Cut the Cluster from Gmail in Apple Mail

For the longest time, I've been annoyed with how Gmail was displayed in Apple's Mail app.  My mailbox sidebar was the most insane collection of folders and miscellaneous junk ever to grace my computer.  Here's my story on how I figured out how to cut through the clutter.

Gmail quickly became more of a bane than a blessing some time ago - no longer was it the savior of all things digital correspondence.  There was constant fiddling with it on the part of Google and what once was something that kept me organized and motivated turned into a nightmare.  It seems that the day Google took the beta tag off Gmail is the day the innovation stopped and it started to feel like every other email service.

I've been a long-time user of Apple Mail since the Jaguar days.  It was a decent app, but I would hardly have called myself a fan.  It always managed to act buggy, constantly corrupting mail archives and crashing frequently.  I suffered random disconnects and reconnects from my mail server.  The application was very picky about using SMTP and would fail more than it's share of times while sending a crucial email.  Organization of emails was a total chore and if you were using it with IMAP services like Gmail, forget about ever achieving Inbox Zero easily.

About a year ago, I switched to Sparrow Mail and it was a great transition.  The interface was much cleaner and seemingly more organized than anything in Apple Mail.  I say seemingly because at that time, Apple mail was a total mess for reasons previously mentioned.  Eventually though, Sparrow outgrew it's welcome on my Mac mostly because it's greatest asset was, for me, also it's greatest flaw.  The interface, while streamlined and intuitive, was too plain.  While I could tweak the UI within the application, it just wasn't as awesome as the interface on my iPhone.

With the popularity of the iPad, Apple changed things up a bit in OS X Lion.  10.7 boasts some pretty neat features taken from the concepts users were familiar with from Apple's mobile devices.  The best revamped application - hands down - is Apple Mail.  Gone are the days of unreliable performance and I get the exact same functionality between my laptop, iPhone and iPad.  However, there still remained one last thing to make the UI perfect: I couldn't figure out a way to eliminate the horrible cluster of IMAP folders sitting in my mailbox pane.  With a bit of poking around on the Gmail side of things, I was able to completely clean up Mail.  Here's how I did it.

Log in to your Gmail account, go to your Mail settings and go to the Labels tab.  This is where Gmail stores all of the folders you see on the left menu of your mail window and in mail clients.  Each time you create a label in Gmail, this is the place you can go to modify it's attributes.  Notice to the far right of each label there is a check box that says Show in IMAP.  This box is self-explanatory.  Leaving the box checked will display the label as a folder in any email client you have set up to your Gmail account.  Unchecking the box will hide if from your client's view.  Alternatively, you can hide the view from within Gmail itself, only show the folder if there are unread items in it (helpful if you have mail rules set to distribute emails automatically based on sender or subject line) or you can auto hide the folder in the Gmail menu itself, but note that it does not hide it from the email client's view unless you specifically uncheck the IMAP box.

This may seem like very basic information for any Gmail power user, but when it comes to how Apple Mail works with IMAP accounts, the secret's in the sauce.  If you only want certain folders to display and you want to eliminate the nasty cluster of System Labels Gmail dumps as nested folders in your app, then simply uncheck the Show in IMAP option and you'll eliminate this mess.

Even better, if you want to work exclusively in the standard set of mail folders - Inbox, Sent Mail, Drafts, Spam and Trash - there's a neat trick to be had:

1) Go into your Mail settings and check only the previously listed labels and uncheck everything else.

2) Go back to Mail.app and expand the folder list under the mailbox name.  Click on the Sent folder.

3) Click on the Mailbox menu and hover over the Use This Mailbox For option.  You'll get four choices: Drafts, Sent, Junk, Trash.  Since we're working the Sent folder, click the Sent option in the menu.

What this will do is tell Mail.app to use this folder as the designated Sent folder for the given account and it will sync automatically any sent emails you have on that account to that folder on the server.  That way, when you go into your Gmail account through the web, all your sent emails will be in one designated folder.  Otherwise, you may suffer with a folder called IMAP/Sent Items or some other such craziness hiding in your Labels area.  You can repeat the previous three steps for your Gmail's Drafts, Spam and Trash folders.

When you combine folder mapping with hiding unused IMAP folders in your Gmail account settings and there are no more extra folders for Apple Mail to display in your mailbox pane, it will eliminate the account heading completely and use the standard set of folders already available in the application!.  How awesome is that?

I find it much more intuitive to use Apple Mail this way and from what I've found, there is no extra mapping you can do in Sparrow, which is one of the benefits to switching back.  Of course there is a bit of set up required to get it this way, but if you're invested in a full-fledged email client and you practice Inbox Zero religiously, then it's completely worth it.