Mac Mail Management: Using Rules and Smart Folders

A few weeks ago we posted on using rules to automatically manage email in Outlook. We had some questions about whether there was similar functionality in Mail, the default email program on the Mac. There certainly is, and they can be a real time saver.

To add or edit rules, just click MAIL in the menu bar, then choose PREFERENCES. In the preferences, choose the RULES tab.

Set your rule to look for one of more criterion, such as a specific sender or a high priority. Then choose what action(s) you’d like performed when a corresponding email is received. There are many actions available, e.g., moving the message to a folder, highlighting it a specific color, or bouncing the Mail icon in the Dock, to name just a few.

Another powerful tool for managing Mail is a Smart Mailbox. Smart Mailboxes also look for emails that meet specific criteria, but, unlike rules, Smart Mailboxes do not actually affect the message directly.

Let’s suppose I set up a Smart Mailbox to look for emails with a specific project in the subject field. When I receive an email with that subject, it is immediately listed in the Smart Mailbox, but the original message is still stored in my Inbox. I could move that email to any other folder, and it would still show up in my Smart Mailbox too. The message isn’t duplicated, but is referenced. Think of Smart Mailbox Folders as a saved search result that can be accessed at any time.

One handy way to utilize this feature is to create a Smart Mailbox called “Needs Action”, or something similar. Set the criterion for this folder as messages that are flagged. Whenever an email is received that requires future action, flag the email, then file it as usual. Just go to your Smart Mailbox at any time to see all your flagged emails, regardless of where they’ve been filed. When you no longer need an email there, unflag it and it will disappear from the Smart Mailbox. This is a great way to keep your Inbox from getting out of control.

To create a Smart Mailbox, click MAILBOX in the menubar, then choose NEW SMART MAILBOX. Name the Smart Mailbox and set one or more criterion for it to look for, then click OK.

Jason Merrill, Mac & iOS Consultant


4 thoughts on “Mac Mail Management: Using Rules and Smart Folders

  1. I looked for folders, so that I could move a message to the folder, instead of what you’re referencing which is Smart Mailboxes. That’s something I wish Mac did differently. I like the concept of a saved search, but I’d much rather have the message moved to a folder. Only problem, is I think I’m still off base on that. I must be doing something wrong. I would need to create the folder, but the only option I seem to have is to create a smart mailbox folder, as opposed to a regular folder.

  2. Hi Laura. Mail does have exactly what you’re looking for. What’s causing the confusion is that they go by a different name. Mail refers to folders as Mailboxes. Just go up to MAILBOX, then choose NEW MAILBOX and you’ll have the folder your looking for. You can name it whatever you’d like, then store any emails you’d like in there, and reference them in a Smart Mailbox too, if you wish.

  3. I accidentally created a “smart mailbox” (instead f a simple mailbox) without setting any criteria, dragged mails into it and now I cannot view the mails. They seem to have disappeared. I have clicked on the “smart mailbox” and it appears empty but all the mails I dragged into it are not in any other folders. I have done searches…nothing..Where are they?
    Thank you.

  4. Smart Mailboxes don’t actually allow you to drag anything into them. They auto-populate based upon the criteria you set.

    To change the criteria for the Smart Mailbox, just right click on it and choose EDIT SMART MAILBOX. Or if you would rather just delete it and create a regular mailbox, right click it and choose DELETE MAILBOX.

    Your won’t lose any emails either way, because Smart Mailboxes don’t actually store any emails, they just reference them from where they are stored (Inbox, other mailbox, etc.). Think of them as a saved search.

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