[Tip of The Day] How to Return Selection Focus to Messages List in Mail.app on macOS

So, I’ve been meaning for a very, very long time (over a year) to post something I discovered related to a question from another user on the old forum a couple-three-plus years back. I can’t find that thread in my logs, so I hope the party(s) looking for a solution to a maddening issue for many years catch this.

In macOS Mail.app, if you use a 3-pane layout, when you have your focus on the list of messages, the selected message, is, of course, blue (or whatever you have chosen in System Preferences –> General –> Highlight color); but if you click your cursor elsewhere, e.g., a link or image in the selected email in the preview pane, the selected list item goes gray (expected), and keyboard navigation is now broken; you can no longer use Up/Down Arrow or Command-[left square-bracket or right square-bracket] to navigate the list; and no amount of Tab key presses will ever, ever return you to that column, including Shift-Tab, Option-Tab, etc…

For years this (seemingly) forced the user to return the cursor to the list column and select/re-select an item to continue keyboard navigation.

So I don’t know when or how this broke, but I can confirm it’s broken in El Capitan thru at least Sierra (I forget to test it every time I have an older VM open).

But ‘broken’ is apparently subjective, because it Turns Out!™ that there’s a totally unintuitive (to me) way to return focus.

Assuming you have the Favorites Bar visible, and you have populated it with up to nine (actionable) folders or smart folders, just like in Safari, you can use Command-[1-9] to switch focus to a given folder, numbering from left to right. Awesome sauce to begin with.

So, one day, moons and moons ago, I’d lost focus, but I wanted to go to another mailbox view, anyway, so I went to hit the corresponding keys, and accidentally hit the keys for the current mailbox. BOOM! focus returned. Purely a discovery-only item; not documented anywhere I can find; and the issue totally breaks with UI conventions in the first place – it should be accessible with Tab, just like every other object in the main browser window.

I’m sure a bunch of people smarter than me have probably known about this forever, but since I was Entourage and Outlook for a (too) long time, I never really got super-proficient in Mail.app.

Anyway, in the above example, ‘Inbox’ is first, so Command-1 will bring it into focus. If you keep finding yourself losing item focus, just make sure your favorite folders are in the Favorites Bar, learn to use the numbered shortcut combos, and never reach for the mouse again to keep your sanity when navigating.



@dianed143, I’m thinking it was you who asked this question inside another topic? Yes? No? Time for bed…

I want to point out that the Favorites Bar does not have to be visible. As long as it is populated, Command-[1-9] should work, even with the Favorites hidden. Of course, you have to remember which favorite you want.

But… I am puzzled about the circumstances that this tip fixes. I have no trouble tabbing amongst the panes even after I click inside a message.

I normally use a 2-pane, non-“classic” layout — I like a minimalist display — but I opened the preview pane to test this. I cannot get the tab-to-message list function to not work. What am I doing right/wrong?

Mailbox > Go to Favorite Mailbox

It’s all right there, but maybe I’m missing the point amongst all the enthusiasm.

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Yes, I guess in all my late night wordiness, it wasn’t clear that this applies to those of us frustrated with the behavior in 3-pane view, and who also have Keyboard Accessibility set to Tab to All Controls (Control-F7 to toggle). You can switch it on temporarily to see the described behavior if you like.

I knew this, but failed to point it out; I always leave it visible so I can easily see the unread count in my (more than) 9 favorites.

Thanks for adding it to the conversation for those that might not know. (:

Yes, you’re not getting it; I’m sorry my attempt to communicate this glorious bug/“feature” fix that broke/was introduced somewhere around El Capitan or Mavericks.

The issue is not with finding the Favorites; the joy is that by using the shortcut keys Command-[1-9], one can overcome the bug that requires a user to use the mouse, rather than Tab key, to return selection focus to the list pane (of a 3-pane view).

This tip should help those who, a) use a 3-pane view; and, b), prefer using the keyboard for navigation and selection as opposed to using a pointing device (mouse, trackpad, etc…); and especially we of this breed that HATE using a mouse.

Be it for RSI issues or our perception/reality that we are much faster and more efficient if we do not have to remove our hands from the keys to grab a pointing device, locate the cursor (which we also may prefer to leave in a certain spot for scrolling, etc.), move the cursor to the item list, find the preferred (already selected but grayed-out) item, just to regain focus and then navigate with keys again.

I hope this makes sense.

Happy Thursday