After using Linux for almost a decade, I’ve finally gotten annoyed at all the little hiccups and issues that arrive from time to time when working in Linux. ArchLinux has taught me more than anything else about the Linux world, its bleeding edge character, and the issues that come along with it. This has brought me to Fedora Linux about two years ago. While more stable in general, even Fedora has its sharp edges here and there. I’ve experienced issues with Bluetooth, audio sinks and sources, printers, and more on a daily to weekly basis. After having less and less available time due to my research, constantly tinkering with my system was no longer an option. Therefore, I’ve decided to finally ditch Linux and give macOS a try.

My Linux workflow was mainly keyboard-driven, using i3wm as a tiling window manager, Emacs as a programming IDE and as a note-taking tool with Org mode and Org Roam, and basically living in the terminal. Therefore, my first goal when switching to macOS was to replicate as much as possible of this exact workflow. While finding that (doom) Emacs worked basically out-of-the-box using the emacs-mac build (brew tap railwaycat/emacsmacport brew install emacs-mac --with-modules) and my Zsh configuration was working without any major changes, finding a workable replacement for i3wm was a much harder task.

Yabai and skhd to the Rescue!

After fiddling around for a few days, I’ve settled with a setup that works really well for me: yabai as a tiling window manager and skhd to define keyboard shortcuts that perform yabai (and some other) commands, replicating most of the functionality that is available in i3wm. In the following, I will go through my yabai and skhd setup and explain how it can replicate the classic i3wm behavior. When giving examples for yabai and skhd commands and configs, these usually go into their respective configuration files at ~/.config/yabai/yabairc and ~/.config/skhd/skhdrc.

Open Terminal

For a terminal-focused workflow, it was important to me to have a quick and simple way to open a new terminal instance bound to my preferred shortcut cmd - return. Kitty allows this via the kitty --single-instance -d ~ arguments. That is, with skhd we can now map cmd - return to this exact call:

cmd - return : kitty --single-instance -d ~

If you prefer iTerm2 over kitty, we can quickly start a new iTerm2 session (as long as there is at least one iTerm2 window already running) with

cmd - return : osascript -e "tell application \"iTerm2\" to set newSession to create window with default profile end tell"

Close Window

To quickly close windows, I map cmd - q to the specific yabai command:

cmd - q : yabai -m window --close

Window Focus

Window management in yabai turns out to be pretty similar to i3wm in practice. Yabai allows compass-like focus commands with yabai -m window --focus <direction>. I typically use the vim-like keys and bind h/j/k/l to west/south/north/east respectively as follows:

cmd - h : yabai -m window --focus west
cmd - j : yabai -m window --focus south
cmd - k : yabai -m window --focus north
cmd - l : yabai -m window --focus east

If you have multiple displays, say next to each other, you can add an alternative command via || if the first command fails. That means if the focus is currently on the east-most window, and we call yabai -m window --focus east, but there is another display right of your current display, the following will handle switching the display as well:

cmd - h : yabai -m window --focus west || yabai -m display --focus west
cmd - l : yabai -m window --focus east || yabai -m display --focus east

Similarly, you can switch stacks conditionally, i.e., first try if you can focus the next or previous window in the current stack and if that fails, conditionally focus the next window south/north:

cmd - j : yabai -m window --focus || yabai -m window --focus south
cmd - k : yabai -m window --focus stack.prev || yabai -m window --focus north

Move Windows

Similarly, windows can be moved (with my preferred keybinding cmd + shift - h/j/k/l):

cmd + shift - h : yabai -m window --warp west || yabai -m window --display west
cmd + shift - l : yabai -m window --warp east || yabai -m window --display east
cmd + shift - j : yabai -m window --warp south 
cmd + shift - k : yabai -m window --warp north


The equivalent of i3wm workspaces in macOS are “Desktops”. These can be focused in yabai via the yabai -m space --focus <label> command, where <label> is a tag you assign in your yabairc file:

yabai -m space 1 --label 1
yabai -m space 2 --label 2
yabai -m space 3 --label 3
yabai -m space 4 --label 4
yabai -m space 5 --label 5
yabai -m space 6 --label 6
yabai -m space 7 --label 7
yabai -m space 8 --label 8
yabai -m space 9 --label 9
yabai -m space 10 --label 10

Then in skhdrc, you can use these labels to focus a particular space. Additionally, to simulate the workspace_auto_back_and_forth yes setting of i3wm, we can append the command to focus the most recent space if you press the keybinding for the same space again:

cmd - 1 : yabai -m space --focus 1 || yabai -m space --focus recent
cmd - 2 : yabai -m space --focus 2 || yabai -m space --focus recent
cmd - 3 : yabai -m space --focus 3 || yabai -m space --focus recent
cmd - 4 : yabai -m space --focus 4 || yabai -m space --focus recent
cmd - 5 : yabai -m space --focus 5 || yabai -m space --focus recent
cmd - 6 : yabai -m space --focus 6 || yabai -m space --focus recent
cmd - 7 : yabai -m space --focus 7 || yabai -m space --focus recent
cmd - 8 : yabai -m space --focus 8 || yabai -m space --focus recent
cmd - 9 : yabai -m space --focus 9 || yabai -m space --focus recent

Similar to moving windows around in a specific space, I bind cmd + shift - <label> to moving a window to a particular space:

cmd + shift - 1 : yabai -m window --space 1
cmd + shift - 2 : yabai -m window --space 2
cmd + shift - 3 : yabai -m window --space 3
cmd + shift - 4 : yabai -m window --space 4
cmd + shift - 5 : yabai -m window --space 5
cmd + shift - 6 : yabai -m window --space 6
cmd + shift - 7 : yabai -m window --space 7
cmd + shift - 8 : yabai -m window --space 8
cmd + shift - 9 : yabai -m window --space 9


As an i3bar replacement, there are several options:

  • simple-bar: A Ubersicht widget, very customizable.
  • spacebar: A standalone bar application.

To reserve some space in yabai for the bar, you need to configure the height of the external_bar variable in yabai as follows:

yabai -m config external_bar all:0:24

Floating Window Settings

Some windows are just not worth floating and you may collect more of those over time. For this, yabai allows to add rules that disable yabai management for specific apps or windows with titles:

yabai -m rule --add title='Settings$' manage=off
yabai -m rule --add app="^System Preferences$" manage=off
yabai -m rule --add app="^System Information$" manage=off
yabai -m rule --add title="^Preferences$" manage=off
yabai -m rule --add title="^Digital Colour Meter$" manage=off
yabai -m rule --add title="^General.*" manage=off

Additional Resources

My dotfiles are available here, including my old i3wm config, my new yabai config, and the skhd config.

The yabai GitHub repository also hosts a great Wiki that covers everything from installation to configuration.