Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

How Barack Obama Gets Things Done

Forty-four American presidents have managed to navigate the complicated roles and responsibilities of the Executive Branch, each with his own style.

But 21st-century presidents like Barack Obama face an especially daunting task. How can anyone get things done with 300 million bosses, a 24-hour news cycle of critics, and a to-do list that is often life or death? Oh, and all in a city whose name is synonymous with bureaucracy?

Thanks to the fantastic journalism of Michael Lewis of Vanity Fair, Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker, and others, we were able to assemble a detailed portrait of how a modern-day president like Barack Obama works.

Here are some particularly useful productivity tips from our current commander-in-chief.

1. Get a head start on your day the night before.

“In a funny way,” writes Michael Lewis, “the president’s day actually starts the night before. When he awakens at seven, he already has a jump on things.”

After his family retires to bed, Obama often stays up working on odds and ends left over from the day. Chief among his nightly responsibilities is leafing through the binder of documents that his staff has asked him to review.

For example, after he won the Nobel Peace Prize, his staff submitted several acceptance speeches that Obama deemed unusable. Instead of cramming the speechwriting process into tiny windows throughout the next day, the president utilized his night to get a head start. First, he copied the staff-written speech by hand to “organize his thoughts” and then he used the exercise to write his own speech, an approach would have been impossible during his traditional day.

I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing because I have too many other decisions to make.

2. Limit decision fatigue.

White House operations grow increasingly complex with every administration. Harry Truman had 12 “assistants to the president.” Now there are more than 100 people who have a similar title. As a result, President Obama tries to limit his information intake, including when he gets dressed in the morning.

“I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing,” he told Michael Lewis. “Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

The practice doesn’t only apply to his wardrobe. In early 2012, The New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza obtained hundreds of pages of White House memos that offered an intimate look into the inner-workings of Obama’s team. Among the story’s nuggets: the president prefers to have “decision” memos delivered to him with three checkboxes at the bottom that read: agree, disagree, or “let’s discuss.”

3. Shut out your critics.

Richard Nixon famously kept a “list of enemies,” but a president in today’s polarized 24-hour news cycle doesn’t have that luxury. Profiles of the president repeatedly mention his preference for ESPN over cable news.

“One cardinal rule of the road is, we don’t watch CNN, the news or MSNBC. We don’t watch any talking heads or any politics. We watch SportsCenter and argue about that,” Obama told The New York Times.

Obama says he likes to filter the news as much as possible, but recognizes that no one can live in a bubble. “One of the things you realize fairly quickly in this job is that there is a character people see out there called Barack Obama,” he told Michael Lewis. “That’s not you.”

The rest of my time will be more productive if you give me my workout time.

4. Exercise.

President Obama starts every day with 45 minutes of weights or cardio in his personal gym.  “His logic was always, ‘The rest of my time will be more productive if you give me my workout time,’” Obama’s former campaign manager told WebMD.

Occasionally, he also holds a regular basketball game with a handful of Washington friends, each with serious basketball experience. (Obama plays in red-white-and-blue Under Armor high-tops with the number “44″ on them.)

“You have to exercise or at some point you’ll just break down,” Obama told Michael Lewis.

5. Your personal time is sacred.

The president has three moments in his schedule that are unquestionably his: the morning workout, his dinner with his daughters, and the nighttime after his family falls asleep. Each block of time serves a different role for Obama: the gym keeps his body in good health, the late night helps him catch up on work, and the dinner is especially sacred time, with the added benefit of giving the president a bit of perspective outside his hectic workday.

“[His children are] not really that interested in his day, because they’re kids,” Senior Advisor Valeria Jarrett told Vanity Fair. “They want him to focus on their day.”

Sean Blanda

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Sean is the Managing Editor and Producer of 99U and is a co-founder of Technically Philly and Philly Tech Week. Email him: blanda@adobe.com or find him on Twitter: @SeanBlanda.
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