Change the priority of incoming mail (incl. Apple Mail)

… or, ‘the sender that cried emergency’.

Before I get into this article I’d first like to point out that this solution was not born out of anger, hostility, or any other negative vibe. It’s simply a usability and project management issue.

The Problem

We probably all have a sender or two that abuse the Priority setting of email messages. Perhaps they honestly think many of their message are actually very important. And that’s fine, priority can be objective. But it does cause a problem when checking email.

  • Just like The Boy Who Cried Wolf, a sender that sets too many messages to High Priority runs the risk of being ignored. That certainly is not good for the sender.
  • When other senders don’t use the priority setting, those messages get deferred. Not necessarily a good thing either.
  • Turning off the Priority column to cut down the noise makes legitimately important messages look normal priority.
  • Turning off the Priority column to cut down the noise also gets rid of the ‘Flagged’ designation.

So basically speaking, someone who abuses the priority setting can really muck up the works. And you can’t really them about it either.

Some email programs let you change the priority of incoming mail. I use Apple’s Mail as a mail client and it does not. I checked out scripts, plugins, even a workaround of moving the message to the Drafts mbox, change the priority, then move it back to the in mbox… which is not good because then it sets you as the sender. D’oh! I also tried editing the emlx file on the hard drive but that didn’t work, I guess because I’m using IMAP. What then can we do?

The Fix

What we need to do is target those few senders, reset the priority of their incoming messages, and add a visual clue that it was changed. All other senders should not be affected.

The fix is dependent on the mail server software. I’ll show how to do this with SmarterMail since that’s what I use. We’ll set up a Content Filter to look for high priority messages from a certain sender, and add an action to reset the message’s priority.

1) Click the Settings button, expand My Settings, expand Filtering, then click Content Filtering. Your list may be blank. Mine already has three set up. Just click New to get started.

2) Turn on ‘From specific address’ and ‘Flagged as high priority’ and then click Next.

3) Make sure ‘AND’ is selected. Enter email addresses for the target senders.
Click Next.

4) Now finally the magic. Give this filter a Name. Turn on ‘Add Header’ and enter in whichever header name/value your email program listens to. For priority, Apple Mail uses the mail header “X-Priority”.  That is what I set to 0 (zero). Other mail clients use “Importance” and “X-MSMail-Priority”. Either of those you set to “Medium” instead of 0.
I also prefix the subject with an asterisk. That way I still know the sender thought this message was important, without gumming up everything else.
Click Save.

5) Send yourself a high priority test message. When it comes in, you should see that the Flag column is blank and there is now an asterisk in front of the Subject. When you see the asterisk, feel free to giggle like a school girl, ‘tee hee!’

Also take a look at the raw source. You’ll see that the the original X-Priority of 1 was overwritten with a zero.

Hooray, it works! =)

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