Find Messages Faster in Apple Mail With Smart Mailboxes

Skip the search function and use smart mailboxes

If you have a large collection of messages in Apple's Mail app you may have noticed the search function can be slow and frustrating. Mail includes a dynamic search system known as Smart Mailboxes that can speed things up and assist in organizing your email messages.

Normal search tends to bring up so many matches that trying to wade through the list is in itself daunting. When you try adding search filters to narrow things down, the results can be less than helpful, with either no matches displayed, or no real change from before the filter was applied.

Smart Mailboxes

You can use Mail's Smart Mailboxes feature to find messages quickly, based on whatever criteria you choose. For example, you might want to find all of the email messages from a particular individual, all of the messages related to a work project, or one of my favorites, a Smart Mailbox that will show you all messages I have flagged this week. This type of Smart Mailbox allows you to find all the messages that need your attention. Because of the dynamic nature of the Smart Mailbox once you have answered the message and cleared the flag, they no longer appear in this Smart Mailbox.​

A Smart Mailbox will display all of the messages that meet the criteria you specify, even if they're stored in different mailboxes. A Smart Mailbox will also dynamically update itself whenever you receive new messages that match its criteria.

The dynamic update is one of the key reasons for using Smart Mailboxes. A simple glance into a Smart Mailbox will usually reveal the message you're looking for, without a great deal of effort on your part.

Anything you do to a message in a Smart Mailbox will be reflected in that message's own mailbox. For example, if you delete a message in a Smart Mailbox that's stored in a Work Projects mailbox, the message will be deleted from the Work Projects mailbox as well. (If you delete the Smart Mailbox itself, the original versions of the mail it contains won't be affected.)

Smart Mailboxes are stored in the Mail sidebar, under a Smart Mailboxes header. (If you haven't created any Smart Mailboxes yet, you won't see this header.)

Create a Smart Mailbox

To create a smart mailbox:

  1. From the Mailbox menu, select New Smart Mailbox.

    In older versions, click the plus sign (+)in the lower-left corner of the Mail window, and then select New Smart Mailbox from the pop-up menu.

  2. In the Smart Mailbox Name field, enter a descriptive name for the mailbox, such as "Fields Project," "Inbox Flagged," "Unread Messages," "Attachments," or "Mail From Uncle Harry."

  3. Use the drop-down menus to select appropriate criteria. Search messages that match any or all of the criteria you specify. Click the plus sign (+) to add more sorting criteria. The criteria can include messages in the trash and messages in your Sent mailbox.

  4. Click OK when you're done. The new Smart Mailbox will immediately go out and find all of the messages that match its criteria. This may take a few minutes, especially if you only specified one or two search criteria.

    Don't forget that anything you do to a message in a Smart Mailbox affects the original version of the message, so be careful not to delete a message in a Smart Mailbox unless you truly want to delete it.

Edit Smart Mailboxes

You may notice after you create a Smart Mailbox that its content isn't exactly what you were expecting. Normally, the problem is in how you set up the criteria for the Smart Mailbox.

You don’t have to delete the Smart Mailbox and start over to correct the problem; instead, you edit the existing Smart Mailboxes you create:

  1. Right-click the Smart Mailbox in the sidebar and select Edit Smart Mailbox from the pop-up menu.

  2. This will display the Smart Mailbox creation box. Edit its contents any way you like. Add criteria or change the existing parameters to better meet your goals for the Smart Mailbox.

  3. When you're done, select OK.

Organize Your Smart Mailboxes

If you create more than a few Smart Mailboxes, you may want to organize them into folders. Select New Smart Mailbox Folder from the Mailbox menu, give the folder a name, such as Work, Home, or Projects, and click OK. Click and drag Smart Mailboxes into the appropriate folder.

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