Priority Inbox with Apple Mail

Patrick Walsh
Mar 29, 2019 · 3 min read

I dislike using a web browser to manage my email. I’ve never liked the Gmail interface, and now that they’re killing off inbox.google.com I am redoubling my efforts to find a desktop solution.

The main reason I don’t like these interfaces is that sometimes I want to keep an incoming message open or a draft open even while I check on another piece of mail. I also don’t like dealing with attachments — inbound or outbound — via web interfaces.

One thing I do like about these interfaces is the effort they’ve put into auto-categorizing emails so I can quickly see what’s important and clean out notifications, newsletters, and other bulk emails more quickly.

For desktop email management, I’ve experimented with Airmail, Spark, and Mac Mail. I always end up back at Mac Mail because it’s just faster. It also has better blocking of remote images and open tracking by default, SMIME email signing capabilities, and good threading.

Unfortunately, if I go even half a day without looking at email, various notifications start cluttering things up.

The age-old approach of doing server-side filtering, perhaps with GMail rules, to send some email to specific folders, is excellent, but I find that I don’t often check folders other than my Inbox. That’s why Google’s soon-to-be-discontinued inbox.google.com interface was nice despite being a web interface — everything was inline in one spot.

Even so, without a way to filter my emails down to what’s essential, Mac Mail is unusable.

My current approach involves a smart folder that I call the “Priority Inbox.” I also have an “Unread” smart folder. The goal is to cut out automated and mass emails so I can focus in on the personalized ones that most need my attention before distracting myself with breaking news headlines or github issue updates.

Combined with the Favorites Bar, I get a reasonable way to focus in on what’s important when I don’t have time to do a full pass through my inbox. Right now, for example, I have 175 unread messages in my inbox, but only 9 unread in my priority inbox.

Here are the rules I use:

  1. Message is in the inbox
  2. The word “unsubscribe” is not in the message body
  3. The from address doesn’t include “no-reply”
  4. Plus 6 other phrases I find to be in notification emails but not personal communications, such as copyright notices.
  5. I also screen out meeting accept messages

My favorites bar then looks like this:

And I mostly toggle back and forth with the Inbox and Priority Inbox.

If you want to set this up yourself, first turn on View > Show Favorites Bar. Then create the smart folder by going to Mailbox > New Smart Mailbox. Copy in some of the criteria in the screenshot above. Once saved, open your Mailboxes on the left, drag the Priority Inbox smart folder up to the favorites bar, then close the Mailboxes on the left.

Alas, Mail on iOS doesn’t have support for Smart Mailboxes (as far as I know) so something else will need to be done there.

If you have better suggestions, I’d love to hear them!

Patrick Walsh

Written by

Scholar, dreamer, creator, adventurer, hacker, leader and observer. Advocate for privacy and security. CEO IronCore Labs.

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