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Using Mail's rules, smart mailboxes, and VIPs

Christopher Breen | April 5, 2013
In this Mac 101 lesson, Professor Breen discusses the many ways Mail helps you filter and file your email automatically.

Back in Mac 101's long-ago days when we were first getting our feet wet with the Finder, I introduced you to smart searching--the process of creating a series of conditions that would display matching files in a list. For instance, you might set up a list of JPEG image files that were over a megabyte in size. As I explained at the time, the idea of stringing together conditions to filter the information you see is a concept that runs throughout Mountain Lion.

One area where this concept is apparent is in Mail's rules. But rather than using such conditions to deal with files already on your Mac, more often than not, you employ rules to sort your email as it's delivered to your Mac. Just as an example, let's apply this idea to the real-life paper mail that we still receive from time to time.

When you open your physical mailbox at home, you find all your mail bunched together--catalogs, magazines, letters from your Auntie Di, bills, advertisements, and Netflix envelopes. Now imagine, instead, opening that mailbox and finding your most important mail (say, envelopes stuffed with money) right up front, personal correspondence that you care about in a little bin to the right side, your Netflix envelope in yet another bin to the left, magazines sitting in their own container near the back of the box, and any junk mail reduced to a bare few ashes. Far more convenient, yes?

Without giving your postal carrier a very generous holiday tip, that kind of thing just isn't going to happen. But you can accomplish the equivalent in Mail.

Looking at rules

Launch Mail and choose Mail > Preferences (or press Command-comma). In the resulting window select the Rules tab. By default you should see a single entry: News From Apple. Let's create a rule of our own by clicking the Add Rule button.

When you do, you get a sheet that includes a Description field, some pop-up menus, and Plus (+) and Minus (-) buttons. The sheet has two major sections. Under the Description field is the If area. The items here are the conditions that must be met for the rule to do something. For instance, an acceptable condition might be If From Contains With this If condition, any messages sent from that address will be manipulated by the actions you create beneath. For example, in the 'Perform the following actions' area, you could configure the action Set Color of Message of Text to Red.

Click OK, and Mail will ask if you'd like to apply this rule. Once you indicate your agreement by clicking Apply, any existing messages from Bubba will be colored red in the Message Browser, making them easy to identify. This is great, but better yet is that any future messages from Bubba will also be colored red. And that's the power of rules--preemptively sorting your email so that you don't have to do it manually.


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