How to Master Spotlight for Mac and Become a Productivity Guru

Spotlight has been included in macOS for multiple major releases, but it hasn’t been readily adopted by most users. This isn’t because Spotlight itself has issues: it’s a fast and flexible task launcher capable of accomplishing other basic tasks from within an always-available prompt.

However, Spotlight suffers from a discoverability problem. If you don’t already know Spotlight exists, you might have a hard time finding it. The same goes for Spotlight’s surprisingly broad feature list. If you do find Spotlight, you might not realize what exactly you’re looking at. Many Mac users have accidentally pressed Command + Space only to be confused about what the box before them is.

Here’s how novices and experienced users alike can master Spotlight and make it work for you.

Invoking Spotlight

There are two ways to open the Spotlight search window.

1. Press Command + Space Bar at the same time.


2. Click on the magnifying glass in the upper-right corner of your screen.


This will pop up the Spotlight window and place your cursor inside it, allowing you to type your query instantly.

1. Launching Apps with Spotlight

Spotlight’s original and core functionality is searching your Mac. It can search for documents, images, videos, applications and more. Type what you’re looking for, and Spotlight does its best to find it.


2. Searching for Files on macOS

Beyond launching applications, you can search for a wide range of files. Type in the name of a file, and Spotlight will crawl your Mac’s file system to locate any files with that name.

More obscure search terms work as well. “emails from Emily” will return that (provided your email is synced with and “messages from Sam” will do what it says in the search.

3. Using “kind” to refine searches

File searches can get much more specific than just keywords. Use the kind:PDF qualifier to limit your search to only PDFs.

For a full list of “kind” qualifiers, check out Apple’s documentation.

4. Using Boolean operators

Spotlight supports the Boolean operators AND, NOT, and OR. The minus sign (-) can also be used in place of the NOT operator.

  • AND will only return results that match both conditions. Typically, this isn’t necessary, as adding keywords to your search is very similar to using the AND operator.
  • NOT eliminates results that match the subsequent search term. For example, “NOT kind:PDF” would eliminate any results that are PDFs.
  • OR returns results that match only one of the conditions, rather than all. For example, “author:sean OR author:shaun OR author:shawn” will return documents by Sean/Shaun/Shawn. Normally, two “author” qualifiers would lead to no results, but OR allows you to string them together.

5. Searching by date

Using created:mm/dd/yyyy and modified:mm/dd/yyyy, you can search Spotlight for files based on their dates. This can be combined with other operators through Boolean operators to create more specific searches.

While we’ve found date searches to be more reliable in Finder than Spotlight, it’s still a potentially useful trick.

6. Get dictionary definitions

Spotlight can also work as a pop-up reference tool. To define a word, type it in Spotlight and use the up and down arrows on your keyboard to navigate to the Dictionary item for that word.


7. Calculate simple mathematics

Spotlight performs basic mathematical calculations from the search bar. Type the +, -, *, and / symbols to define your calculations and employ parentheses to mark the order of operations.


8. Convert Units

Unit conversions work the same way, including obscure and customary units. Type in the unit you want to convert and the target unit, and Spotlight will display the result. This is handy for Americans and Brits with their unusual measuring systems.


9. Using Siri Knowledge in Spotlight

Spotlight and Siri are closely linked on the Mac. In fact, the Siri voice recognition program is essentially a method for performing spotlight searches with your voice. This means that many of the Siri tricks from iOS work on the Mac.

Spotlight can hook into Siri Knowledge. This is often just a well-presented Wikipedia result, but it gives in-place background on ideas you might not be familiar with.


10. Crawling Siri’s Knowledge Graph

Using Siri’s knowledge graph, you can grab sports scores, stock prices, weather, and movie times. These are invokek with natural-language queries, but following the structure display below tends to work best.




11. Find local attractions

You can also turn up nearby local businesses, like coffee shops or restaurants. Type what you’re looking for into Spotlight, and you’ll receive results from Apple Maps in the window.


12. Search Safari History and Bookmarks

If you use Safari as your primary browser, Spotlight can search your history and bookmarks from Spotlight. This lets you navigate to websites faster and can save the step of opening Safari first.


Many years ago, Spotlight’s clunky semi-functionality was easily bested by apps like Quicksilver and Alfred. While Alfred still trumps Spotlight when it comes to extensibility and extra features, the app-launching and file-searching features of Spotlight are just as strong as any third-party tool.

Users dedicated to expansion can explore Flashlight, an open-source plugin framework for adding functionality to Spotlight. If you’re a fan of keyboard shortcuts, give Spotlight a try next time you sit down at your Mac.

Alexander Fox
Alexander Fox

Alexander Fox is a tech and science writer based in Philadelphia, PA with one cat, three Macs and more USB cables than he could ever use.

Subscribe to our newsletter!

Our latest tutorials delivered straight to your inbox