17 Productivity Hacks for Your Military Staff

I bet that more than once a day, you let out a sigh of frustration at the absentminded staff activity that surrounds you…Your boss asks why you didn’t respond to his “urgent” email. THE NEW OPERATIONS NCO TYPES IN ALL CAPS (incredibly annoying). Someone prints 30 full-page copies of the 53-slide presentation because, “there are 30 people in the meeting, right?” And in that meeting, your unit’s update doesn’t make it to the slides, even though you sent them yesterday.

And those are just the ones you notice! There are probably dozens more inefficiencies, idiosyncrasies, and ineptitudes you aren’t even aware of that impair you and your staff’s productivity.

Having spent a few years in the Army staff machine, I offer these immediate adjustments to reclaim your sanity and reduce the needless, often well-intentioned but inefficient staff practices that keep you from getting more important work done.


The U.S. Army’s ‘Cyber Center of Excellence’, Fort Gordon in Augusta, Ga., hosted a multi-service ‘NetWar’ to show, and build, cyber Warrior capabilities Tuesday, June 10, 2016. Georgia Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Tracy J. Smith.


Let’s start with email. We hate it, but it’s the military’s most prolific communication tool. We spend more time on email than anywhere else, yet we rarely issue guidance specifically aimed at becoming more efficient at managing it. If you have any authority over a group’s activity on email, implement these changes right away:

  • Type in the BLUF. What military leader has time to go searching for the main point of an email? Commanders and key staff members certainly don’t, and shouldn’t have to scroll to find it. Start your emails with the bottom line and you will find that it forces you to specify your recommendation, it condenses your supporting writing, and people appreciate it greatly.
  • Maximize the signature block. Have you ever needed to call someone and figured you’d just flip to one of their emails to get the number? …and then slammed your mouse on the desk when you discovered no signature block? Those are some of my most annoyed moments at work.

    Fix the problem right away by creating a signature block template and making it mandatory for your people to use it. Put in all the unit mottos and life-changing quotes you want, but for goodness sakes put your phone/email contact information in there. And this is important…set them to display on Forwards and Replies, not just New Email. It sounds nerdy, but people inside and outside your organization will silently thank you.

    Outlook Rules Wizard

    Outlook Rules Wizard

  • Set some rules. Did you know that in Microsoft Outlook, you can set a rule to display your boss’s emails in red? Or that you can flag all emails about the upcoming deployment? Or that you can redirect the daily unit reports to a specific folder for browsing later?

    Spend a moment thinking about whose communication is priority, what information you need to know immediately, and what information you can pool into batches for consumption later. Then customize your inbox so you don’t have to repeat the process for every new email. (Find the Rules Wizard under the “Home” tab in Outlook.)

  • Call instead. If you’ve got an urgent item that needs attention, do not rely on email. On the PACE plan, email should be a “C”…behind “face to face” and “phone call.” You can’t hold someone accountable for critical information if you use a passive communication method to transmit it.
  • Save the clicks. If you’re not using the Message Preview Pane, it’s time to up your game. Put it on the right side of your window (not below your messages), so you can read a whole email without having to scroll. If you do have to scroll, use the spacebar instead of moving to the mouse.
  • Speaking of keyboard shortcuts. CTRL + R replies to the current email. CTRL + F forwards it. CTRL + N creates a new message. CTRL + SHIFT + B brings up the address book. CTRL + ENTER sends your message (I love that one! So much quicker than transitioning to the mouse.)
Why am I talking about individual email practices in a post about staff productivity? Yes, so you become more efficient. But more importantly, so you can teach your team to become more efficient. The quicker they can perform routine tasks, the more they can accomplish.
  • Remove distractions. Research shows that distractions at work turn us into cognitive 5th graders. The constant pings from our connected network pull us out of the creative mode and prevent us from contributing our best work. If you’ve got a big project to do, go silent. Set an Out of Office email reply or block off time on your calendar to focus. If you’re really bold, then turn off email notifications all together and set “email hours” dedicated to burning through your inbox. To be safe, I do recommend you set active notifications for emails, texts, and calls from your boss.
  • Don’t let others plan your day. Another key productivity concept regarding email is that it’s a horrible way to start your day. Read any number of several books on productivity and you’ll see that people get more done when they set their own priorities and control the time allocated to accomplishing them.

    Email does the opposite. It opens up a window for everyone else to heap requirements on you, draws you into reactive mode, and increases stress. “Please review these slides.” “What’s your guidance for next week’s meeting agenda?” “The exercise shifted one week to the right.” And on and on… Sure, the information might be important, but only at the right time. Use the first moments or even hours of the morning to plan and prioritize your day, or perhaps complete creative work you’re responsible for.

Ok, enough about email. On to the really exciting tips…


  • Just tell them what to print. If you haven’t given your people guidance about what and how much you want printed…you’re destroying the planet! Ok, that’s a little dramatic, but raise your hand if you’ve ever seen a leader sit through an entire meeting without touching the stack of slides in front of him. Or better yet, he comments on how he doesn’t even need them…or prefers two per page printouts.

    Army staffs don’t like to admit it, but print paper costs money. During the Sequestration Crisis of 2012, when we were deciding whether to buy toilet paper for the barracks or fuel for training, we basically stopped all printing in my regiment.

    Although it sounds tedious and silly, leaders could save a lot of money and time by issuing guidance for print requirements. Decide which key leaders get printouts and tell them when to print one slide per page versus multiple. (A moment of introspection will reveal that there is typically no reason you can’t print more than one slide per page.) Challenge your staff to use only digital copies, or at least print on the back of the page as well.

Pro tip: get the most out of your print area by using the printer settings instead of PowerPoint settings to set the print layout. Ever wondered how to print four slides per page with no margin? Here’s how to do it: From the PowerPoint Print tab, go to Printer Properties and select 4 slides per page. Then back in the PowerPoint Print tab, select “Full Page Slides” and “Scale to Fit Paper.” Those settings will give you four slides in Landscape mode that fill the entire print page.





  • Send read-ahead packets. On a related topic, have you EVER been in a unit that actually sent read-ahead slides a day or two before a meeting? I have, once. It was a welcomed relief to the hurried frenzy that accompanied meetings in my other units. Yes, it is possible to send out read-ahead slides…leaders just have to accept that the information might be more than 24 hours old. But if you give an honest look, you’ll find that very little information we brief in military units needs to be real time.

    I’m talking about Training Meetings, Command and Staff, USR, and even some MDMP briefs. Set the deadline for information requirements and give your people a chance to consolidate the data and make it presentable the day before (not minutes before) the brief. People will eventually get used to the earlier timeline. This method lets people print their own copies (if needed) and gives them a chance to see the train before it hits them in the meeting.

  • “Got a minute?” Sometimes it feels like what takes up most of our time are the meetings that aren’t on the calendar, when someone knocks on the door and asks, “Got a minute?” What they really mean is, “Would you please stop what you’re doing for an indefinite length of time to discuss a topic you’re not prepared to talk about?”

    Just like email notifications, drop-by chats can break your concentration and really veer your day off course. Instead of suffering through it, block off a portion of your day that’s open for anyone to come by with their 5-minute issue. It could be an unstructured window of time or you can split up the time by unit or staff section (“The S3 has 1545-1600. A Co. has 1600-1615.” And so on.) This method not only protects your productivity but gives subordinates time that they know is their’s and will prepare for.

  • Pin the rose. A task or request for information is destined to incompletion without a POC and a suspense. When you identify actions that must occur, pin the rose on someone right away, set a timeline for completion, and review them at the end of the meeting. And you can track those tasks using any number of tools – Microsoft Tasks, SharePoint Tasks, or even just the whiteboard.

Quick Fixes

Here are a few one-off tips to consider in making your work life a little more efficient and a little less frustrating.

  • Product standardization. If your section, unit, or staff publishes it, it should be standardized. That goes for slides, operations orders, memos, letters, and even internal communication. Templates set an expectation baseline, make it easier to spot mistakes, and provide predictability for subordinate HQs.
  • Turn off the TV. Unless you work at a strategic level office that has to respond to world events, you don’t need 24/7 news. It’s a distraction and it’s a depressant. If you prefer some type of background noise, go for music instead.
  • Set reminders. It’s takes 5 seconds to tell Siri to remind you to do your Cyber Awareness training, or to send the weekly update to the boss, or to check on a subordinate who lost a family member last week. Use the digital tools available to enhance your work activity.
  • Go old school. Print and carry a hard copy of key phone numbers and email addresses. It will come in handy when your 3-year-old drops your BlackBerry in the toilet.

The Golden Staff Rule

Finally, it’s time to stop what is perhaps the biggest cause of staff inefficiency: creating more questions instead of providing answers.

Higher headquarters staffs frustrate subordinate units when they publish cursory products and give vague guidance. Writing in passive voice is often a problem (“Ammunition will be delivered to A Co. at 0700.” Great, but by whom???). So is the tendency for staff members to receive taskings and simply copy/paste them to lower headquarters for execution.

When higher doesn’t do it’s homework on what it will take to execute it’s own guidance, lower level staffs must respond with basic coordination questions. With multiple lower units demanding clarification, higher staff gets bogged down answering everyone and must amend the guidance.

Before publishing that order or issuing guidance, ask yourself and your staff:

  • Could the reader complete the mission based on this guidance and nothing else?
  • Have we assigned responsibility and POC information for every action and element involved?
  • If we received this guidance from our higher headquarters, could we execute it?
  • What factors will the subordinate units have to consider in executing this guidance and can we make it clear where this fits into other priorities?

What staff productivity hacks do you use?

So, there’s my quick list of adjustments to get the team operating more efficiently. What hacks do you use in your unit, staff, or personal routine? Leave a comment below or on social media.

And if you want a great primer on how to optimize your work habits with the brain in mind, check out Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter.

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  • Kimberly Parker

    wow this blog has made my future in the military so much easier! i cant believe i didnt even know any of this stuff. thank you.

  • Dan Wagner

    One of the hacks I learned while getting my MBA is the PIVOT Table. They can be found in EXCEL and are extremely powerful in quickly and easily manipulating data sets. I think there is great potential in using these for Training Meetings in analyzing an organizations stats (Drivers Licenses, Weapons qualification numbers, APFT data, etcc).

    I posted an example video on my blog of using PIVOT tables with Weapons Qualification numbers from DTMS. Check it out at this link https://goo.gl/s9ZKfv

  • The Gringocua

    This was a great post!

    We often write over at https://www.part-time-commander.com/ about how unproductive many meetings and emails are.

    One of the best tips I can give is to use empathy and common sense.

    Act as if the job you are doing in the U.S. military is instead your own business. Would you do the same things if your profits and reputation were on the line?

    If all leaders would use that approach, things would run more smoothly.

  • Claudio Alpaca

    A work hard some times be leaders who remember how have contact with the men we forge and all potential others for may inculcate on them renewed force, skill and will, they receive by being aware to be considered and followed on their growth toward the state of warrior, never a point of destination but of depart. Since this is considered essential, we realize that, on forming others we improve us, we continue to growth just our last day. The time we should thinks to have no necessity to speak with our men, to learn and form, we should realize to never have been leaders nor warriors.For,instead, we are, we advert the necessity we have to contact our men, for they, feeling to be considered, should play a moral train, essential for all other following steps on their forging. Never we must say to be arrived and that require we pose attention on our activity of leaders, that is not only limited on time, is not limited on give orders, but aimed to support the growh of a man, on the sequence man/warrior. Not so simple and easy, we release. We pose us the question: How may I make this part of my mission and say to my men I am with them, I follow them and am at their disposition for all their problems? The way are more: by informatic to a directly speaking and all require time. My problem, I say, is how I may planify such activity, not less important than others on my leader activity. The problem posed, I search to individuate the several different ways for and on this moment I have won the difficulties for, as I constate to have the disponibility to find the time for make this form of leadership, for exerct a mentoriship, whose reevance is high, I am on the righ way. It is true, ometimes we may be tired or not have the answers we wait, but also we known that on the formation phase an also after this my activity work on them and a day I shall receive the answrs I ould nd are essential for the military life and activity. It is what make be able to face all difficulties that of be aware my work shall done the right results. claudio alpaca

  • James Gallagher

    Great article!

    A lot of people also don’t know/understand the “7 minute drill” for meetings where basically the staff presents a 1 slider with inputs/outputs/personnel requirements and the staff justifies the meeting to the commander in 7 minutes or less. After the commander approves it, then it’s a contract and all issues not related to that meeting are addressed elsewhere. If done right, staff members know what information is expected of them and should be prepared and meetings don’t get sidetracked by one-off issues that don’t pertain to the agenda of the meeting.

    • Thanks! Glad you liked it and hopefully you can implement some of the techniques. I really like the 7 minute drill you mention. What a great way to force the staff into truncating their arguments AND forcing the opportunity for a decision. So often we talk and talk and talk, then never each a point of decision…but we nonetheless feel like we achieved something.

      Do let us know if you end up making any changes in your own personal/staff routine based on the article. It would be great to hear how people put the ideas into action. Thanks, James!