process from there.
When the problematic app is closed, the spinning wheel of death should disappear. You should now be able to reopen the app and try again.
Have a persistent pinwheel? Restart your Mac
If the grinder refuses to go away or keeps popping up, restarting the machine is a good idea. Just click on the Apple logo, select “Restart” and then wait. After your machine reboots, it should be fast and responsive, with no waiting cursors 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 like you’ve waited long enough for it to respond), press and hold the power button on your Mac (or the Touch ID button on some MacBooks) until it shuts down.
This is the last resort for any major system failure, and you will lose all unsaved work in applications that are still running. If possible, save and close any applications that are still responding before attempting this step.
A wheel that turns frequently indicates other problems
It’s reasonable to expect to see the spinning wheel from time to time, especially when it comes to resource-intensive applications. However, if you start to see it frequently and in a variety of applications, this could indicate a bigger problem.
In this case, the health of your system could be contributing to software instability. A common cause is a lack of available storage. Your Mac needs free space to function. Both the operating system and third-party applications increase and decrease their storage usage over time.
So first, make sure your Mac has enough free space. Apple does not specify the “correct” amount of free space. However, we recommend leaving about 10% of your space on the main drive (around 20GB on a 256GB MacBook). That should be enough to keep the gears turning.
Lack of RAM can also cause the spinning pin to appear regularly in memory-intensive applications. There’s not much you can do about it unless you’re using an iMac, Mac mini, or Mac Pro that allows you to upgrade memory.
RELATED: 10 ways to free up disk space on your Mac’s hard drive
Are you running Yosemite or earlier? Repair permits
If you’re stuck on an older version of macOS, like 10.10 (OS X Yosemite) or earlier, you might want to try repairing disk permissions if you see the spinning wheel a lot.
To find out which version of macOS you are running, click the Apple logo in the upper left and select About This Mac. If it is version 10.11 or later, you can skip this section.
If you are working with version 10.10 or earlier, start Disk Utility by navigating to the Applications> Utilities folder or simply search for it in Spotlight. Select the main boot drive (usually 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 in 10.11 (El Capitan) or later, as Apple made changes to the way the permission system works.
The beach ball is gone!
Hopefully, these tips will give you a good idea of how to solve future problems with the spinning wheel (or beach ball) of death.
However, keep in mind that the only good thing about seeing the spinning wheel is that the problem is probably an application. However, if you have system-wide instability, you might want to learn how to fix a frozen Mac below.
RELATED: How to fix a frozen Mac