Apple Mail tips and tricks to help you work smarter

Master smart mailboxes, email rules and viewing options

Get more done in Apple Mail

Life without email is now hard to imagine. Luckily, your Mac comes with a great little program to send and receive emails and there's a lot of power lurking behind its friendly interface.

We're going to help you unleash some of this, to help you work better, faster and smarter with your daily email, leaving you with a few extra minutes to concentrate on other tasks.

Firstly, let's tailor the toolbar to your needs. Right-click it and you'll see an option to Customize Toolbar. This drops down a window with all the buttons you can add – there are plenty to choose from. Simply drag and drop the ones you need to build your perfect toolbar. If you decide you'd rather have the original one back, drag the set at the bottom onto the toolbar to restore it.

You can also decide if you'd like the buttons to appear as icons, text, or both. You'll be amazed at how much time you can save by having your frequently used commands close to hand.

If you've got several email accounts, you can add each one by going to Preferences > Accounts and clicking the + button. With a lot of accounts, you won't even need to type in server details, because Mail will work them out for you.

Most people end their emails with some sort of signature, which is a useful way to have your contact details, website address and more in one place. Signatures are account-specific, which is great if you've got both your personal and work addresses set up – you don't need to remind your family of the fact you're the managing director when you send them your holiday photos!

In Preferences, click Signatures, select the account you want to create the signature for, and click the + button. Give it a memorable name, and enter the details you want in the text frame. You can even use an image.


Then tick the Place signature above quoted text box, so that it doesn't get lost below any emails you reply to. Add as many signatures as you like. Use the Choose Signature: dropdown to pick which is the default, or to have a random one chosen each time. When you next compose an email from this account, your signature will appear, or use the Signature menu to pick another.

While we're in the Compose window, did you know you can customise its toolbar as well? Right-click it in the same way you did in the main Mail window. And then there are the fields at the top: do you ever wish there was a Bcc line there? Click the little menu below the Subject line and choose Customize… to tailor the window to your needs.

If you've got more than one account set up, you'll see a From: drop-down there as well. By default, your emails will come from the account you were viewing when you clicked Reply or New Message.

Now, those of you who have a large screen might be interested to know you can open multiple Mail viewer windows. This is a great way of monitoring two accounts at once.

To open an additional window, press Option+Command+N or go to File > New Viewer Window. Now, here are more ways to work smarter with email…

How to work better with your emails

1. Optimise your viewing options

Unread messages need to stand out, so go into Preferences, click Viewing and tick Display unread messages with bold font.

At the bottom of the Viewing pane, you'll see a Message threading option – tick this to highlight related messages in your inbox. Say you've invited some friends over for dinner by sending a group email – when you click one reply, it will highlight all the others in your inbox, helping you spot them quickly.

Use the colour box to determine what shade is used. Beware, however, that Mail's way of linking messages in this way isn't always perfect, so it may end up highlighting messages with the same subject line, even if they're unrelated. For this reason, we suggest you don't use this feature to actually group messages together (which you access via View > Organize by Thread).

Use the top drop-down in the Viewing Preference pane to set up what headers you see when you receive mail – that's the From, Subject, date and other details at the top of a message. If you frequently find yourself needing to see routing information, for example, use the Custom option to specify what you see.

2. Rules, rules, rules

If you receive lots of email, keeping on top of it takes time. Rules can help by automatically performing tasks on mail as it comes in, based on criteria you set up.

Say you're subscribed to several mailing lists for theatres and cinemas in your area, and you get a couple of messages from each list a week. Most of these won't be time-critical, meaning you don't need them cluttering up your inbox, but you'll want to go over them at your leisure later.

You can set up a rule that says all emails coming from certain addresses should be moved to a given folder. Rules can be as simple or complex as you want, so you can build yourself a sophisticated filtering system that helps you sort the wheat from the chaff.

To create rules, go to Preferences > Rules and click Add. You can choose whether to apply them retrospectively as well. If you find things are ending up in the wrong places, tweak the offending rule to make things work how you want.

3. Smart mailboxes

Smart mail boxes

Smart mailboxes group messages together if they match certain criteria. You might wonder what the point in them is when you can create rules. But smart mailboxes don't move the email, so it remains in its original place.

These mailboxes can include messages from any folder, including Sent. Editing a message in a smart mailbox alters the original. Say your business gets lots of emails from customers, as well as advertising and other messages.

It's important you reply to each customer message, so set up a smart mailbox to display all the mail sent to your customer service address that hasn't been replied to. As you work through the list, they'll disappear from the smart mailbox, but you'll still have them stored safely.

Smart mailboxes have their own unread count. Set one up in Mailbox > New Smart Mailbox….

4. Fight the spam


No matter how careful you are about giving your email address out, the odd unwanted message can still find its way into your inbox. Most email providers screen mail before it comes to your Mac, but Mail has its own system to complement that.

Go into Mail's Preferences and click Junk Mail, then tick the top box to switch on filtering. Below, decide what you want Mail to do when spam comes along. If you don't get much, it's best to leave the top option selected.

You can also choose to exempt messages from people in your Address Book, or from those you've previously conversed with. If you find yourself inundated, select the third radio button and then click Advanced… to set up more sophisticated rules.

It may also be worth ticking Filter junk mail before applying my rules, so that junk mail doesn't find its way into your other folders.

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