HowTo: Use Rules to Automatically Manage Email in Apple Mail

After recently moving to San Francisco, I joined the San Francisco Freecyclers’ Network. Freecycle is a really cool set of local groups who prefer to give away items to people who want them instead of throwing them away into the trash. The group uses email to connect people who offer items and those who want them. In order to stay sane, a simple, conventional format for writing an email’s subject line lets you quickly figure out what’s on offer and where.

Thanks to this simple text convention in subject lines, I could trivially automate the process of sorting through the approximately 100 emails a day that the email list generates in order to single out only the emails that interest me. Here’s how I did it.

Define Your Goals

Before setting out on any task, it behooves you to take a moment and think about what it is you’re trying to accomplish. For me, with the San Francisco Freecycling Network (SFFN) email list, I wanted to achieve the following goals:

  • Keep my inbox clear of email from the SFFN list unless a message was particularly interesting.
  • Browse the SFFN messages when I wanted to look at them without having to go to the web site.
  • Highlight particularly interesting messages in my inbox visually and play a special sound to alert me that such email has been found in case Mail was running in the background (since free stuff gets taken fast!).

I defined “particularly interesting” messages as ones that offered items of need for my recent move. With this in mind, I set out to create email rules that accomplished each goal in turn.

Step 1: Create a mailbox to store the appropriate messages

I began by creating a new mailbox to store all the SFFN messages I was getting. This alternate mailbox would be the mailbox I would shunt all SFFN email to so as to keep my inbox clear of it. I called the mailbox simply “SFFN”.

Do this:

  1. From the Mailbox menu, select New Mailbox…. The New Mailbox sheet appears.
  2. Select any location (“On My Mac” is fine, as is the account that receives the mailing list messages), and give it a name.
  3. Click OK.

Step 2: Create an email rule to move all appropriate messages to the new mailbox

With the new mailbox created, I now needed to get all the appropriate messages in there and out of my inbox.

Apple Mail’s email rules work by looking at each incoming message and matching it against a set of conditions that you provide. If the message being evaluated matches the conditions you specify, such as “from the San Francisco Freecycler’s Network mailing list”, then an associated action is automatically performed. Every email you get is evaluated against every rule you have unless a rule moves the message to another mailbox or until you trigger the “stop evaluating rules” action.

Since moving an email message to a new mailbox ends the process of evaluating rules and moving messages to the SFFN mailbox I just created is the goal of the rule I’m creating, I decided to name the rule “END – SFFN”.

Do this:

  1. From the Mail menu, select Preferences…. The Mail Preferences window opens.
  2. Click the Rules button. The Rules pane appears.
  3. Click the Add Rule button. The Add Rule sheet appears:
    1. Enter a meaningful description (I chose “END – SFFN”) in the Description: field.
    2. Provide the conditions you want to match. Since all SFFN emails must be addressed to the mailing list, I simply provided the email address of the mailing list ( as the condition for the To header.
    3. Provide the actions you want Mail to perform. I simply wanted to move the matched messages to the SFFN mailbox.
  4. Click OK.

For me, the above configuration looked like this:


Step 3: Create an email rule to highlight a message of particular interest

At this point, any and all email I receive from the San Francisco Freecyclers’ Network is being moved to the SFFN mailbox I created for it. This is nice because it keeps my inbox clear, but it’s still not very helpful since I still have to go trudging through the SFFN mailbox in order to find anything that might be interesting to me. The whole point of this exercise is to reduce the amount of time I spend actively looking for interesting things and let my computer do that work for me. So the next step is to tell Mail what I’m looking for so it can show the interesting messages to me.

Now, as it happens I’m in need of a wireless router. Since “router” is an appropriately unique word, I’m going to tell Mail to look for that word in a subject line. However, since I only want Mail to tell me when a router is available and not when other people like me are looking for routers, I’ll also tell Mail to look for the keyword “OFFER” in the subject line. (And this is why the Freecycle guidelines tell users to format their subject lines in a conventional way.)

Finally, since I don’t want to have to go digging for the interesting email message and since my inbox is already going to be kept clear by the previous rule, I’ll simply have Mail highlight the message in a bright green color and leave the message in my inbox without moving it to the SFFN mailbox I created earlier.

Do this:

  1. From the Rules pane in Mail’s preferences, click Add Rule.
  2. Enter a meaningful description in the Description: field. (Since I’m looking for a router, I called it “SFFN – Search for OFFERed ‘router'”.)
  3. Provide the conditions you wish to match. For me, this meant email sent to the Freecycler’s mailing list with the two words “OFFER” and “router” in the subject line.
  4. Specify the actions you wish Mail to perform. I wanted Mail simply to color the message green and to leave the email go to the inbox (where it was originally destined for), so I chose “Stop evaluating rules”. (I also decided I’d want Mail to play a special sound to alert me that it had found something interesting. This is optional, of course.)
  5. Click OK.

When I was done creating my rule, the above configuration looked like this:

Screenshot of rule to highlight incoming Freecycling emails offering a router.

I can now repeat this step as many times as desired to tell Mail to highlight other messages that may be of particular interest for some other reason. For instance, say instead of looking for a wireless router, I wanted to look for a toaster. I would simply need to click on “Duplicate Rule” and replace all instances of “router” with “toaster”.

Step 4: Place email rules in appropriate order

Since Mail will repeatedly check incoming email against all the active rules, we need to be sure to place the rules in the correct order. You can think of each email rule as part of large Rube Goldberg machine, each message getting funneled through some piece of the logic at each successive rule. That’s why I began the name of the first rule I created with “END,” so that I’d know it should be placed after the rest of the SFFN-related email rules.

I decided that I wanted Mail to look for anything related to cameras and, of course, to toasters. This gave me a total of 4 rules (three to search for items of interest, and one to keep my inbox clear). Since the three highlighting rules all perform the same action, it doesn’t really matter which order they go in, but it is important that all of them appear before the rule to move messages to the SFFN mailbox.

To order rules, simply click-and-drag them into the order you wish Mail to evaluate them in. When I was done, my Rules pane looked like this:

Screenshot of the Rules pane with sorted rules.


Mail rules are an extremely powerful feature that most email clients have, but that too few people use. They can save you enormous amounts of time and increase your productivity by automating simple yet time-consuming tasks.

The conventional, standardized subject lines that the Freecycle mailing list uses simplifies the logic required to have your computer automatically process your messages for you. This is a useful observation because it can be applied to other areas of your life where using simple conventions can help to organize otherwise overwhelming information tasks into manageable batches. Although this particular example uses stock, simple commands, you can get as fancy as you like by having an action trigger an AppleScript.

Now, hopefully, finding some additional housewares and a wireless router for my new San Francisco apartment will be as easy as checking (but not manually sorting!) my own email!

6 replies on “HowTo: Use Rules to Automatically Manage Email in Apple Mail”

  1. One of the common feedbacks those amazing performers on American idol and So You Think You Can Dance get is: “You make it look so easy” when in fact it is exactly that skill and talent to disect and analiticaly arive at an elegant (ie easy and smooth looking) resolution or execution. Specifically, in the case of email rules I just wish Apple would have found even better and more intuitive interface (layout and name conventions to their “dialog boxes” and tabs) which would make this whole process more natural for persons who are not as adept as you, or I, to this terminology and logic. If that were the case many more would have been able to enjoy the perks of automation. GranteD, Apple is still ahead of all the “others” in that respect, but in my opinion still too far behind (or should I say) above the common brain. As a semantics / Semiotic specialist this could and should become the single most important area of significant advancemet, while creating some heavy duty opportunities for those who come up with a better way for communication between humans and machines. Duh!!!

    Your writing is a great step in the right direction as it is clear as a bell and a pleasure to follow. Thanks

  2. Nice guide! I just have a question. It seems my rules for RSS in Mail don’t work automatically. I have to highlight all RSS and apply the rule via menus. Am I missing something?

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