In the military, we all know, you learn how to fight, how to push past your perceived limits, even how to make your bed. But there's at least one thing most of us rarely imagine soldiers and sailors learning to do: wading through their inboxes.

But, of course, just like the rest of us, folks in the military face the daunting task of keeping on top of an endless stream of messages. And,adding to their burden, in their job, processing email in a timely and effective manner could mean the difference between life and death.

With so much at stake and so much else to accomplish (like, you know, winning wars and battling terrorists), how does the U.S. military teach soldiers to manage email? A recent HBR blogs post by Kabir Sehgal, a navy veteran and the author of Coined: The Rich Life of Money and How Its History Has Shaped Us, offers a glimpse into military email protocol that anyone can use to write more efficient emails. (Hat tip to Lifehacker for the pointer).

Make the most of your subject line.

Part of the dread of a full inbox (and part of the reason many of us procrastinate when faced with one) is wondering what sort of long-winded updates and unpleasant requests might lurk within. Those following military email protocol face no such issue. The basic content of each email is crystal clear just from the subject line.

"Military personnel use keywords that characterize the nature of the email in the subject," explains Sehgal, offering this list of examples:

  • ACTION - Compulsory for the recipient to take some action
  • SIGN - Requires the signature of the recipient
  • INFO - For informational purposes only, and there is no response or action required
  • DECISION - Requires a decision by the recipient
  • REQUEST - Seeks permission or approval by the recipient
  • COORD - Coordination by or with the recipient is needed

This system isn't military-specific. Anyone can use it to make processing their missives less time-consuming and stressful. "The next time you email your direct reports a status update, try using the subject line: INFO - Status Update. And if you need your manager to approve your vacation request, you could write REQUEST - Vacation," suggests Sehgal.

BLUF your emails.

Out here in the civilian world we sometimes use the acronym TL;DR (that's "too long; didn't read" for the uninitiated) to mark a summary that boils down a lengthy message to its essence. In the military they've codified and improved the idea, insisting every email start with "the BLUF" (or "Bottom Line Up Front").

The BLUF "declares the purpose of the email and action required. The BLUF should quickly answer the five W's: who, what, where, when, and why. An effective BLUF distills the most important information for the reader," explains Sehgal, who gives this example from the Air Force Handbook: "BLUF: Effective 29 Oct 13, all Air Force Doctrine Documents (AFDDs) have been rescinded and replaced by core doctrine volumes and doctrine annexes."

Of course, the actual acronym BLUF would probably just confuse most of the people you email, but the principle can be applied without the military terminology. Just start your emails with Bottom Line in bold followed by a business-version of the BLUF, recommends Sehgal.

Check out the rest of Sehgal's post for a few more tips. Or, if you're looking for more ideas on how to get out of your inbox quicker, check out Zappos boss Tony Hsieh's email management approach or read up on one author's investigation into the email habits of some of the world's most successful business people.

Published on: Dec 6, 2016
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