How to find messages in macOS Mail: 5 tips

Chances are you know the feeling. The initial sensation often mimics optimism. But when you cannot immediately locate an email message, frustration becomes the dominant emotion. Here are five tips to help you find wayward email messages using macOS Mail.

First, check folders immediately adjacent to the Mail folder in which you thought you placed the original message. Most everyone creates subfolders beneath the Inbox; typically, these subfolders are dedicated to various functions, clients, projects, subjects, or even senders. I've often located missing messages in an adjacent folder--the missing message's storage location having fallen victim to shoddy mouse work. All you typically require to locate such misplaced messages is the general time frame in which the corresponding message was sent or received.

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Second, perform a dedicated search within macOS Mail using the sender or recipient's email address. Simply enter the sender's or recipient's email address within the search field. While a seemingly simple step, in 15 years of consulting and help desk supervision, I've found this basic fundamental is often surprisingly overlooked.

Third, expand your search string if searching by the email address doesn't work. Remove the specific email address from which you thought the message was received or was sent and instead add relevant information. It's possible you did not remember the correct email address, or the message was sent from or to a different mailbox for the same sender or recipient.

For example, if the message regarded a special product launch event, you could enter the product's name and the word budget (e.g., Acme 5000 budget). If you are certain the message contained a spreadsheet or PDF, add those words and even file extensions (xlsx or PDF) to the search string. Such search additions can quickly narrow a search to a handful of messages.

Fourth, try to search using Mail suggestions and filters. Apple includes within macOS dynamic features that assist locating lost messages. When you begin typing within the search field, Mail will display search suggestions you can execute by clicking the relevant suggestion.

Once you select a suggested search string, the search field adds a drop-down menu that can be selected to specify whether the search should be limited to just the subject or the entire message, for example, as shown in Figure A. Choose accordingly.

Figure A

You can search message headers, which proves helpful when you're confident you know the sender or recipient or other specific information regarding the message you seek. Type from: Jane Doe or to: John Doe in the search field to search the corresponding header element.

You can also try searching by importance. Append message importance to the search by adding priority and the respective label, such as high (i.e., priority: high), which will trigger a Priority !! High search suggestion that you can select from the dynamic search suggestions that appear as you type within the search field. Because macOS Mail supports Boolean searches, you can leverage AND, OR, and NOT statements to fine-tune specific searches.

Narrowing a search using filters is an option, too. For example, you can click the provided icon within the messages short window (Figure B) to filter a search by read or unread messages.

Figure B

Fifth, if those efforts fail, try using Spotlight. It's possible the email message was moved out of macOS Mail into a standard file folder. I've located more than one missing message by searching outside macOS before, so trust me when I say it's worth a shot.

Messages sometimes hide, but if they're still present on your hard drive, these methods should help track them down. Should these steps fail, a last resort is to request the sender or recipient send you the message in question. While not an elegant solution, I've found that step, on a few rare occasions, did the trick and surfaced the missing message.

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