Can I Customize Message Flags In Lion Apple Mail?

I’m really working on better organization and management of my email inbox and archives, and want to know now that I’m using Mac OS X Lion’s new version of Apple Mail, whether I can rename or otherwise customize the “flags” that are included in the program?

Dave’s Answer:

Congrats on tackling the crazy job of trying to organize your email. It’s a bear if you’re anything like me, and if you’ve just let it all accumulate in your inbox for the past few months (or years!) it can be quite crazy to fix things or get the beast under control.

If you do have a huge archive, it’s time to really start relying on the super-fast search mechanism built in to Apple Mail by creating a set of folders by month (or year, if your archive goes back that crazy far), then drag all the messages from your inbox that match that particular date range. Need to find one? Just search for sender, subject, a few words in the message contents, etc. But now your inbox is considerably slimmer and you don’t have to feel the sinking feeling of “953 new messages, 11534 in mailbox”. Yikes.

Part of being able to quickly find critical messages in your email archive, whether you use folders as I suggest or just leave it all piled in your inbox, is to use the message flags. I’m going to guess that they’re typically ignored, but they turn out to be super useful, but you need to know how to work with them in Apple Mail for the benefit to shine.

Let’s start by displaying the colored flag smart mailbox items. To do that, scroll down and look at the bottom of your mailbox and folder display in Apple Mail. It’ll look like this:

mac lion apple mail flags 1

Confusing, but it’s “REMINDERS” that actually contain the smart mailboxes for flags that you’re using. Move the cursor just to the right of the word “REMINDERS” and something new rather magically shows up:

mac lion apple mail flags 2

Click on “Show” and if you are using flags, they’ll show up with a matching-message count immediately below:

mac lion apple mail flags 3

Click on the triangle adjacent to “Flagged” and it’ll give you even more details:

mac lion apple mail flags 4

Here’s where you can actually rename the flags from their color names to specific keywords that are meaningful to you. If you don’t have any flags showing, then go ahead and flag a message or two (when you’re looking at the message, choose “Flag” from the “Message” menu) then come back. You’ll see the colors you have in use.

Change their names by clicking on the name itself in this display area, then typing in the new name. I’m going to change “Red” to “Legal”, “Green” to “Useful Docs” and, after adding an orange flag by simply using it to tag a message, rename that to “Sysadmin”. Now it looks far more interesting:

mac lion apple mail flags 5

What’s terrific is that at this point the new names of the flags show up everywhere there’s a flag. For example, here’s what I see if I want to use the flag button just above a displayed message now:

mac lion apple mail flags 6

Remember, flagging a message red, blue, legal or useful doc is in addition to your ability to drop it in a named mailbox of your choice, so I encourage you to use both to maximize the organization of your email. It can take a while to add it if you have a ton of mail, but at least start organizing it from today forward and when you have time, go back and clean up older message archives. The journey of a thousand miles begins, after all, with a single step.

Categorized as Mac

By Dave Taylor

Dave Taylor has been involved with the Internet since 1980 and is internationally known as an expert on both business and technology issues. Holder of an MSEd and MBA, author of twenty books and founder of four startups, he also runs a strategic marketing company and consults with firms seeking the best approach to working with weblogs and social networks. Dave is an award-winning speaker and frequent guest on radio and podcast programs.