Master Mail’s reminders

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If you rely heavily on e-mail to keep track of your projects and responsibilities, then you’ll appreciate Mail’s new ability to create notes that hold important snippets of information. The Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard) version of Apple’s e-mail client also lets you create to-do items that stand on their own or are associated with an e-mail message or a note—without opening Apple’s iCal.

Unfortunately, Mail doesn’t make it obvious where it has stored your data or how to put that information where you want it to go. The result can be a proliferation of calendars and mailboxes that increases clutter rather than simplifying your life. But you can untwist this tangle, making notes and to-do items work as you need them to.

Never forget with Notes

Mail’s notes are containers for almost any kind of information—plain or styled text, graphics, and more. (In fact, you can attach any file to a note, just as you can attach a file to an e-mail message.) Mail stores notes, along with your messages, in your inbox or another mailbox. Think of them as replacements for physical or electronic sticky notes—they give you a convenient place to put reminders and random pieces of information such as shopping lists or thoughts during a phone conversation.

Create a note To create a new note, click on the Note button in Mail’s toolbar, choose File -> New Note, or press Command-control-N. Type, paste, or drag text or files into the window that appears (see “Quick Reference”). Use the Fonts and Colors buttons in the toolbar to change the style of text in your notes. When you close a note window, Mail saves the note automatically. The note’s subject is its first line. (Sorry, you can’t rename a note without changing its first line—and if a graphic is the very first thing in the note, it won’t have any subject.)

Quick Reference: Apple Mail’s notes can contain plain or styled text, graphics, lists, and other files you drag in from the Finder.

Make a list It’s not an obvious feature, but notes can include automatically bulleted or numbered lists. Go to Format -> Lists to apply list styles or, if you’re going to use lists a lot, control-click (or right-click) on the toolbar of a note window and choose Customize Toolbar from the contextual menu. Then drag the Lists icon to the toolbar and click on Done. Now you can use the Lists pop-up menu to format your text.

Find your notes Mail displays all your notes under Notes in the Reminders section of its sidebar. Reminders functions something like a smart mailbox, showing all notes regardless of their actual location. If you have more than one e-mail account set up in Mail, by default the note actually goes into the inbox or Notes mailbox of whichever account you viewed most recently. This can lead to unpredictable behavior, because you might not always know which account Mail considers to be the currently active one. You can force Mail to always store notes in a single IMAP, .Mac, or Exchange account instead. Choose Mail -> Preferences, click on the Composing button in the toolbar, and choose the account you want to use from the Create Notes & To Do’s In pop-up menu. Or choose On My Mac to store all your notes in a local Notes mailbox.

Keep notes out of your inbox When notes appear in your inbox (as they do by default if the mailbox you viewed most recently belongs to an IMAP, .Mac, or Exchange account), you’re unlikely to lose track of them. But the downside is that they may clutter up the inbox, which many people try to keep as empty as possible (a practice I recommend; for details, see Empty Your Inbox).

If you would prefer to store notes in a Notes mailbox so that they appear only in the Notes section of Mail’s sidebar, choose Mail -> Preferences and click on the Accounts icon in the toolbar. In the list on the left, select the account in which your notes are stored. Click on Mailbox Behaviors, and deselect the Store Notes In Inbox option. Changing this option doesn’t move notes already stored in your inbox, however. To move them, select the inbox and then drag each note onto the Notes icon in Mail’s sidebar.

See notes If your notes are stored on an IMAP, .Mac, or Exchange server, you can see (but not edit) them on any computer that can connect to that account—even through a different e-mail program or a Web-based interface. This is convenient if you switch computers frequently, especially if the other computer isn’t a Mac or doesn’t have Mail configured for your e-mail accounts.

However, if you’ve chosen not to store notes in your inbox (as I just described), you may need to explicitly subscribe to the Notes mailbox before you can see it from elsewhere. Some e-mail programs require a special procedure to subscribe to new mailboxes. For example, to do this in Microsoft Entourage on a work computer, select your e-mail account in the Entourage sidebar. Then control-click or right-click on the Notes mailbox in the list on the right and choose Subscribe from the contextual menu.

Mail a note Mail can e-mail the contents of a note without requiring that you copy and paste it into a message. This can be handy, for example, if you want to share notes from a meeting or send your spouse a shopping list. To send someone a note you’ve created, select it and then click on the Send button in the toolbar. Mail creates a new message with the contents of your note; you can then edit and address this just as you would any other message.

Keep on track with To-Dos

To-do items in Mail are exactly the same as to-dos in iCal—they remind you about tasks you have to complete and let you include due dates, priorities, and alarms. The advantage of creating your to-dos in Mail is that you can easily do so based on information in your e-mail messages and notes—without having to launch iCal.

Still, Mail and iCal use the same to-do information. In fact, Mail stores its to-do data within iCal’s calendars, which makes things very simple if you use only POP e-mail accounts. In that case, Mail will simply share your existing On My Mac iCal calendars, and you’ll see the same thing in Mail and iCal, no matter where you create your to-do items. If you use IMAP, .Mac, or Exchange e-mail accounts, however, to-do items you create in iCal may not show up in Mail—and you can’t always put to-do items in the calendar of your choice (see “Sort Out To-Dos from the Start” below).

To-Do List: When you look at your to-do items in list view, each column has a pop-up menu or other control with which you can quickly specify options for the item.
Create a to-do item Create a new to-do in Mail by clicking on the To Do button in the toolbar, choosing File -> New To Do, or pressing Command-option-Y. What happens next depends on where you are in Mail when you do this. If you’re looking at your message list, Mail creates a stand-alone to-do item, which appears in the sidebar in the To Do section under Reminders (see “To-Do List”). Mail never displays to-do items in your inbox, as it sometimes does with notes.

If you have text selected in an e-mail message when you click on the To Do button, Mail shows a to-do item, consisting of the selected text, at the top of the message window; it also lists the item in the To Do section under Reminders. Likewise, if your insertion point is in a note, Mail turns that line of the note into a to-do item (the text you’ve selected will appear highlighted, with a telltale to-do check box next to it). You can easily rename to-do items, unlike notes. Double-click on a to-do item’s title in the To Do list to edit it.

Deal with deadlines Most of us need a little nudge to keep on track with our to-dos. Mail lets you select due dates, priorities, and alarms for each to-do item. You can set these options from within whatever view you’re using to look at the item. To specify options for a to-do item you’ve created within a note or message, click on the arrow icon to the left of the item’s text. In the window that appears, you can select a due date, a priority, and an iCal calendar (see “Task Options”). If you’re setting a due date, you can also opt to have one or more alarms by clicking on the plus-sign (+) icon that appears. You can set the same options if you’re looking at your tasks in the master To Do list under Reminders. Either control-click on an item to see your options in the contextual menu or simply click on the pop-up menu under each header—for example, Due Date—to set it.

Task Options: Add a to-do item to a note or e-mail message, and Mail indicates it with a telltale arrow and check box. Click on the arrow to display a pop-up window where you can specify additional options.

Delete to-do items Be careful: if you delete a to-do item (from within either Mail or iCal), it disappears immediately. It doesn’t move to the Trash, and you can choose Edit -> Undo only if you see your mistake right away. If you created the to-do item within an e-mail message, you can delete either the message or the to-do item individually without affecting the other component. However, if you delete a to-do item created within a note, that line disappears from the note, too. If you delete a note, you delete any and all to-do items created within it.

Undo to-dos If you have created a to-do item within a note, preserve the text while removing the to-do item itself. Place your insertion point within the text and click on the To Do button in the toolbar. The to-do check box, highlighting, and red arrow in a circle will all go away, but the text will remain.

Access to-do items To-do items in local (On My Mac) calendars don’t sync automatically between Macs. But if you’re a .Mac subscriber, you can synchronize calendars through .Mac Sync. Open the .Mac preference pane and click on the Sync tab. Select the Synchronize With .Mac option and choose Calendars.

If you use IMAP or Exchange e-mail accounts, Mail can store your to-do items on the server in a special mailbox—invisible in Mail—called Apple Mail To Do (see “Sort Out To-Dos from the Start” for details). To subscribe to this mailbox from an e-mail client other than Mail—Entourage, for example—first select the e-mail account in the Entourage sidebar. Then control-click or right-click on the Apple Mail To Do mailbox in the list on the right, and choose Subscribe from the contextual menu. Note that you’ll only see the text of your to-do items—you can’t modify them or use the alarms.

Sort out to-dos from the start

After creating to-do items in Mail, do you suddenly have a bunch of extra calendars in iCal? In Mail, are you unable to select the iCal calendar where you want to put your to-do items? These problems typically arise when you have one or more IMAP, .Mac, or Exchange accounts, because these accounts complicate the logic Mail uses when choosing where to store to-do items.

The best way to eliminate this muddle is to choose one destination and stick with it—either keep all your to-do items on your Mac, or keep them all on an e-mail server, rather than sticking with Mail’s default of using the most recently viewed mailbox, wherever that may be.

Store to-do items on your Mac To store all your to-do items locally, select Mail -> Preferences, click on Composing, and choose On My Mac from the Create Notes & To Do’s In pop-up menu. Mail then uses one of your existing On My Mac calendars for every new to-to item; you can reassign any item to a different On My Mac calendar by selecting To Do in Mail’s sidebar and using the pop-up menu in the Calendar column for the item in question. But be aware that storing these items locally affects notes as well as to-do items. If you prefer to store your notes on an e-mail server as described earlier, try the next approach instead.

Store to-do items on a server A different solution is to select your e-mail server as the destination for both your notes and your to-do items; then, move any existing iCal to-do items to a new, server-based calendar. The benefit to doing this is that you’ll still be able to see your notes when accessing your e-mail account from another computer or a Web-based interface; your notes and to-do items will also sync automatically between Macs. The downside is that you’ll have to use different calendars in iCal for events and to-do items, because iCal can’t add events to Mail calendars.

To begin, select Mail -> Preferences, click on Composing, and use the Create Notes & To Do’s In pop-up menu to select the IMAP, .Mac, or Exchange account where you’d like to store your to-do items and notes. Once you’ve selected an account, make a new to-do item (it can be a blank one) to force Mail to create a new calendar, initially called calendar, on the server. (In iCal, you can rename this calendar, delete it, or add new calendars in the same location.) Your to-do items are stored both in that iCal calendar and in a special, hidden mailbox on the mail account’s server, called Apple Mail To Do. As with the Notes mailbox, this setup ensures seamless syncing of to-do items between Macs even if you don’t use .Mac Sync.

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