Use a Mail rule to help identify relevant messages

If you’re looking for ways to get more control over your Mail inbox, consider taking advantage of a built-in feature in Mail’s rules to help you identify those messages that need your immediate attention. As you’re probably aware, you can use Mail’s Rules to set up rules that filter your e-mail, based on conditions you specify. By using one of the Apple-provided conditions, you can set up a rule to help you (visually and/or audibly) identify e-mails from people you are actively corresponding with.

Building a sample rule will demonstrate how this works. Open Mail’s Preferences, and click on Rules. The click on Add Rule, and enter a description along the lines of Recent correspondents or just Recent. Leave the first pop-up menu set to Any. Click the second pop-up, labeled From, and select Sender is in my Previous Recipients from the menu.

This item—and its “not in” variation—are the key to this rule. The previous recipients list is just that—people you have e-mailed recently. (Mail keeps this list of previous recipients automatically, adding e-mails to the list each time you send a message.) As you’ve sent these people an e-mail, it’s likely you’re involved in a conversation with them, so these messages are probably more important to you than most other messages. Using this rule, you’ll be able to quickly spot these conversations.

With the rule you’ve defined so far, you’ve now identified anyone replying to a message you’ve recently sent them. You can now add actions to do whatever you like to this message in the “Perform the following actions” portion of the dialog. For instance, you could add color to the message’s entry in your inbox (Set color of message—background), move the message to another mailbox (Move Message—to mailbox—Active Exchanges), play a sound, bounce Mail’s dock icon, flag the message, or any combination of the above that you’d prefer. In my case, I have it set to just color the messages. As the final step in the rule, add the Stop Evaluating Rules action; this makes sure that nothing else happens to a message that’s processed by this rule. Here’s what my final rule looks like:

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A simple rule to identify active e-mail conversations

Click OK to save your rule, and then drag it in your list of rules to a spot that makes sense—remembering that rules are processed in order of their appearance. In my case, I placed this one after the rules I use to sort messages from mailing lists, but before any spam processing rules.

You can make this work in the other direction, too—just use the Sender is not in my Previous Recipients condition instead. Messages flagged by this rule are from people you haven’t recently e-mailed. Based on that, you may wish to move them to a “non-urgent” folder, color them differently, or maybe even reply with a standard response. If you’re going to use this rule, however, you’ll probably want to put it after any spam-trapping rules, so that spam from unknown senders is trapped before you process the message.

Mail’s rules can really help manage your inbox; if you haven’t played with them yet, now’s as good a time as any.

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