How to make Apple's Mail deliver more productivity

You can use Rules in Mail to automate tasks and help you focus on getting more work done.

Apple, Mail, iOS, macOS, iCloud, email

Apple gave its Mail app a small facelift in 2020, but it remains quite limited in comparison with other available email rivals. But you can get a little more from Mail with a little perseverance thanks to Rules.

Here's how to get Mail to deliver more.

What are Rules in Apple Mail?

Mail supports Rules that are automatically applied to incoming messages. These rules can automate such functions as message forwarding, archiving, and more.

There are some big limitations, however:

  • You can’t create rules on iOS devices.
  • While you can create rules on Macs, they will only be applied on that Mac.
  • To create a rule that works and syncs across your Macs and iOS devices you must make it at Unfortunately, this will only work with your iCloud mail.

None of these restrictions is ideal, but if you use iCloud mail in your business (or just want to create an automated system to capture any business-related messages that may slip through your home account in this WFH-age) rules may help.

Alternatives to Mail

There are many more sophisticated alternatives to Mail that manage to combine security and privacy with useful functionalit; three that may match the needs of an enterprise worker best include:

Outlook: Microsoft continues to make Outlook a powerful productivity tool, integrating calendar, to-do lists, data encryption, and integration with all its Office apps. There’s also support for third-party add-ons.

Spark: Offering a clean user interface and powerful tools — including a smart inbox that gathers emails into useful categories, smart mailboxes, integrations with cool tools such as OmniFocus, and the ability to send messages later (with follow-up reminders) — this is a good solution for many.

AirMail: Here's another powerful option offering many of the same features as Spark and many more than Mail.  AirMail includes Snooze and send-later functions, a useful privacy mode, and support for third-party integration with apps such as Notes, Dropbox, and Evernote.

How to create Rules in Mail

There are two ways to create Rules in Mail, on your Mac and online at

On your Mac, open Mail>Preferences and tap Rules, then tap Add Rule.

macOS Mail rules Apple

Rules in macOS Mail.

At, login to your account, open Mail online, and look for the gears icon at the bottom left of the browser window. Tap this and you’ll see a Rules item, which you should select. You then tap the Add Rule button.

You will find that the user interface for the online and Mac versions of Rules are a little different, but what they do is similar, though the Mac iteration is far more configurable with more options. At its simplest, they let you define a condition that applies to the incoming message, ie. ‘If a message”… and choose what is done with something that fulfils the condition.

You can create rules to your heart’s content, but here are three that may come in useful if you are desperately trying to get things done despite a pressing deadline.

How to automate email forwarding

If you work on projects, you may need to make certain that all email related to that task is emailed to people you are working with or sent to some type of message archive. While this rule does require a certain discipline, it should make that process much easier.

In the first criteria choose: Has subject containing

In the second criteria choose: Forward to and set the email address(es) you wish these messages to go to.

How to set message color

It seems pretty annoying that you can’t set this automation on iCloud online, but on a Mac you can create a rule to automatically set message color, which should make them easier to track.

So, if you wanted to ensure that all messages from a small group of colleagues is colored yellow, you’ll set the condition “If From Contains [email addresses]” Perform the following actions Set Color of Message to your choice of color.

How to move messages to specific folders

You can set messages to land in specific sub-folders. This is helpful when attempting to keep up with specific mails on specific topics and projects. However, it is annoying that when you build this rule in iCloud, the resulting sub-folder appears as an easy-to-forget collection in your Mail account, rather than at the top level in Mail; you must open your iCloud mail in the left hand menu and scroll down to find that folder.

All is not completely lost, however, as you can then drag and drop that sub-folder so it appears just beneath your "All Inboxes" item.

On a Mac: Create a folder in the Mail Sidebar (Choose Mailbox>New Mailbox, name the folder and choose where you want it to be stored).

You’ll then build a rule, or set of rules, to gather together the relevant messages. You might want to set this up so messages from a certain group of people, or containing specific trigger words, are all collected into this folder.

On iCloud: Choose "if a message is from" and add the relevant email addresses, after which you should set the Then instruction to Move to Folder and tap the Choose a Folder item to select an existing folder, or set one up to store these messages.

Limitations of Mail

If I’m honest, pulling this report together has exposed the disadvantages of Mail more clearly. While I appreciate it’s possible to use Automator and Apple Script to create automations for Mail, this adds a degree of complexity most people don’t have time for when dealing with dangerous deadlnes.

Why, for example, can’t Mail rules sync across all your Macs and devices when built on your Mac? Why is the user interface different, and why is it not possible to build or even edit rules on an iOS device, unless they happen to be stored in iCloud? And what about Siri? We know Siri and Spotlight are quite capable of yielding useful insights concerning our mail, so why is it not easily possible to ask Siri to create new mailboxes, gather it into folders, or define colors in mails?

While I think Shortcuts and Smart folders may help with some of these problems, this, in combination with the lack of cross-platform collaboration tools in iMessage and FaceTime, display a gap in Apple’s perception of this aspect of information and communication technology.

Mail should be at least as good as Outlook, and should benefit from Apple’s rich ecosystem of third-party developers and app integrations. In an increasingly digital world, we all need messaging tools that enable us to stay productive while automating tasks we choose to leave behind, and I don't really see Mail meeting that need at this time. Still, these tips and shortcuts should help you get a little more done.

Please follow me on Twitter, or join me in the AppleHolic’s bar & grill and Apple Discussions groups on MeWe.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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