How to unfreeze a Mac & fix frozen Mac apps

Imagine this: you’re working happily on your Mac when the dreaded beach ball of death appears. A program stops responding, or worse, the macOS itself refuses to do anything but stare at you blankly. Someone calculated that slow computers cost us, on average, 5.5 working days a year. So we can’t simply ignore when a Mac freezes or when a macOS app stops responding.

We’ll go over frozen apps first, but if your whole Mac freezes, feel free to jump to the part on fixing a frozen Mac.

Fixing a frozen app: why macOS apps freeze

There can be a few reasons why apps freeze on Mac. First, sometimes, an app freezes on its own, and other times, it takes down the whole Mac with it. Here’s what could be happening:

Apps freeze in the background

This could mean there are some apps running that you didn’t open. Probably, they’re featured in your startup items, so they automatically open when you start your Mac. If that’s what causing the freeze, you need to remove apps running in the background or those that launch at the startup. 

Processes freeze in the background

This one is different from apps. One app may be running multiple processes. There are also other system processes that can be running without your knowledge.

Excess of apps and processes running

Same logic as with two previous issues. But the question here is, how many is too many? There is no definite answer to this — it very much depends on the hardware capacity of your Mac. Read how to check and fix it below.

Mac system is too cluttered with caches to run even simple tasks

As you can see from this screenshot, old cache files are causing memory overload. The fix is to clear the cache, as the app from this example tells you to do. 

The easiest way to get rid of the application cache at once is to use an app like CleanMyMac X for the job. Run a scan to find and remove the stuff you don’t need, and there’s a high chance your apps will stop freezing after that.

What to do if an app freezes on your Mac

A frozen app becomes unresponsive and brings your work to a halt. In the worst-case scenario, it can lead to lost work or a corrupted file. Fortunately, there are several options to try. Here’s what you can do when a program freezes on your Mac. First, as obvious as it may sound, you need to quit that app. But if the app keeps freezing after the relaunch, try the next options.

How to quit a frozen or unresponsive program

Quitting and then restarting an app is a good way for macOS to handle a crash. You can do this from the macOS Dock or from the Force Quit window. To force-quit an app from the OS Dock, follow these simple steps:

  1. Click anywhere outside of the app.
  2. Right-click (or Control-click) on the frozen app’s icon in the Dock. A menu appears.
  3. Hold down the Option key on your keyboard so that Quit in that menu changes to Force Quit.
  4. Select Force Quit.

That’s it. The app is instantly closed. Relaunch it and try again. If you prefer to work with the Dock hidden — or if the Dock itself is unresponsive — you can simply bring up the Force Quit dialog box to perform the same task.

Here’s how:

  1. On your Mac’s keyboard, hit the Option, Command, and Escape keys simultaneously (Alt-Command-Esc).
  2. The Force Quit dialog box appears with a list of running programs.
  3. Select the frozen app and then click Force Quit.
  4. The software will stop running, and you’re free to reopen it at this point.

If you’re using a maintenance utility like CleanMyMac X, it has freezes covered. When CleanMyMac spots an unresponsive app, a notification window with a Quit button pops up, so you can force-quit the app without rummaging around in its menu. 

CleanMyMac keeps an eye on other performance issues, too, so if you’d like to get alerts like this one when anything goes wrong, download CleanMyMac X for free and give it a try.

  1. Install the app and click on the Optimization tab.
  2. You’ll find the tool that finds Heavy Memory consumers on your Mac.
CleanMyMac X - heavy consumers

How to fix Mac apps that keep freezing

First, check what apps are running in the background and open with the startup. Go to Settings > General > Login items. Remove anything you think might be causing trouble. Turn off apps under Open at Login. Restart your Mac.

System Preferences - Sound

Now, find out which process or program is causing the problem. How to see what programs are running on Mac in general? You need to open Activity Monitor.

How to find Activity Monitor on Mac: You can do it via the Spotlight Search or just open Launchpad and type it in there.

How to open Activity Monitor in Finder: Applications > Utilities > Activity Monitor.

When it opens, you’ll probably see hundreds of processes in each tab, but the ones you need now are the CPU and Memory tabs. Click on the % CPU sign to sort processes by their influence on your Mac’s work. The heaviest ones will show up on the top. They could be your main issue, but don’t rush to deal with them. Some, like kernel, are important system processes, and you shouldn’t mess with them.

How to kill a process on macOS

However, sometimes your problem does lie within a specific process, and you can force quit it (Apple doesn’t call it “to kill a process on Mac,” they make it sound fancy). But we’re not at Apple HQ, so here’s how to kill a macOS process:

  1. Open Activity Monitor.
  2. You see a list of processes. You can sort them by clicking on %CPU or % Memory in relevant tabs. 
  3. Find the process you want to kill and choose it.
  4. Click on the octagon with an X. Done.

Why your Mac freezes and how to fix it

Occasionally, the problem isn’t with the Mac app but with the macOS itself. If you’re experiencing troubles regularly, it’s time to ask why your Mac keeps freezing. There are several possible reasons, so let’s start with the simplest potential solution.

First, the file you were working with at the time of the freeze may be the issue. To help determine if this is true, try opening a different file with that app and work with it for a while. If it behaves normally, quit and then go back to the file you were working with at the time of the crash. If the errant behavior persists, you may have found your problem. Salvage what you can into a new file.

Make sure that your software is up-to-date. This is easy to do with software purchased from the Mac App Store. Open the Mac App Store on your Mac, and you’ll see the list of pending updates. For third-party software purchased outside of the App Store, visit the developer’s website.

AppStore Updates tab

What to do if macOS freezes

If you cannot force quit a program, or if the macOS is completely unresponsive, it’s time for the most obvious action — a reboot.

Press and hold the Power button for 1.5-2 seconds. If things aren’t hopelessly messed up, you’ll get a chance to save your work before your Mac shuts down. If that still doesn’t work, a more drastic option is available.

How to force reboot on a frozen Mac

Press Command, Control, and Power button to restart your Mac immediately. Note that you won’t have the option of saving anything in this scenario, but it will definitely reboot your Mac.

Once your Mac has restarted, you might find that the hard restart has corrupted the file you were working on. Salvage what you can from it and create a new file.

How to fix a frozen Mac with CleanMyMac

After the reboot, ensure that your Mac has enough free space. CleanMyMac X can help you with this one. It removes all the useless files that take up space on your hard drive: app leftovers, mail attachments, cache files, and so on. That way, you can free up additional disk space on your Mac without deleting any of your own files. Plus, CleanMyMac can free up RAM, which will unfreeze an app that is stuck.

Free up Mac RAM with CleanMyMacX

Finally, if system cleanup also fails to fix the problem, you can try to run a macOS clean install. Just follow the instructions: 

Note: If you don’t know which system your Mac runs, click the Apple icon and choose About this Mac. You’ll see the name in the pop-up window.

That’s it. We hope this guide has helped you fix your frozen Mac. Remember, with day-to-day maintenance, your Mac can offer years of reliable work. On the rare occasion of a frozen program or even frozen macOS, these tips will help get you working and productive again. And software like CleanMyMac X can do some of the monitoring and maintenance for you, so you can focus on what needs to be done.

Laptop with CleanMyMac
CleanMyMac X

Your Mac. As good as new.