Turning Mail.app Into the Best Mac Email App

In 2012, the Mac community lost one of the Mac OS X mail clients that many considered to be the best on the market: Sparrow. Development has stopped (which doesn’t mean you can’t still use this app, though, at least for now) since the team has been acquired by Google.

Some claim that the whole email concept needs a refresh and solutions are offered, and the previously reviewed Mail Pilot and its upcoming Mac client, or the upcoming .Mail app are proof of that. Others still prefer to use web-based apps like the popular Gmail.

I, for one, still think that Mail.app, since its OS X Lion revision, is the best. It’s built-in, offered at no cost, and is completely integrated with OS X. I’ve customized it to fit my needs and developed my own workflow to deal with emails.

In my humble opinion, you should be able to jump into your emails, process them quickly, and then get back to work. A mail client, for me, is just a way to send and receive emails, not a big messy, clunky, filing cabinet with hundreds of manually created and sorted folders. Read on to find out why, in that case, Mail.app is the best for me, even when processing hundreds of incoming messages per day.

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Smart Mailboxes and colored flags

Ever heard about the ‘Inbox Zero’? Ever struggled to achieve it?

I achieve Inbox Zero several times a day. It all depends of what you call your ‘inbox’ and how you deal with it.

I’ve set a simple Smart Mailbox that shows unread emails only. This is what I call my inbox. From now on, unless otherwise explicitely specified, when writing “my inbox”, I will refer to this smart, unread, inbox.

To add a new Smart Mailbox, just select the Mailbox > “New Smart Mailbox…” menu command within Mail.app, and define your conditions in the popup window. This is really similar to how you define a Smart Playlist in iTunes.

Setting up my inbox and using it has a double advantage:

  • once I’ve read all emails in my inbox, this inbox is truly empty,
  • which forces me to act on every incoming email as soon as I read it, otherwise it will vanish into what your software calls ‘Inbox’ and that I prefer to name “my email archive”.
Screenshot showing the Unread Smart Mailbox conditions

Setting up an ‘Unread’ Smart Mailbox is easy. Notice that, in that case, choosing ‘Any’ instead of ‘All’ in the ‘Contains messages that match’ dropdown list has the same effect, because there is only one condition.

I have a couple of other Smart Mailboxes set up:

  • “Need reply”
  • “Follow up”
  • Today
  • Sent
  • VIP
  • Trash
  • “Not flagged”

For your inspiration, there are also some other Smart Inboxes ideas across the web.

One of the key concepts of my workflow for dealing with hundreds of emails a day is:

When I read an email, I immediately decide about what to do with it.

See below for how I take my decisions.

Don’t be afraid to delete

If a message doesn’t really interest me, neither now nor in the future, I delete it immediately after reading or just “scanning” its content. No regrets.

Reply ASAP

If I need to reply to an email and can do it in a few minutes, I do it right after reading it.

The “Need Reply” Smart Mailbox

If the message needs a longer response, or more information to get or produce before replying to it, I add a blue flag to it. I have set my own keyboard shortcut for this (Option-Cmd-B, B as in ‘blue’), I will explain later how to do it. This instantly both gets it out of my inbox (because it was read) and puts it in my “Need Reply” Smart Mailbox (that has just one condition: message has a blue flag”).

When I’ve taken time to reply, I either unflag the message (Option-Cmd-B again) if I want to keep it (it will then vanish from my “Need Reply” Smart Mailbox but will be kept in my email archive), or I simply delete it.

The “Follow-up” Smart Mailbox

If the message contains information I think I might need in the following hours/days/weeks, I mark it with a green flag (with my own Option-Cmd-V shortcut, V being for “vert” which stands for green in French). All emails with a green flag go to my “Follow-up” Smart Mailbox.

When I feel I don’t need to quickly retrieve the info anymore, I simply unflag the message (with Option-Cmd-V again). Doing so, the message is not in my “Follow-up” Smart Mailbox anymore, but still in my email archive. This way I can retrieve it with a quick search in case I really need it later.

Other Smart Mailboxes

The Today, VIP, Sent, Trash, and “Not flagged” Smart Mailboxes are pretty self-explanatory. I created them just to add them to the Favorites bar and thus have a keyboard access to it. That’s useful because I choose to hide Mail’s side bar to get a cleaner UI (more on this later).

How-to: Create your own keyboard shortcuts

To flag/unflag a message as blue, I’ve set my own keyboard shortcut: Option-Cmd-B. To do this:

  1. Go into the Keyboard preference pane of OS X, choose the Keyboard Shortcuts tab, and select Application Shortcuts at the end of the list on the left.
  2. Click on the plus button on the right, and in the dropdown window that appears, choose Mail from the Application dropdown menu.
  3. In the text field next to “Menu Title:”, enter the exact name of the command you want to add, for instance Blue if it is the name of the color in the Message > Flag menu command you want to map the shortcut to.
  4. Click in the white field next to “Keyboard Shortcut” and press the key combo you want to assign, here Option-Cmd-B.
  5. Finally, click the Add button and close the Keyboard preference pane, and you’re done.
Screenshot showing how to add a new keyboard shortcut to an existing menu command in Mail.app

Setting a new keyboard shortcut for an existing menu command is relatively easy, once you know where you can do this, that is in the Keyboard preference pane of OS X.

The final trick: my previous “Need Action” Smart Mailbox and my new approach

If you carefully read the previous paragraphs, you probably noticed that I describe how to deal with messages that:

  • I’m simply not interested in
  • I need to reply, now or later
  • I want to keep at hand for a given period of time.

But what do I do if the content of the email asks me to do something?

Previously, I had another Smart Mailbox, “Need Action”. I added a red flag (with my own Option-Cmd-R shortcut) to messages asking me to do something. The “Need Action” Smart Mailbox was set to show messages with a red flag.

Over time, I felt that:

  1. adding a red flag to messages
  2. then review the “Need Action” Smart Mailbox
  3. to finally add the actions needed to my to-do list in TaskPaper

was requiring 3 steps, the two first being, in fact, unnecessary. Why not directly adding things to do to TaskPaper?

Fortunately, I found a script for TaskPaper that does exactly what I want: when you run it, “it will make a new entry in the Inbox of Taskpaper with the subject of the email and a URL that points to the email” as its creator explains it.

I even added my own Shift-Cmd-T keyboard shortcut to this script (which is actually run as a Service). So now, when I read an email that requires me to do something, I just press Shift-Cmd-T and it is added to my TaskPaper Inbox.

There is also a variation of this script that also adds a note to your new TaskPaper entry.

With all these considerations in mind, my take home message is:

There is a time for checking for new emails and decide what to do with each new one. There is another time to review your Smart Mailboxes and act on their contained emails.

These are two separate activities and you can do each of it whenever you want/can/need it to.

Just don’t re-read an email several times without doing anything: decide immediately, act on it whenever you can, and you’re done.

UI customization

When I use Mail.app, I get a really fresh and uncluttered UI by doing several modifications to the default UI, all without any third party apps.

Fully using your screen width

I use the new Mail layout, introduced in OS X 10.6 Lion, that takes advantage of the width of recent 16:9 and 16:10 monitors (uncheck “Use classic layout” in the View tab in the Mail Preferences window to achieve this).

I even expand the message list width to make it occupy approximately one fourth to one third of the window.

Showing the ‘Favorites’ bar

To get access to my favorite items from the Message Box list while keeping this list hidden, I add my smart inboxes to the Favorites bar. You can do this by simply dragging and dropping them from the Message Box list.

To make sure the Favorites bar is visible, use Shift-Option-Cmd-H or the View > “Show Favorites Bar” menu command.

To access Favorites from the Favorites bar using my keyboard, I have to press Shift+Cmd+[number]. That’s because I have a French keyboard: we need to press Shift to type a number. On an English/US keyboard, it is simply Cmd+[number].

Screenshot showing my Favorites bar

If your Favorites bar in Mail.app looks like this, pressing Cmd-Shift-1 opens “Inbox”, Cmd-Shift-2 opens “Unread”, Cmd-Shift-5 opens “Follow”, and so on.

Beware! Cmd-Shift–3 and Cmd-Shift–4 are assignated by OS X to, respectively, capture a full screen screenshot and capture a Selection screenshot. Thus you could get some conflicts with these shortcuts in Mail. But you can still modify the shortcuts for the OS X stock “Grab” application.

Hiding the sidebar

The sidebar (officially named the Message Box list) can be hidden by pressing Shift-Cmd-M or using your mouse to reach the View > “Hide Mailbox List” menu command.

Gmail-like conversations

If you want email messages sent back and forth between you and others being grouped in conversations, as in Gmail, simply select the View > “Organize by Conversation” menu command.

Mail.app as a fullscreen app

You just have to press Ctrl-Cmd-F, or choose the View > “Enter Full Screen” menu command, to get a dedicated screen for Mail.app.

The final result: a cleaner Mail.app

Screenshot showing my customized Mail.app UI.

This is what my Mail.app window looks like after all these customizations.

Rules, Data Detectors and Mailbox Search are your best friends

Here are three more things you get with Mail.app that makes managing and processing emails easier:

  • Rules can be extremely handy. But my advice is not to use too much rules, otherwise you’ll spend more time dealing with them than actually processing your emails. I’ve set up just one rule that I’ve named “Trash!”. It triggers when I receive messages from specific email addresses that I can’t unsubscribe — or just have not taken the time to unsubscribe from — but don’t interest me. When the rule is triggered, the message is both marked as read and moved to the Trash. Simple.
  • Data detectors are a little treasure! Hover your pointer over date/time contained in the message body to show a little box with grey dashed-line borders.
    Screenshot showing data detected in Mail

    The little grey dashed-line appears when you hover text containing date and time. This indicates Mail has detected some data you can interact with.

    From now on, you can click on the little triangle at the right of the box and you’ll have the opportunity to automatically (magically?) add a new meeting in the OS X built-in Calendar, or Ctrl-click on this triangle for more actions.

    Screenshot showing the Add to Calendar action in Mail

    Mail has detected that the body of the email message contains some data that refers to an event, so you can add it to your Calendar with just a click. Notice that the subject of the email has also been grabbed and added as the name of the new event.

    It also works with contact info, usually added in the email signature of the sender: hover your pointer over these info and add the info to an existing contact or create a new one with just a click!

    This built-in trick just saves me so much time! I haven’t seen any other email client such tighly integrated with Calendar and Contacts on the Mac. This clearly makes Apple’s Mail.app a winner, though I suspect developers of other mail clients can’t have access to these data detectors to implement them in their software, just because Apple does not allow it (yet?).

  • Rather than filing the emails I don’t delete into a complicated structure with folders and subfolders, I rely on the Mailbox Search (press Cmd-Option-F to access it, it is located in the upper right of your Mail window). It is really powerful since the Lion update and you can even specify you’re looking for contacts, dates, subjects, and more.


I definitely think Mail.app is one of the best tools to deal with emails on the Mac. Of course, there are other apps but this one is free and tightly integrated with OS X. I have developed my own workflow to deal with emails and I just can’t really use it with other email clients, because they lack multiple colors for flags, smart mailboxes, data detectors and rules.

This does not mean I don’t need a bit more, and, for instance, in the next iterations of Mail.app, I think cloud storage integration would be a real plus: simply drag and drop an item from your Dropbox folder to the body of a message and a share link is automatically created, as you can have if you use Sparrow. That said, it’s not way too hard to upload a file with CloudApp, Droplr, or Dropbox, and then share the link in your email.

What do you think about all of that? Do you use Mail.app? Have you found another email client that fits your need? Feel free to share your thoughts, tips and workflows in the comments below.