How to Make Apple Mail a Better Desktop Email Client

Akshata Shanbhag 25-10-2016

Complex, ugly, boring — that was what I thought of my Mac’s Mail app every time I opened it. Enjoying the likes of Airmail and Kiwi 5 Apple Mail Alternatives for Mac OS X Every Mac comes with a free email application, but it's not the be-all and end-all of OS X email solutions. Here's five of the best alternatives. Read More  and knowing the benefits of using a third-party mail app Choose a Third-Party Mac Mail App for All These Benefits Looking for a new Mac email client? Tired of Apple Mail? Many third-party clients are worth considering, each packed with features either missing or lacking in Read More  might have had something to do with it.


Recently, I decided to switch to default Mac apps The Best Default Mac Apps That You Shouldn't Need to Replace Here are some of the best default, pre-installed, native Mac apps worth using. Don't ditch them before you try them! Read More to cut down on app clutter. As part of that switch, I set up Mac Mail and decided to try it for a week. I was sure I would give it up in two days tops.

Two months later, I’m still using Mac Mail, and have come to love it. I think that’s because I took the time to set it up right. I made email processing as painless as possible with these six steps. So can you!

Customize the Toolbar

Want to deal with emails super fast? Set up the toolbar to your satisfaction and use one-click buttons to take action on emails. That’s so much better than fumbling with menu options or keyboard shortcuts that you can’t remember.

To configure the toolbar, right-click on it and select Customize Toolbar… from the context menu. You’ll now see a dialog box with all the icons you can drag and drop onto the toolbar where you want them to show up. When this dialog box is active, you can also drag icons off the toolbar to get rid of them or move them around to rearrange them.

Mac Mail -- Customize Toolbar


Here are the icon changes I would recommend:

  • Remove Delete — It’s easier to swipe left (on macOS Sierra) or hit the delete key to delete an email.
  • Remove Reply All — Keeping the Reply All button where you might click on it without meaning to is a recipe for disaster.
  • Add Unread / Read — This one’s handy for marking emails as read (or unread) in bulk.
  • Add Move selected messages — This saves you from having to expand/collapse sidebar folders to drag and drop emails to. Trust me, selecting folders to move emails is so much simpler from a nested menu hidden behind a toolbar icon.
  • Add Sidebar — Keep the sidebar out of sight but easy to access with this sidebar toggle icon for the toolbar.

Note — Some toolbar icons come in pairs. Delete and Junk, for example. But you’ll also find individual icons for these actions if you want to add or drop one of them.

Mac Mail -- Paired Icons

Hide Distracting Visual Elements

The first thing I do when I install a new app is clean up its interface. I tuck away all the elements that get in the way and keep only the most used ones in sight. I did the same for Apple Mail by hiding:

  • List Previews — These are the first couple of lines of email text you see in the messages column. I prefer to keep them hidden because I can tell what an email is about from the subject line — for the most important emails anyway. Chances are you can too. To make list previews disappear, under Mail > Preferences… > Viewing, select None from the List Preview dropdown menu.

Mac Mail -- Hide List Previews

  • Mailbox Folders — For each email account, Mac Mail creates a dedicated mailbox to store emails that belong to a particular folder or label. Collapse these mailboxes by clicking on the Hide link that appears when you hover over the name of a mailbox in the sidebar.
  • Tab Bar — Hide the tab bar by unchecking the Show Tab Bar option in the View menu. The tab bar reappears by itself when you create a new tab, but stays out of your way when you have a single tab active.
  • Favorites Bar — If you prefer to switch between mailboxes from the sidebar like I do, the favorites bar feels redundant. Go ahead and hide it by clicking on View > Hide Favorites Bar.
  • Sidebar — I know I just said I switch mailboxes from the sidebar, so why would I hide the it? Well, I access only the Inbox mailbox or the unified inbox often. As long as I select that before I hide the sidebar, I’m good. To access other mailboxes, I can toggle the sidebar anytime using the sidebar icon I added while customizing the toolbar.

Here’s how Mac Mail looks after I cleaned it up:

Mac Mail -- New Look

Simplify Email Searches

You won’t have to search too hard to find any important email if you have a system in place to direct emails where they belong. Here are my suggestions for doing that.


Use Flags

Flags are the Mac Mail equivalent of stars/favorites. Use them to highlight emails that, say, you refer to often or ones that you need to take action on soon. These emails will then show up under the Flagged mailbox in the sidebar. Pick flags of different colors to identify different types of important emails.

Mac Mail -- Flagged Email

To be honest, I don’t use flags myself, because I find those colorful flag symbols disturbing. They seem to say “How could you forget about this?” all the time instead of saying “Here’s what you need!” the way yellow star icons do.

Set Up Smart Mailboxes and Mailbox Rules

These two Mac Mail features work more or less like filters in Gmail 4 Smart Gmail Filters That Help You Deal with Too Much Email Decluttering and organizing your Gmail inbox is a daily chore. There is a smarter way to do it. Create four basic types of filters in Gmail to sort your emails right automatically. Read More . Both smart mailboxes and mailbox rules isolate emails that match the criteria you specify. The difference is that rules also take follow-up action on the emails.


For example, let’s say you want to keep all communication from in a quick-access section. You also want to move incoming MakeUseOf Deals emails to a dedicated folder. In that case, you can:

  • Create a smart mailbox for all emails from MakeUseOf. Click on Mailbox > New Smart Mailbox… Next, as shown in the image below, specify that you want to isolate all messages that contain in the From field. Hit Ok to create the mailbox.This new smart mailbox shows up under Smart Mailboxes in the sidebar. Deleting this mailbox doesn’t delete its contents from your inbox.

Mac Mail -- New Smart Mailbox

  • Create a mailbox rule to move MakeUseOf Deals to a folder of your choice automatically. Under Mail > Preferences > Rules, click on the Add Rule button. You should now see a popup like the one that came up when you created a smart mailbox above.You’ll notice that in this new popup, you can not only specify which emails you want to identify, but also what you want Mail to do with them. Set up this rule as shown in the snapshot below. Rules support multiple actions, so you can also, say, color code these emails if you wish.

Mac Mail -- Mailbox Rule

You might want to set up these essential smart mailboxes Five Essential Smart Mailboxes For Apple Mail [Mac] Read More and simple mailbox rules for Apple Mail 2 Simple Apple Mail Rules To Better Deal With Incoming Emails [Mac] Read More .

When you use these mail filtering features in tandem with the search box, you can bring up any email in just a few seconds. The search box supports natural language search, by the way.

Make It Easier to Fight Email Addiction

Most email apps do their best to convince you that the world will end if you don’t check your email What Happened When I Went Completely Offline For A Week Living in the Internet era has changed us to such an extent that the idea of having to live completely offline even for a little while sounds like a prison sentence. But it really isn't. Read More right this instant. You and I both know that isn’t true, and it’s up to us to counter that argument, which takes the form of intrusive notifications.

I made the following changes to make email feel more of a convenience and less of an obligation. See if they could help you:

  • No Dock icon — Yes, I got rid of the dock icon for Mail to avoid seeing the unread count, which I can never manage to ignore. So unless I have the Mail app open, I don’t see the unread count no matter how many emails have piled up in my inbox.
  • Banner style alerts for notifications — Under System Preferences > Notifications > Mail, pick Banners under Mail Alert Style. Unlike Alerts, Banner notifications disappear automatically.

Mac Mail -- Banner Notifications

  • Keyboard shortcut for Notification Center’s Do Not Disturb mode — Under System Preferences > Keyboard > Shortcuts > Mission Control, check the box for Turn Do Not Disturb On/Off. Also, memorize its default shortcut or add one of your own (I use F10). Now you can banish all notifications when you’re working and bring them back with the press of a key.

Check Mailbox Mapping

Did you set up a new account in Mac Mail? Hop over to Mail > Preferences > Accounts > Mailbox Behaviors for that account. There, check that the mailboxes in Mac Mail correspond to the right ones in your email account. They usually do, but it doesn’t hurt to check. And if your mails are getting all mixed up, you now know where the problem could lie.

Mac Mail -- Mailbox Mapping

Unsubscribe From Folders You Don’t Use Often

Mac Mail subscribes to all the folders/labels in your email account by default. If there’s any folder that you need for organization, but almost never check, think about unsubscribing from it in Mac Mail.

To unsubscribe from a folder in the Mail app, first right-click on that folder in the sidebar and select Get Account Info. This brings you to Account Info > Subscription List, from where you can unsubscribe from the selected folder.

Mac Mail -- Get Account Info

For some reason, I couldn’t see any of my mail folders in the subscription list even though I had subscribed to them. I was still able to unsubscribe from unneeded folders from my webmail account, which happens to be a Gmail account. I deselected the Show in IMAP checkbox for the relevant folder under Settings > Labels in Gmail.

Get a Few Mac Mail Plugins

Apple Mail supports plugins, so you’ll want to install a few to add features you wish Mail had or to enhance your Mail experience. The popular MailButler plugin is a good place to begin.

MailButler adds tools for tasks like snoozing, scheduling, and tracking emails. Its basic version is free, and packs features like Undo Send, attachment reminders, and cloud uploads. You also get to use 30 Professional actions per month — each use of a Pro feature constitutes an action. The premium plans begin at 7.95 Euros per month.

Mac Mail -- Mail Butler

Install Herald if you would like to process emails right from their notification banners.

If you want to organise emails better and identify them quicker, get MailTags. It allows you to add metadata such as keywords, notes, and due dates to emails.

There are also a few more Mac Mail plugins you’ll want to check out.

Dig Deeper Into Apple Mail Features and Settings

Yes, there’s a lot more you can do with Mac Mail. Annotate images, schedule emails How to Schedule Email on Your Mac Need to schedule email on your Mac? Here's how to send email at specific time using a few different methods. Read More , and make emails prettier with Stationery templates Beautify Your Emails With Apple's Mail Stationery Take your emails from plain text to personal. Apple's Mail includes often-overlooked attractive Stationery templates for making your messages stand out. Read More , for starters. For now though, I have focused on one-time changes that will set the stage for stress-free email management 6 Simple Tricks to Reduce Email Stress Dealing with email is the best part of my day. Said no one ever. You need all the tips you can get to manage your email inbox? We can help you out! Read More . After you make these changes, go through the various tabs under Mail > Preferences to set up Mail just so. It might change your perception of Mac Mail for the better.

What bugs you about your Mac’s built-in mail client? Have you found a way to fix it? Share your Apple Mail tips and tricks with us!

Image Credits: NOBUHIRO ASADA/Shutterstock

Related topics: Apple Mail, Desktop Email Client, Email Tips, macOS Sierra.

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  1. Ruth Watson
    October 14, 2017 at 9:31 am

    I was told by Telstra Australia that they no longer support Apple mail then hang up on me. For over a week I have been trying the solve the problem because I can no longer receive or send mail. HELP Please

  2. Cody Edwards
    October 26, 2016 at 3:03 pm

    Thank-you for this very timely tutorial! I was getting frustrated with Mail and had head about new mail clients like Polymail ... but they weren't quite living up to their hype. It's great to see that there were some things I didn't know about Mail that I now know. Thanks again!

    • Akshata Shanbhag
      October 27, 2016 at 11:02 am

      You're welcome, Cody :) It's great to hear you found the tutorial at the right time.