Is Email the New Kudzu?

by Claire Keeling

Claire Keeling Sort It Out, Inc.
Claire Keeling, Sort It Out, Inc.

Can you remember life without email? It’s crept into our lives, taken over our workday, and completely overwhelmed us. Like kudzu, the “vine that ate the south,” email is the tool that’s eaten up our time. Ironically, email was developed to make communications easier and more productive. So why do we feel so burdened by it?  Because we haven’t been trained in how to use it properly.

As a productivity consultant, improving email communications is my most requested workshop topic. Companies are realizing it is critical to educate staff at all levels about email, otherwise, productivity suffers. Research shows that the number of emails landing in your inbox are on the rise at a rate of 14.6% every year, so the time to take control of your electronic communications is now. And don’t worry about your personal organizing style.  Anyone can take control over email with the right education – there’s no one perfect system for everyone.

Checking vs. Processing
The first question to ask is how you’re utilizing your email inbox. Are you “living” out of it, keeping all of your read/unread emails in this location? Or, are you processing emails out of the inbox into folders and other storage locations?

Knowing the difference between checking emails and processing emails is a crucial first step to bringing the inbox under control. Strategies to “process” emails out of your inbox include moving them into folders, putting follow-up items on your calendar/task list, creating locations to put pending emails that you defer for later and, obviously, deleting them.

I am amazed with how many people struggle with hitting the delete key – they’re afraid they’ll need the document again and won’t be able to access it. It might take you so long to actually find the document later that it isn’t worth saving. Plus, most things can be found on the web anyway in half the time. By strengthening your “processing” muscle, you can retrieve information more quickly and you’ll spend less time searching through mass amounts of emails.

Subject Line Savvy
Another great way to save time is to pay attention to subject lines. Bad subject lines are one of my biggest pet peeves. A subject line of Hi, FYI, RE, Mtg, or nothing at all tells me…practically nothing at all. I am certainly not compelled to open those emails. Don’t feel bad if you’re a constant offender in this category. You weren’t alone in not knowing better — but now you do! It takes an average of two minutes to read and quickly respond to an email. Craft a verb-filled, detailed subject line and your reader will know what will follow in the body of the email, and therefore is more likely to open it and more likely to respond right away.

If possible, include as much information that’s relevant to the reader of the email (who, what, when, where, why) in the subject line. Every time you are ready to hit the send button on an email you’ve written, pause for a minute and make sure you’ve changed your subject line. Do this every single time. If you don’t, and email back and forth between others multiple times, when you’re ready to save the final version of the email, the content will have changed and won’t match what the subject line says. This will make retrieval at a later date much more cumbersome.

Folder Systems
Having an email folder storage/reference system that you trust is also vital. Many individuals struggle with maintaining a paper filing system because they don’t trust their system, or they lack consistency with their labeling. I love the five folder method (described in The Hamster Revolution: How to Manage Your Email Before It Manages You, by Song, Halsey, Burress and Blanchard). Create five main categories and then put all other sub-folders under those main categories. My five, in no specific order, are
1. Personal
2. Clients
3. Administrative
4. Groups
5. Output or Projects.

Make sure to include numbers in front of the main category words when you name the folders so that these specific folders move up to the top of your folders list.

These are just a few of the strategies I walk my audiences and individual clients through so they can become intelligent email users.  Email doesn’t have to be like kudzu. With the right training and the right process, it can be more like a well-maintained garden.

Claire will be speaking on this topic for the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association St. Louis Chapter on January 20, 2011. Register today.

Claire Keeling is the president of Sort It Out, Inc.
Claire is an experienced productivity consultant, national speaker, soon to be author, trainer and coach. She diagnoses productivity priorities to address within organizations and teams up with individuals and groups to help guide change and foster a culture of learning. She encourages personal development activities and solutions that motivate individuals to work smarter, reduce stress, and feel more in control in all areas of life. Claire appears weekly as an expert on KMOV’s Great Day St. Louis.

In 2010, Claire served as the director of marketing for the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association St. Louis Chapter; in 2011 she will be the director of market research position. Claire is a mentor in the Washington University, Olin Business School, women’s mentor program.


One thought on “Is Email the New Kudzu?

  1. Another way I file my emails is similar to the tickler file. I have Mon, Tues, Weds, etc. and Jan, Feb, March, etc. folders. If an email comes through that I don’t need to address right away, I’ll move it to a particular day so I can attend to it then.
    Great article. Keeping on top of emails is definitely an ongoing battle.

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