How to Fix a Spinning Pinwheel of Death on Mac

Force quit a troublesome app or expand RAM and storage

Once in a while, for no apparent reason, you may encounter the Spinning Pinwheel of Death (SPOD) on your Mac. It's that multicolored pinwheel that signifies a temporary or never-ending delay while the Mac tries to figure something out. The Mac is trying to function, but nothing is happening, so the pinwheel keeps spinning and spinning.

Information in this article applies to Macs with macOS Catalina (10.15) through OS X Lion (10.7), except as indicated.

Causes of the Spinning Pinwheel of Death

The SPOD is rarely a sign that your Mac is freezing up. It's more likely that a single application is stalled or frozen. It appears when an app exceeds the Mac's processing capability. When the Spinning Wheel of Death frequently appears with more than one app, the available storage space and RAM become suspects.

Spinning pinwheel of death on a laptop screen
iStock

How to Fix a Spinning Wheel of Death on a Mac

You can stop the spinning wheel and get back to a smooth Mac experience using one of these fixes.

  1. Force quit the active app. To determine whether the spinning wheel of death is the result of a single app, click off of it onto the Mac desktop and force quit the app. Restart it again, and there may be no problem. There's a good chance, though, that you'll see the spinning pinwheel again with that app.

  2. Shut down the Mac. If you can't force quit the app or get control of the Mac, shut down the computer.

    Forcing the Mac to shut down doesn't give you a chance to save unsaved work. It is lost.

  3. Repair permissions. In OS X Yosemite or earlier, one of the first things to do when experiencing the spinning wheel with an app is to repair permissions to make sure the application and any associated files it needs have the correct permissions required to run. File permissions can get wacky once in a while. Repairing permissions is an excellent general-purpose troubleshooting step.

    With the release of OS X El Capitan, Apple added a new feature that made manually repairing file permissions no longer necessary. Now, file permissions are automatically repaired when a software update occurs.

    As a result, if you use OS X El Capitan or later, skip repairing file permissions and move on to the next fix.

  4. Upgrade the RAM. If you run demanding or memory-hungry applications or if your Mac is getting old, it may need additional RAM or storage space. If needed, add RAM to the Mac and expand the storage space with an external drive or a larger internal drive.

  5. Wait for Spotlight indexing to end. One of Apple's processes, Spotlight indexing, can bring a Mac to its knees while it creates or rebuilds the Spotlight index. Wait for the process to end, although it can take a long time if Spotlight is indexing a new drive, a clone you just made, or some other event that caused a significant change in the Mac's data storage.

    Check the Activity Monitor CPU tab. Look for processes with the names mds, mdworker, or mdimport. These are part of the MetaData Server process used by the Spotlight app. If any of these have a high percentage of CPU activity—larger than 20%—it's likely Spotlight is updating its database. Sit back and relax.

    Use the Search bar in Activity monitor to find all the processes that have md in their names.

  6. Clear the Dynamic Link Editor cache. The Dynamic Link Editor is a way for the Mac to load and link programs to shared libraries. If the application delivering the spinning wheel uses a shared library of routines—many applications use shared libraries—the Dynamic Link Editor keeps the application and shared library on speaking terms. If the cache of data in the Dynamic Link Editor becomes corrupt, it causes the SPOD. Clearing the cache usually eliminates the SPOD.