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Also: How to screen for wasteful meetings (and avoid them politely)

A key rule for e-mail is to keep it brief. The recipients are pressed for time – and perhaps, on their mobiles, cramped for visual space – so keep it to a sentence or two.

Wrong, says productivity expert Cal Newport.

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He says you should write longer e-mails, ironically in the interest of saving time and aggravation.

The author of Deep Work and professor of computing science at Georgetown University promotes a technique he calls "process-centric e-mail." On his Study Hacks Blog he advises that when sending or replying to an e-mail, you should identify the goal this emerging e-mail thread is trying to achieve. An example might be arranging a meeting or grabbing a coffee with a collaborator. The goal, therefore, is to synchronize a plan for such a meeting with a minimum of back-and-forth e-mails. Instead of just suggesting getting together – or responding to such a suggestion with "sure" – come up with a process that gets you and your correspondent to that goal while keeping messages to the minimum. Also, explain what you are doing, so the recipient understands.

So if a request comes in, he says, the reply should go something along these lines:

I propose we meet at the Starbucks on campus. Below I have listed four dates and times over the next two weeks. If any of these work for you, let me know and I will consider your reply confirmation that the meeting is set. If none of these times work, then call me or text me on my cell (<number>) Tuesday or Thursday from 12:30 to 1:30, when I'm sure to be around, and we'll find something that works.

This will take you longer, he acknowledges, but stresses that it doesn't matter because you are dramatically reducing the number of times you will receive, open, and have to reply to other e-mails. "If you respond in this manner, your occasional inbox visits might take more time, but in-between these sessions, you'll be left blissfully and productively free of the necessity to continually check back in to keep non-process-centric threads proceeding at a socially acceptable pace," he writes.

It won't be easy to do. He struggles with it, often defaulting to short, fast responses. But he's happy when he follows his own advice. You may be as well.

2. Declining a meeting invitation

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While we may, as Prof. Newport notes, waste time in setting up meetings, sometimes the bigger waste is in attending. Liane Davey, a communications consultant, advises on Harvard Business Review blogs that when an invitation arrives, you should assess the value of attending before automatically agreeing. If it's not apparent, seek more information on the agenda, the stage of decision making on the topic, and how you should prepare for the discussion.

When that arrives, determine whether you are the right person to attend. If unsure, again ask for more information, with questions like: "What are you looking for me to contribute at this meeting?," "Who else will be there from my department?" and "Who will I be representing?"

If the reply assures you it's worth making this a priority, agree to attend. If not, look for alternatives, but in a helpful way:

– Suggest holding the meeting when more is known and a productive conversation would be more likely, or sharing information by e-mail instead.

– Recommend somebody else who would be more appropriate.

– Contribute in advance if the meeting is valuable but not a priority or clashes with other events.

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– Ask whether you can attend the part of the meeting where you can be most helpful and skip the rest.

Through this process, she notes you are modelling for others the need to be deliberate about your use of time, explaining your rationale so the meeting organizer knows why you are not participating or reducing your involvement, and trying to help as much as you can, even if not as originally imagined.

3. Being more balanced about change

Coca-Cola changed until so many complained

They went back to the real thing…

Ford and Chevrolet, they're making these smaller cars these days

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I miss my old '68

When something's good, why does it change? – Hank Williams Jr.

Those words resonate with consultant Kevin Eikenberry, often an advocate for change in our progress-hungry world but concerned we need more balance. It starts by recognizing what is already working well and not messing with it. That doesn't mean avoiding all change, of course, but even when considering action, you must choose wisely. There are all sorts of changes you could make in your workplace. Pick your spots.

Be aware how powerful tradition is, and its impact on your employees and customers. It's part of the human condition to look back fondly on things from the past, even when they aren't as awesome as we remember. "As a leader, we must move our teams forward towards the goals and objectives we have set – that is part of our job. And if we want people to willingly follow, we need to keep their feelings about the present (and the past) in mind too," he writes on his blog.

So ask how you can more forward – yes, change – while remembering, honouring, and maintaining traditions. In some cases, that's not possible. But he suggests if you at least consider that possibility, you have a much better chance your team will contribute to the solution and commit to the changes.

"Yes, change is around us, and because of that we can't stick our head in the sand and avoid it all. Doing that will lead to an erosion of our results, and perhaps leading us and our business to become irrelevant. But that doesn't mean that every change is needed and that we must be changing at every moment," he concludes.

4. Quick hits

– Before writing today's to-do list, write a break list. Counterintuitive as it sounds, blogger Adam Dachis argues that planning today's breaks will improve your efficiency. It helps to maintain your sanity and planning the day's breaks can also prevent procrastination.

– Consultant Bryan Eisenberg says the key ingredients you want to establish for shopping in your store are discovery, trial and instant gratification. Prime example: The Apple stores, where people can play with the gadgets they are considering and experience the joy of using them.

– When asked in a job interview to talk about yourself, Michele Mavi of Atrium Staffing says the best strategy is to talk about your experience in a way that presents yourself as a perfect match for the role at stake. Make it a story, with a beginning, middle, and this ending: "That's why I'm looking to make a move and am really excited about this opportunity."

– In a bad mood? Look around you, and find somebody to help. Consultant Michael Rogers says one of the fastest ways to cheer yourself up is to do something nice for somebody else.

– When someone proposes a solution you don't like, it's tempting to deny that there's much of a problem at all, entrepreneur Seth Godin notes. After all, if you diminish the problem, you won't have to accept the solution. "But of course, the problem is real. The dissatisfaction or inefficiency or wrong direction isn't going to go away merely because we deny it. It's amazing how much we can get done when we agree to get something done," he says.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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