Save our inboxes! Use e-mail wisely

At CERN, with collaborators all over the world, e-mail is inevitably the primary means of communication: we use it for everything from coordinating projects to organising lunches. But e-mail can also be one of the most inefficient means of communication we have! Here's how to fix it.


Let’s get straight to the point: we receive too many e-mails.

Think about all the e-mails that you deleted without a second thought. Think about the times you’ve unnecessarily been in CC. Take a look at the unread e-mails sitting in your inbox at this very moment, ones that you have no intention of ever looking at.

You can, however, tame this overload with a few simple measures and turn e-mail into an important communication and productivity tool.

Many recommendations for improving e-mail etiquette suggest an abrasive approach riddled with bullet points. In a vastly multi-cultural setting such as CERN, however this approach may fail. So, here are a few dos and don’ts based on experience from working at the Laboratory.


  • Ask yourself: Is this e-mail necessary? Can you just call the person instead?
  • Pick a clear subject; avoid generic ones. Generic subject lines make it difficult to prioritise or search through one’s inbox archives.
  • Ensure that the body of the message is short, unambiguous and to the point. It is your responsibility as the sender to respect the recipient’s time and minimise back-and-forth exchanges. If the body of the message needs to be long, include a summary at the top. When sharing a video or an article, mention why you are sharing it and what the recipient can expect from it.
  • Use the “To” and “CC” fields carefully. Include under “To” everyone who is directly addressed in your e-mail. Save the “CC” field for those who need to be informed or contacted subsequently, but minimise this list as far as possible.
  • Think before you hit “Send”. This cannot be stressed enough. Ensure you have the correct people in the recipients list; check that the subject is clear and your e-mail is well-structured.
  • Classify e-mails that you send. When requiring action from someone else, classify your messages as important or urgent to enable the recipient(s) to prioritise.
  • Prioritise, and react differently to different e-mails. Archive e-mails that you need to store but require no further action; delete unnecessary mail immediately; and mark as unread e-mails that you need to act upon but can’t or don’t have to immediately.
  • Disable e-mail notifications. This may be a radical thought, but do you really need to be informed of every e-mail as you receive it? Instead, devote a few minutes each hour to check your inbox and act upon your received messages.



  • Use “Reply to All”! EVER! Ok, there are some exceptions, but does the entire list of original recipients need to know you’ve thanked the original sender? Do replies with condolences need to go out to everyone in the original thread?
  • Treat all messages (that you send and receive) as important. Some messages clearly deserve well-thought-out replies, whereas others require no response at all.
  • Include all your superiors in CC in every e-mail you send. Most of us have a fair degree of autonomy when it comes to work. Use this well and report on your progress, but don’t include every supervisor in CC in every e-mail – it bombards their inbox and makes it difficult for them to separate the wheat from the chaff.
  • Respond to “FYI” e-mails with “Thanks!”
  • Include action items for different (groups of) people in the same e-mail. Sending individual e-mails (or ones to smaller groups) can prove more efficient in the long run, even if it takes you longer to compose them.
  • Use line breaks to split a single paragraph or sentence into multiple lines. Many people access their e-mail on portable devices and the formatting on phones is completely broken if you do this.
  • Forward long threads without any summary and only an “FYI”. You should include a summary in the body of your e-mail, above the forwarded conversations. The same goes for adding new people into a conversation.

This article was inspired by and this article on

by Achintya Rao