How I Use: Search in Mail on macOS

Over the past couple of months, my mail workflow has changed. I used Airmail a lot on all devices. Aesthetically it’s great on the eye, lots of Power User actions and it was a pleasure (in the main) to process my Inboxes. I did find, however, that there were occasions where mailboxes weren’t syncing correctly and I was losing important messages. Also, there were times when messages were being stuck in my Inbox on one device, despite being moved to Trash, or Archived, on another. As much as I try to minimise my use of email, it’s still got to be reliable when I need it, so despite the fact it still looks kinda ugly, I moved back to Mail.app as my default Mail client. I also use MailButlernow which makes using Mail a lot more pleasant and I’ll write about my experience with this application soon. 

One thing I missed about Airmail when I first moved across was the Searchingcapabilities. By default, Airmail will search all mailboxes rather than the one you are currently in so this was a habit I had got into that needed to break. Why do I rely on Search so much? Well, my workflow means that I have a minimised email structure. For each email account I have (unfortunately I have several clients, meaning several different accounts as I work with them), I have an Inbox and an Archive folder. Oh, and Trash of course, however I don’t really count that. I don’t like the whole subfolder culture that is around. If I took the time to file every email that came in into a dedicated folder, I’d never have time to work! Also, how often do I find myself retrieving that email? Not often. The time taken to file is a lot longer than the time it takes to perform a search on the whole, so I decided to learn as much as I could about how to search effectively within Mail.app. I was pleasantly surprised when I dug a little deeper and while the below isn’t an exponential list of all of the functionality, it highlights how I use it daily, so hopefully will help you. 

1 - Natural Language

I didn’t realise that Mail was able to understand natural language. I guess I’ve been away from it too long, so when I started to type in phrases like from Kelly yesterday or pdf files to Mike, it was nice to see the right results appear. I’ve got into using natural language parsing a lot when using apps such as Fantastical 2 and voice assistants such as the Amazon Echo so I’m pleased that I can keep that habit going. 

Other searches I’ll use over the course of the day include

  • from (person)
  • To (person)
  • Excel files
  • (date)
  • To (person) about (keyword)

2 - Stack Search Criteria

You aren’t limited to one search term. Once you’ve clicked on your first search element, continue typing and another list of potential search criteria will appear below. Click again, rinse, repeat as often as necessary. You can see below that I’m creating a search for emails from my wife, received yesterday, that have attachments. 

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3 - Saved Searches

If I find myself searching for the same criteria more than once, I’ll save the search so that I can use it again at the click of a button. When you’ve configured your Search criteria, click the Save button below the text entry field. You’ll see a dialog window appear that allows you to configure what is known as a Smart Mailbox. Smart Mailboxes are ace. Just like a Smart Playlist in iTunes, Smart Mailboxes are dynamic and will only show you emails based on the searches you have defined. If you find yourself always looking for emails from your boss that were sent in the last week, then setup a Smart Mailbox that will only show these messages. Saves a lot of time. 

4 - Ranged Date Searches

Sometimes I know roughly when I received an email from somebody, however I”m not entirely sure as to the exact date. You can specify a date range for Mail to search through. Type date followed by a colon and then the range. 

5 - BOOLEAN Operators

Of course, we can utilise BOOLEAN operators if we want an effective search system, such as ANDNOT and OR however I have to say I don’t use them as often as you would think. Generally, I find 95% of the emails I need using the methods above and in a very timely manner. There are occasions where using BOOLEAN operations has helped with complex searches, however if it’s something I may need to search again, I’ll simply setup a Smart Mailbox and use the built-in tools for building the search there. 

So that’s a brief overview as to how I search for emails in Mail on macOS. If you find you need to use more complicated methods than this, or indeed you have simplified ones, then comment below! Would love to hear from you.