How to exploit Apple Mail's patchy but powerful rules to control your email

Posted:
in Mac Software edited August 2018
Apart from one flaw that Apple keeps not fixing, the standard Mail app on your Mac has superb ways to help you manage your messages. AppleInsider works around the flaw and examines the power of automating your inbox.




You're wondering about the flaw. It's this: Apple Mail has truly excellent tools on the Mac for helping you automatically deal with your email -- but they are only on your Mac. They're not on iOS. So since Apple Mail tries to push emails to all of your devices at the same time, you could set up rules on your Mac to delete or forward some. You'd just still see them all on your iPhone before Mail could do anything for you.

That's not quite all, though. If you're using an Apple email account then everything goes through iCloud before it gets to your devices so maybe you could set up rules there. Have iCloud deal with deletions or forwarding or out-of-office auto replies.

You can. To our mind, though, the flaw is that the rules you can set up in iCloud are so limited that they're close to useless -- and we just don't use them and just can't recommend you do.

However, you can work around this a little and if you do, you can also use the excellent Mail rules on your Mac to help you wherever you are.

So for instance, you can tell Mail to send a vaguely-worded automated out-of-office if you receive an email from someone you don't know. At the same time, if that email comes in from your boss, you could tell Mail to instead send an out-of-office that includes the phone number of your vacation hotel.

Or you could have Mail simply trash every message from your boss -- when those messages are also CCd to your assistant.

It's not just a work tool, either. You've got that friend you like but who keeps sending everyone funny GIFs. Mail can look to see if you were CCd or BCCd on her message and if you were, delete it automatically. You can do this. We do indeed do this.

All done the same way

Whatever you want to do, you first open Mail, then choose Preferences and click on Rules.

You get a list of all the rules you've set up. We've set up a lot so our Rules screen looks like this:




Each one is a separate rule and actually none of these are working. We have switched them all off: to make a rule active, you tick the box to the left of its name. Once you do that, Mail will apply that rule to every single email you ever get -- until you switch it off.

Every rule also works exactly the same way. You tell Mail what to look out for such as a particular email address. Then you tell it what to do when it spots that, such as sending an automatic reply or forwarding the email to someone else.

Click Add Rule and you get a dialog box full of dropdown menus.




This dialog is really in two sections with the first beginning "If any of the following conditions are met" and then those options including "From" and so on.

Then underneath that is where you tell Mail what to do.

Here's that same screen set to look out for a confirmation email that we get from a train company each time we buy a rail ticket. Every time we do this, we forward that confirmation to a service called TripIt which keeps all our travel details together in one itinerary.




Click OK and the rule is saved. From now on, the rule will check every message as it comes in but you may have a pile of emails already in your inbox. One very nice touch is that Mail figures you created this rule now for a reason so it offers to run it on the existing inbox messages.

Another small but nice touch is that if you select a message before you start a rule, Mail reckons that email is what you want to deal with. So instead of our having to type in the email address of the train company, Apple Mail pops that in automatically.

Then whatever you want, you do by picking from dropdown lists. You've seen how we used them for this rule but you haven't seen how comprehensive they are.




So setting up these things is quick and the result is that you don't have to deal with every single email you ever get. You can instead get Mail to do repetitive tasks like forwarding them or to automatically reply when you're away.

This rule we've created, though, forwards the email and then leaves it there in our inbox for us to read or delete.

Plus it only works with emails that come in from this one train company and we also buy air tickets.

What we really want is for this rule to forward any travel emails to TripIt and mark them as read so that we don't have to look at them. We also have a mailbox just for travel tickets so it'd be good to have the message moved there. Like this:




This one rule now does all we want. You just add more things for it to watch out for and more actions for it to take.

To add either, you click on the plus sign at the end of the condition or the action. There's no limit to the number you add and Mail will work through them all in sequence.

Note the very first dropdown menu, though, the one that begins "If any of the following conditions are met." That dropdown on the word "any" gives you a choice of that word or "all".

In our case, we want "any" selected. That's because the rule is supposed to work when we get an email from any of the travel companies we've specified.

If instead we wanted to ditch our friend with the GIFs, we would set a rule to look for "all" conditions like this:


Hampered by Apple

Once you know you can do this, you set up rules for everything -- and then you stop because of the limitations.

These rules work brilliantly but they only work at all if your Mac is on. So if you solely use a MacBook Pro then the rules only apply when you sit down somewhere and open the lid.

That's actually not a dreadful thing: it still works the rules, it still deals with the emails. It's just that you'll have seen those emails arrive on your phone. This means that you're being unnecessarily distracted by emails you don't actually need to read at all.

Worse, if you do read them, they get marked as read and Mail rules only work on unread messages as they arrive in your inbox. So you can set up all of this and have it defeated just because you happened to see the messages on your iPhone.

The two best solutions to this are to have a Mac running 24/7 somewhere and to lay off checking your email every time it bleeps at you. If you can do both, then whenever you do look at your email, the rules will have worked and all that's left are messages that need your attention.

If you can't do this or the idea of leaving a Mac on permanently troubles you for green or electricity bill reasons, you can use iCloud's Mail rules.

But you won't

You've seen how comprehensive Apple Mail rules are on your Mac. Now go to iCloud.com, log in and choose Mail.

Look for the gear icon at the bottom left of your screen and click on that. From the brief menu that pops up, choose Rules.

So far it all seems much the same as you now get a list of any rules you've already created. Only, click on Add a rule and you'll see the limitations immediately.




On the left is just about all you can tell Mail to look for and on the right is all you can get it to do.

So you iCloud Mail rules will watch for messages coming from a certain person or has certain words in its subject. Then it can delete them, forward and mark it unread, but that's it.

It's even less than you think, too, because you can't have more than one action in response to any one email. That TripIt rule of ours simply cannot be done in iCloud Mail.

This is so anaemic that we would completely disregard iCloud's mail rules but for this fact that they work all the time. They work whether you have a Mac switched on or not. Plus the work on all your messages before they get to your devices.

That's a very powerful feature -- but it needs to have Mac mail's very powerful options to make it worth using.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 24
    mwhitemwhite Posts: 205member
    One thing I want Apple to fix in mail is when you accidentally hit the junk mail button for a mail that some way you can stop your emails from that person from always going to junk. I have tried and tried to get it to stop going there....
  • Reply 2 of 24
    cpsrocpsro Posts: 2,491member
    The best solution is to run Server on a Mac and set up sieveshell scripts to manage incoming messages before they're actually delivered.
    Except Apple has supposedly deprecated support for smtp and imap on future versions of macOS.
  • Reply 3 of 24
    wonkothesanewonkothesane Posts: 1,398member
    I have tried a couple of times and in ge end always have up with the rules due to its limitations as mentioned in the article. In the end these make them quite useless to me. 

    Server-side rules, anyone?


    Oh, and OT: is there a way to forward iOS push notifications from arriving st one account to another? 
  • Reply 4 of 24
    emoelleremoeller Posts: 453member
    Does this work for ALL mail going through Apple Mail (including forwarded mail) or only Apple's email addresses (.me, .mac, .icloud)?  

    Also the same question for iCloud's rules....
  • Reply 5 of 24
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 4,883administrator
    cpsro said:
    The best solution is to run Server on a Mac and set up sieveshell scripts to manage incoming messages before they're actually delivered.
    Except Apple has supposedly deprecated support for smtp and imap on future versions of macOS.
    This is a good solution, but clearly not for everybody who may be asking how to solve the problem.
  • Reply 6 of 24
    cpsrocpsro Posts: 2,491member
    cpsro said:
    The best solution is to run Server on a Mac and set up sieveshell scripts to manage incoming messages before they're actually delivered.
    Except Apple has supposedly deprecated support for smtp and imap on future versions of macOS.
    This is a good solution, but clearly not for everybody who may be asking how to solve the problem.
    You're right and we are all highlighting an opportunity.
  • Reply 7 of 24
    My personal e-mail account has been fine over the years.  Never so many incoming from friends/family that I really needed rules, some spam but not much.

    About 1 month ago the avalanche started.  I receive at least 10/day now, with the overwhelming majority as if I'm an impressionable senior citizen. 

    E-mails about elderly ailments dominate.

    One doesn't want to give them legitimacy by hoping the "un-subcribe" link is real (and not a full-on malware link) but eventually one has to give it a go (it IS a Mac afterall).

    I tried a bunch of un-subsribe (which does work with legitimate businesses) but so far no luck.  May spend a week "un-subscribing" like crazy, but I'm not optimistic.

    Maybe I'll try some rules!

    E.
  • Reply 8 of 24
    I'd like the option to just send Junk mail to the Trash and anyone not in my mailbox to the Trash, also.

    That way I could just look at the Trash folder everyday and delete, en masse, the unwanted emails.

    As it stands now, I have to go to the Junk folder and delete and then go to the Trash folder and delete, again.

    This probably can be accomplished in Mail, but I have yet to be able to do it from the Rules window.

    Or maybe it would be easier to send everything to the Trash folder and then just designate the not junk emails from that folder?

    Best.
  • Reply 9 of 24
    SpamSandwichSpamSandwich Posts: 31,412member
    One thing I'd like Apple Mail do is to have the option to send out an email on a repeating schedule or at a specified time. For example, say I'm leaving the office and I need to sent a response to someone at the end of the day, I might want to compose the email earlier in the day and then set it up to send after I've already left.
    edited August 2018
  • Reply 10 of 24
    I really wish Apple Mail rules could be exported as an editable text file, so one can edit it more for the better, and import it back.
    Or, is it that I just don't know how to export Apple Mail rules into an editable text file, and then import it back into Mail?

    BTW, anyone know where exactly these Mail rules are stored on the Mac OS system?
    edited August 2018
  • Reply 11 of 24
    joekewejoekewe Posts: 25member
    emoeller said:
    Does this work for ALL mail going through Apple Mail (including forwarded mail) or only Apple's email addresses (.me, .mac, .icloud)?  

    Also the same question for iCloud's rules....
    Apple desktop Mail rules work for ALL emails, regardless of whether they are received in an iCloud/Apple email account or not. My desktop Mac filters email from several accounts. Mail rules in the cloud only work on emails received by an Apple iCloud email account.
  • Reply 12 of 24
    Don't agree. iCloud mail rules, though limited, do much useful work for me. It is a royal pain that one cannot connect from an iOS device (well, unless using a third party browser pretending not to be an iOS device) to set things up, but, if you can work out how to access them, they're a useful facility.
  • Reply 13 of 24
    joekewejoekewe Posts: 25member
    I'd like the option to just send Junk mail to the Trash and anyone not in my mailbox to the Trash, also.

    That way I could just look at the Trash folder everyday and delete, en masse, the unwanted emails.

    As it stands now, I have to go to the Junk folder and delete and then go to the Trash folder and delete, again.

    This probably can be accomplished in Mail, but I have yet to be able to do it from the Rules window.

    Or maybe it would be easier to send everything to the Trash folder and then just designate the not junk emails from that folder?
    On Apple desktop Mail, see Preferences - Accounts tab - Mailbox Behaviors tab. Set the Trash to "Permanently erase messages when:" and choose one day, one week, or one month old. Then ignore your Trash folder. It will keep itself empty.
  • Reply 14 of 24
    joekewejoekewe Posts: 25member
    My personal e-mail account has been fine over the years.  Never so many incoming from friends/family that I really needed rules, some spam but not much.

    About 1 month ago the avalanche started.  I receive at least 10/day now, with the overwhelming majority as if I'm an impressionable senior citizen. 

    E-mails about elderly ailments dominate.

    One doesn't want to give them legitimacy by hoping the "un-subcribe" link is real (and not a full-on malware link) but eventually one has to give it a go (it IS a Mac afterall).

    I tried a bunch of un-subsribe (which does work with legitimate businesses) but so far no luck.  May spend a week "un-subscribing" like crazy, but I'm not optimistic.

    Maybe I'll try some rules!
    Make sure Apple's built-in Junk mail filters are turned on in Preferences. If they aren't doing a good enough job, consider a great paid program called SpamSieve.
  • Reply 15 of 24
    joekewejoekewe Posts: 25member
    mwhite said:
    One thing I want Apple to fix in mail is when you accidentally hit the junk mail button for a mail that some way you can stop your emails from that person from always going to junk. I have tried and tried to get it to stop going there....
    This is a bit of a "nuclear" option, but you can completely reset Apple's Junk mail filter by clicking the "Reset" button at the bottom of the Junk Mail tab under Preferences. Then if Mail tries to filter your friend's email as Junk, clicking "Not Junk" should stop it.
  • Reply 16 of 24
    jslovejslove Posts: 5member

    There's a different set of conditions available for "smart mailboxes". If only smart mailboxes still worked reliably. They used to, but it seems like there is no one maintaining these features; something new is introduced elsewhere and breaks another feature they don't care about with each OS release.

    A bunch of those conditions would be really useful if they were available for rules. Things like: is there a flag set on the mail, and if so, which one? Or is the message in (or not in) this mailbox? That would allow cascading rules. The provided rules do not access any state information.

    Also, Command-Option-L lets you run the rules at any time on selected messages, so you don't have to use rules only on incoming mail.

    There also used to be Mail scripts, but they long ago became too unstable (were ruined/deprecated by OS releases).

    For Mail.app rule and Smart Mailbox conditions, there are no compound conditions. You can't say "if this and any of these three"; you have to set up three "and" rules. I make heavy use of the rules; I have hundreds, but they are a source of profound frustration, especially with each upgrade but at many other times.

    The Junk filter and its support also changes with each new OS release; it's been partly broken in every release since Yosemite, but High Sierra is especially annoying. It moves them around as it should, but which ones get the little spam markers on them seems totally random and quite beyond my ability to influence (this started with Sierra or El Crapitan but has gotten much worse).

    And UNDO doesn't work on marking something as Junk, hasn't as long as I can remember, which pretty much started when Eudora went away. However, on some providers' accounts, its fairly-accurate filtering is another reason to keep a desktop Mail.app running 24/7; there is no such filtering in iOS.

    I stick with Mail.app and live within its limitations because mine currently has 22 accounts open. No 3rd-party app I've tried (since Eudora) is stable when juggling many accounts and moving mail between them. It's particularly useful to have multiple accounts on an iPhone, because Mail under iOS has no way to collapse mail folders, but you can easily collapse and uncollapse accounts. Also, with 30 searchable gigabytes of old mail going back 20+ years (though only a small subset via the phone, a larger subset on the iPad), accounts also provide a useful way to categorize.

    If you don't have an investment in this e-mail client, try some others. Apple does not seem to be interested in giving theirs the attention it needs. Much of their support is of the "checkbox" variety: Does it have this feature? No? Add something. You have ten minutes.

    But some parts have remained very stable and reliable; see above about supporting multiple accounts, so they have regression testing and/or a few dedicated maintainers for those. Mail.app hardly ever loses mail, though sometimes without search I'd be doomed never to see it again.

    edited August 2018
  • Reply 17 of 24
    For years, Mail's Rules have lacked two obvious features: (1) being able to search for text strings you have inserted into rules (e.g. parts of originating addresses) and (2) spam filtering anywhere near as good as SpamSieve. Apple should simply buy SpamSieve and integrate it into Mail.
  • Reply 18 of 24
    jslovejslove Posts: 5member
    mwhite said:
    One thing I want Apple to fix in mail is when you accidentally hit the junk mail button for a mail that some way you can stop your emails from that person from always going to junk. I have tried and tried to get it to stop going there....

    If you go into Mail.app's Preferences, and pick the "Junk Mail" pane, there is a list of mail types that are are exempt from Junk Mail filtering.  What exempt seems to mean is that it will not automatically move it to the Junk folder, though if you "Mark as Junk" manually, it will do so.  It still detects (and may flag) it as junk, so if you have a rule (say) to mark junk mail in a different color, its color will change, even if it is exempt.  This will keep mail from that person from going to the junk folder.

    The "Sender of message is in my Contacts" is probably the most useful exemption.  If you use "Sender of message is in my Previous Recipients", you may have to examine your Previous Recipients list (see Window menu) from time to time and pretty aggressively remove things from it.  Things get added to mine I have no idea why Mail put them there; I never sent a reply, but past spammers seem to appear there.  Still it can be useful.  Unless you have a very special and non-public full name, the "Message is addressed using my full name" exemption seems completely useless.

    It may be that if you manually move mail from that person to the Junk folder (not using Command-Shift-J), and then mark it as not junk by using Command-Shift-J on it there, you might be able to train it not to consider it junk.  However, in High Sierra, they have renamed that function (in the Message menu) as "Move to Inbox", so I don't know whether its training function has been removed.  It used to work.  Maybe you'd have to do it several times on the same message?  That's been my experience on High Sierra, because sometimes it doesn't seem to understand it's not junk, even though it moved it.

    edited August 2018
  • Reply 19 of 24
    mwhitemwhite Posts: 205member
    joekewe said:
    mwhite said:
    One thing I want Apple to fix in mail is when you accidentally hit the junk mail button for a mail that some way you can stop your emails from that person from always going to junk. I have tried and tried to get it to stop going there....
    This is a bit of a "nuclear" option, but you can completely reset Apple's Junk mail filter by clicking the "Reset" button at the bottom of the Junk Mail tab under Preferences. Then if Mail tries to filter your friend's email as Junk, clicking "Not Junk" should stop it.
    Thank you for the information I will try that.
  • Reply 20 of 24
    mwhitemwhite Posts: 205member
    jslove said:
    mwhite said:
    One thing I want Apple to fix in mail is when you accidentally hit the junk mail button for a mail that some way you can stop your emails from that person from always going to junk. I have tried and tried to get it to stop going there....

    If you go into Mail.app's Preferences, and pick the "Junk Mail" pane, there is a list of mail types that are are exempt from Junk Mail filtering.  What exempt seems to mean is that it will not automatically move it to the Junk folder, though if you "Mark as Junk" manually, it will do so.  It still detects (and may flag) it as junk, so if you have a rule (say) to mark junk mail in a different color, its color will change, even if it is exempt.  This will keep mail from that person from going to the junk folder.

    The "Sender of message is in my Contacts" is probably the most useful exemption.  If you use "Sender of message is in my Previous Recipients", you may have to examine your Previous Recipients list (see Window menu) from time to time and pretty aggressively remove things from it.  Things get added to mine I have no idea why Mail put them there; I never sent a reply, but past spammers seem to appear there.  Still it can be useful.  Unless you have a very special and non-public full name, the "Message is addressed using my full name" exemption seems completely useless.

    It may be that if you manually move mail from that person to the Junk folder (not using Command-Shift-J), and then mark it as not junk by using Command-Shift-J on it there, you might be able to train it not to consider it junk.  However, in High Sierra, they have renamed that function (in the Message menu) as "Move to Inbox", so I don't know whether its training function has been removed.  It used to work.  Maybe you'd have to do it several times on the same message?  That's been my experience on High Sierra, because sometimes it doesn't seem to understand it's not junk, even though it moved it.

    Thank you for the help.
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