How to filter messages in Apple Mail

How to filter messages in Apple Mail
Quick Mac Tip, 03 April 2011

We all know that keeping things tidy helps improve efficiency so here are some tips to help keep your email messages catalogued in a manner that is "sympathetic" to your workflow.

This guest Tip is written by Graham McKay.

Graham McKay. Graham McKay is a long time corporate IT guy, originally from NZ but now in Sydney, who has recently decided to break out of the grey suited world and share his extensive Apple OS X troubleshooting skills via his own consulting company.

Automatically apply actions to incoming messages

In the Mail preferences screen you’ll find the "Rules" tab — its icon of an envelope with some arrows gives you a better idea of its main usefulness.

A "rule" has two parts: firstly to examine and hence filter a message based upon its contents, and secondly to perform an action upon the message if it meets the filtering criteria. Here’s a rule of mine:

An example rule from

An example rule from

An explanation of the parts of the rule

Your choice on how to name your rule
Any / All:
This dictates how multiple conditions will be applied. Any is like using an "or" in between, so only one of the conditions has to be true for the message to pass through the filter. All is like using "and", so every condition must be true.
Choose a Message Attribute.

Choose a Message Attribute.

Message attribute:
The drop down box gives a swag of different message attributes that you can have the filter examine. Note that the last option in the list is to Edit Header List. Often as a message passes through different servers on its traversal of the internet it will have extra information added to its header portion. In this example you can see that I have the field X-SpamDetect that I added to the list. This is one that my ISP uses to tell me what their spam filter thought of the message.
Operator & Value:
These selectors give you different options depending on what message attribute you are examining.
Plus & Minus buttons:
Add or remove conditions as required.
Here is where you decide what you want to do with the message and you can do more than one thing. For instance change its colour, move it to a particular folder, and then play a unique notification sound.
Action Value:
Choose the colour, folder, or sound etc.

Watch the sequence

Note: Mail rules are run one by one in the sequence you arrange them. The sequence stops when an applicable rule causes the message to be moved out of the current folder, or when it includes the Stop evaluating rules action.

A sequence of actions.

A sequence of actions.

These rules run automatically against any incoming mail message but you can also run them manually against particular messages by selecting the messages and then using the menu option Message > Apply Rules.

I use these rules to move as many messages as possible out of the Inbox and into categorised folders. I then scan through the Inbox to see what messages haven’t been categorised and deal with them appropriately.

Do you have a favourite rule for that speeds your workflow along? Would it be useful for others? Tell us in the Comments. Could you write a guest MacTip? If so, contact me.

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  1. John said:

    I filtered an email from a source that I didn’t mean to filter. How do I reverse and ‘unfilter’ (new word) that sender? Thank you

    • Miraz Jordan said:

      I don’t use myself, John, but I’d look in Mail’s menus for the Rules item and then look for the one you created by mistake. You should be able to edit or remove it.

  2. Suzanne Leu said:

    Sometimes a remailer will send spam ads for lots of different companies – the actual sender can be found if you check “View – Message – Long Headers” and look farther down. Add this address to your rules and hallo, lots of spam will disappear in one swoop…

    Plus, instead of adding a specific address, add the domain address, that is, e.g. * instead of As the domain often remains the same but the front part changes, this will help.

  3. Maureen said:

    I have set up my mail preferences but I’m still having problems with some things not sorting properly. In particular, I have two emails that consistently go to my junk email box. One of them I have set up a rule to delete on receipt, based on the mail attribute “from contains @[]“. Using the same mail attribute, I’ve set the other one to go to my inbox (i.e. it is not junk). But they don’t automatically sort. I always have to go into the junk mail box, open mail preferences, and force them to move (or use message>apply rules). What should I look for in my settings that might be causing these not to sort as they should?

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