An email manifesto

as conceived in the Spring of the year 2016 and elaborated in 2018 by me and my team.

Email is a flawed way of communicating with colleagues that prevents me from achieving my full potential and which generally makes me unhappy. This has to stop.


  1. Since the volume of email only grows over time, sooner or later, no-one will be able to process all mail in their inbox.
  2. Processing all mail in my inbox is not a goal in itself.
  3. My email inbox is not my to-do list.
  4. I don’t have an obligation to respond to all email, not even a moral one.

Regaining control

  1. I will not let my working life be controlled by email.
  2. Hence, I will read mail generally once a day, at my leisure.
  3. I will not open my inbox unless I actually have time to reply. Opening my inbox will not be a mindless reflex.
  4. I will treat mail addressed to others, but incorporating me in carbon copy (cc) as informational, not actionable. In other words, never assume it is read by me.
  5. I will regularly question if the newsletters and email lists I am subscribed to are actually serving me, if not, I will unsubscribe.

There must be others that feel the same way regarding email. Hence, I should reciprocitate.

  1. I will use email sparingly.
  2. I will provide messages with meaningful subject fields.
  3. I will trim irrelevant content from messages in email exchanges.
  4. I will mark messages that, in my view, serve an informational purpose for the recipient with the tag [info] allowing their email client to automatically process the message as deemed appropriate by the recipient. I understand this rule conflicts with rule 1.
  5. I will briefly discuss with project colleagues with whom I work very closely what communication system works best for the both of us.
  6. I will be brief in informal mail to colleagues I work with on a regular basis, and I will not mind typos, salutations, signatures (in my mail nor in others’ mail).
  7. I will consider if email is the most effective way to communicate in this situation. I will consider the possibility to rather talk to my colleague, now or during an upcoming meeting. For this purpose I keep this little book with ‘to discuss’ lists for each of my close colleagues.

Making it practical

  1. Use tags in the subject field to allow quick parsing of mailbox (by bots)
  2. suggested tags:
    1. [urgent] – put aside what you’re doing, this needs attention (soon)
    2. [ann] – announcement for a meeting, lecture, or thing that came up (unexpectedly)
    3. [fyi] – as the tag says, no response required
    4. [treat] – cookie time
    5. [y/n/c] – a question/message that requires recipient to answer with a simple yes, no, confirm
    6. [q] – a question that needs more words to answer but is not urgent and also not a ‘request’
    7. [arch] – for your archive, some important stuff
    8. [proj code], such as [dpc] for the Data Protection Certification project for project related messages (code to be determined in team)
    9. [req] – a request that requires some serious thinking/response by recipient
    10. [meet] – request for setting up a meeting
    11. [agenda] – sharing the agenda and relevant docs for an upcoming meeting, no answer required
    12. [phd] – for matters involving phd supervision to separate this type of communication from other topics we may discuss.
  3. suggested respond tags. Use these them in the subject header
    1. [done] – the request as pointed out in the subject line has been handled
    2. [reject] – sorry, I can not oblige (only between close colleages who have accepted this crude style of communication)
    3. [ok] – seems obvious, right?

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