How I set up a better way of archiving email in Apple Mail – and made a usable keyboard shortcut (it was harder than I expected!)

NOTE: This article applies only to Macs running Snow Leopard (10.6.3), which I’ve happily abandoned since writing it. In Yosemite and onward, Apple Mail includes a built-in Archive folder as well as a “Move to Archive” menu command and keyboard shortcut. Bliss! And no need to use the following workaround. Oh, and Shaw now – finally! – offers IMAP email, so I have at last made the switch.

mailboxesSo, for years now, I’ve kept all my emails – everything. Nothing ever thrown away. Chaos, you say? Hardly, I simply hit “delete” when done with a message, but never empty my mail program’s trash. (In Apple Mail, I had to tell it to never delete the Trash under Settings -> Account -> Mailbox Behaviours.)

I started doing this not long after email programs acquired their now-customary, extremely powerful search functions. I realized at that point that there was hardly any reason to squirrel away messages into custom folders, as I had formerly done. The magical search function obviated the need for such a labour-intensive and poky filing system. Since then, the ability to type in a phrase and quickly zero in on and retrieve some suddenly-important tidbit of info from a long-forgotten message has come in handy more times than I can remember.

Recently though, I helped a client of mine to switch over to the IMAP method of checking mail, on all her devices – an iMac, laptop, and iPhone. (The alternative method is called POP.) Though I hadn’t much more than theoretical experience with this somewhat arcane email setting, I knew it was ideal for multiple devices, as it kept everything synchronized – not only your inbox, but even the messages you’ve sent out, drafts; everything would be identical on all machines regardless of which one you’d last been on. In todays’ mobile-centric day and age, this is incredibly helpful.

Once I moved my client over to IMAP successfully (marvelling along with her as her read, unread, and sent messages synced up before our eyes on her laptop and iMac), it occurred to me that I probably wanted to do it too.

If I was going to go this route, however, I needed to make some preparatory changes to my routine. Mainly, I needed to stop using Trash as my archival storage. If I was using IMAP, Trash would definitely, sooner or later, get… trashed. It was no place for important messages. I needed a different, custom folder – which I called, naturally enough, “Archive”. Creating the folder was easy, but now I needed a quick way to get messages into it.

This was actually quite a challenge. It had to be as easy as my former method of just selecting a message and hitting “Delete”. Anything more complicated or sluggish, and it wouldn’t happen.

I naturally thought of making a keyboard shortcut. I’d previously used OS X’s built-in feature for making application-specific keyboard shortcuts to roll my own “Remove Attachments” keystroke (essential to keep my “save every message” system from bloating my Trash to epic proportions).

My initial kick at this can didn’t work, though. So I followed instructions I found online that supposedly would enable it. However, it never worked for me. I followed the detailed instructions, eagerly my custom keyboard shortcut (Command-Control-A)… and nothing happened. Grr.

Then I discovered a method that worked, but with a catch. This was to use Automator to create an Action that shows up in System Preferences, under Keyboard, as an Application Shortcut. I got that working… but it was super-slow. We’re talking anywhere from three to 10 seconds before my selected message moved to the Archive. And in that time, if I clicked on any other message, that message would get pushed to the Archive. So I was held hostage for all those painful seconds by this sluggish process. There had to be a better way.

Luckily there was, and it’s called Fastscripts.

This is a “script management utility” that lets you make custom Applescripts available  to particular programs – and lets them run fast. As the Macword review states, it provides “better performance, quick access to both user and systemwide scripts folders, on-screen script-feedback messages, and better menu organization.” But for me the bottom line was that it made my keyboard shortcut usable again.

So, how did I do it?

I opened the Applescript Editor and made a new script called “Move to Archive”. In it, I typed the following:

tell application “Mail”
set theMessages to the selection
move theMessages to mailbox “Archive”
end tell

I saved it, as a Script, in my user folder’s Library/Scripts/Applications/Mail folder.

I downloaded and installed Fastscripts, which put a special icon in my menubar. From that icon/menu, I chose Fastscripts -> Preferences. In that window, I located the script I’d just saved – there’s a list that clearly shows the locations where scripts are stored and i just looked for mine. Then I double-clicked the Shortcut, and typed in my preferred one (Cmd-Ctrl-A). Done!


The Preferences pane of Fastscripts.
The Preferences pane of Fastscripts.

To be sure it would work, I quit and restarted Mail, and also relaunched the Finder. To do the latter, I called up the Force Quit window (Command-Option-Escape), selected the Finder, and hit “Relaunch”. (This doesn’t affect any other currently-running programs.) You may not need to take these steps, but if you don’t find your shortcut working, they may be necessary.

After going through this process, my shortcut works like lightning. Well, at least as fast as the old “Delete” key used to. It’s usually instant, and never more than a second or two. Aaaahhh…

I would now switch to IMAP in my Apple Mail program, but alas, being on Shaw, I can’t – incredibly, and against the grain of most ISP’s out there, they don’t offer the service! I even had a lengthy email conversation with their tech support, and in the end there was no solution offered that would achieve what I need – they offer MS Exchange as an alternate for mobile devices, but since Mail can’t use that service, it’s stuck with POP, which means I can never truly synchronize everything. Sigh… [NOTE: Shaw now does offer IMAP, and as of June 2015, I’ve happily and successfully made the switch. – AA]

Still, having the truly Archive-worthy messages in their proper place, and the Trash thrown away for good, saves some space on my machine, and is semantically better – as well as ensuring I’m good to go if and when I can access IMAP. Hopefully if you’re looking for a similar solution, you can go all the way!

4 thoughts on “How I set up a better way of archiving email in Apple Mail – and made a usable keyboard shortcut (it was harder than I expected!)

  1. Adam, AppleMail does support ms exchange, and so does IOS. So you should be able to switch over and enjoy the syncing.
    Or you could switch to gmail and do it that way, if you have a very old version of osx.

  2. Hmm, do you mean this would enable the kind of “read/unread status” and sent-mail syncing, that I understood only IMAP could provide? I’d definitely look into switching, then. I’m on Snow Leopard though – is that too old?

  3. Exchange servers actually have an option on them to support IMAP, and many places have this turned on. it’s a little buggy (a Microsoft product not properly supporting a standard! Surprise!) but seems to work. From what I hear. My university just switched to exchange and refuse to turn on the IMAP option…

  4. Thanks Joanna! So frustrating when your provider limits your options like that. I was in the same boat for the longest time, unable to use IMAP as my ISP didn’t support it! Madness. But now, thankfully, they do – and I’m happily synced up across my devices.

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