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How Barack Obama Gets Things Done

President Barack Obama has the hardest job in the world. So how does he do it? Tips on getting a head start, making decisions, and ignoring your critics.

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 Valerie Jarrett told Vanity Fair. “They want him to focus on their day.”

Sean Blanda

Sean Blanda is a writer based in New York City and is the former Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U. Find him on Twitter: @SeanBlanda.

Comments (99)
  • MikeB

    Great article! While this won’t personally help me be more productive, I found it to be a very interesting insight on one of the busiest people in the world.

  • Anne Flash

    I found this fascinating, especially in the light of his being newly re-elected. I have often wondered how this man who has so many things going on, so many millions of moving parts, stays so centered and present-seeming.

  • sit down, waldo


  • JM

    You are mentally ill.

  • JM

    This definitely gives the impression your political leanings are well founded.

  • ChrisSanchez

    If Obama would repent, he could do a lot in his last three years to stop abortion–the dismembering of little boys and girls. It would be a glorious thing to see. (The repentence, that is, not the abortions…)

  • EcoPolitics&Animals

    Helpful tips from a man who has mastered the art of being one of the busiest people in the world. Thanks for posting this fascinating insight

  • bps


  • Tristan Chris Heiss

    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. if that isnt the biggest bunch of brainwashed bullshat I have ever heard. right you think you can just blow off the bullshit he pulled with the NSA and the IRS and his ILLEGAL EXECUTIVE ORDERS FOR TAKING CONTROL OF THE COUNTRY AS A DICTATOR like it never happened? My gosh is this person delusional or just freaking moonbat?

    • David Hughes

      Where you born yesterday?
      Because if you haven’t noticed every president has taken these same privileges, yet you may never mention them, nor act as if they broke any laws.
      I suppose that is selective Judgement, and is quite a convenient position to assume when your favorite political candidate is not in office.
      Once again, we only find more pandering to one’s own ideology with this post.

      • really?

        So David – if one president abused his powers – that is an excuse for why the current one abuses his?

      • Blandly Urbane

        I believe this is what David means. He may believe his judgement is not “selective,” but it sure is.

  • Tristan Chris Heiss

    excuse me but the unemployment rate is over 30% you believe the lies if you want dont ever believe biased government run polls.. a large majority of unemployed, not by choice,have run out of unemployment and plain given up . obozocare will cost over 2.5 million jobs lost and that comes straight from DC. not some liberal post-it. you believe the lies if you want but america is on the verge of bankruptcy and if the US dollar stops being the world currency which is being planned, Obama will have finished his job destroying america and ushering in totalitarian communism. your purposely misinformed , or uninformed , or brainwash indoctrinated.

  • Tristan Chris Heiss

    funny he didnt work till 1 am the night he murdered those men in Benghazi.

  • Cynthia Juengel

    Reading the article and the brainless comments afterwards just confirms how insane Obama supporters are! The article almost seemed like a comedy copulation of a president who CLEARLY has NO idea what “work” or responsibility is! He doesn’t want to be bothered with decisions, even of how to personally DRESS himself, like some kind of SPOILED PRINCE! Does he even know how to feed himself, or have the ability to know how to handle a fork or spoon on his own. The manboy has no idea what WORK is! He wants to play and party, and DON’T BOTHER HIM ABOUT WORK! Free time, and playing golf, and seeing his daughters for a minute or two per day. (which I TRULY doubt he would care ) . How anyone could find this appealing or a leader of ANY KIND is beyond my comprehension! He LOVES killing people, taking our freedoms away, destroying our country and illegally destroying our Constitution!!! IT’S GOOD TO BE THE KING!
    I now understand where his supporte’s heads are! UP THEIR ASSES! Fairy-tale land!
    Other than all of that, I approach this article as a satire comedy routine, and only those who ‘get it’ will have a good laugh!

    • David Hughes

      I think the article was a “Light” approach to the president’s daily activities. Not meant to be a detailed documentary.
      Seems you may have read a little too much into it.
      After reading your review I couldn’t help but notice the obvious bias you seem to hold against Mr. Obama.
      With your inability to be candid about your judgment I could only assume you had a predisposition against the president.
      Your Review can be classified as “In Poor Taste”

    • Kola

      Dear Cynthia, your comment is dissappointing. You need to be careful because these negative emotions can ruin your health.
      All the best.

  • Kola

    Hi Lebecka, I think you’ve said it all – the way any president manages to get through the day is definitely worth sharing and learning from.

  • Manhattan Dating project

    Interesting insight of a day in Barack Obama’s life. It is good to see a president being healthy. I wonder, what Vladimir Putin’s day is like.

  • Blandly Urbane

    Wow, so very unserious

  • Herman G Morgan III

    I had to come read this original article after seeing it spun and skewed by Opinion pieces in the WSJ and elsewhere. Seems pretty innocuous to me ?

  • Stan

    Is this meant to be some sort of parody?

  • CaydenSelwyn

    Our taxes pay for EVERY president. Why is it only a problem when Obama’s running the country?

  • Skip E Powers

    You all have to be in some Prozac world, because this Obama is far from we are being told by sheeps and media monkies who worship him, I think a worthy subject would be that guy or lady sweating his butt off in the jungles trying to save lives and preserve the natural habitat, they are the heroes the real people who are worthy of reporting about, and yet Tyranny and control on mankind makes news because the media are trolls who worship ignorance and blood.

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