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Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Time Management

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 is the Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U. Find him on Twitter: @SeanBlanda.

Comments (99)
  • https://uyencong.wordpress.com/2015/07/14/tai-sao-giam-doc-sang-tao-cua-saatchi-chi-mac-mot-loai-trang-phuc-di-lam-moi-ngay/ Tại sao giám đốc sáng tạo của Saatchi chỉ mặc một loại trang phục đi làm mỗi ngày? | Uyen Cong

    […] Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Albert Einstein và Barack Obama đều mặc “đồng phục” đi làm mỗi ngày. Giám đốc nghệ thuật người […]

  • https://acejodric.wordpress.com/2014/03/01/tai-sao-giam-doc-sang-tao-cua-saatchi-chi-mac-mot-loai-trang-phuc-di-lam-moi-ngay/ Tại sao giám đốc sáng tạo của Saatchi chỉ mặc một loại trang phục đi làm mỗi ngày? | Jodric – Ace team

    […] Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Albert Einstein và Barack Obama đều mặc “đồng phục” đi làm mỗi ngày. Giám đốc nghệ thuật người Thụy […]

  • http://khalidm.ca/blog/daily-rituals-that-make-my-day-awesome/ Daily rituals that make my day awesome | KhalidM.ca

    […] Scientists find physical clutter negatively affects your ability to focus process information 26.^ 99U.com: How Barack Obama gets things done 27.^ One of my favorite quotes, but I have yet to confirm its origin. Some credit Stephen Covey, […]

  • http://time.com/3970212/top-predictor-life-success/ Psychology: This Is the Top Predictor of Success in Life

    […] Need more willpower for the day? Simply making decisions burns willpower so reducing the number and difficulty of decisions you make is an easy way to conserve it. That’s what President Obama does. […]

  • http://nigerianewsstand.com/this-is-the-top-predictor-of-success-in-life/ This Is the Top Predictor of Success in Life

    […] Need more willpower for the day? Simply making decisions burns willpower so reducing the number and difficulty of decisions you make is an easy way to conserve it. That’s what President Obama does. […]

  • http://www.kampuspencetakpengusaha.com/artikel/kebiasaan-aneh-yang-justru-membuat-orang-orang-ini-sukses Kampus Pencetak Pengusaha Kebiasaan Aneh yang Justru Membuat Orang-Orang Ini Sukses -Kampus Pencetak Pengusaha

    […] “Aku tidak mau memutuskan apa yang harus aku pakai hari itu, atau makanan apa yang harus dihidangkan untukku. Terlalu banyak keputusan lain yang perlu kubuat”. (penjelasannya, lihat disini) […]

  • http://attunepress.com/2015/08/26/5-morning-routines-of-successful-people-to-start-your-day-right/ 5 Morning Routines Of Successful People To Start Your Day Right

    […] insanely successful people cannot live without it. U.S. President Barack Obama starts each day with 45 minutes of either weights or cardio in his personal gym, believing that “the rest of my time will be more […]

  • http://www.moritzlemm.de/im-mlm-motiviert-sein/ Wie du es schaffst im MLM immer motiviert zu sein

    […] Eine Routine gibt dir eine gewisse Struktur für den Tag.Die Routine kann z.B sein 30 Minuten zu meditieren und 500ml Wasser zu trinken.Wenn du keine Routine hast und nachdem du aufgestanden bist sofort dein Handy mit den Whats App Verläufen anschaust,dann kommst du in keinen aktiv Modus sondern in einen passiv Modus.Mit dem aktiv Modus meine ich,dass man seine Aufgaben erledigt,während man beim passiv Modus passiv Dinge in sich aufnimmt,die einen ablenken.Ich bin kein Obama Fan,aber auch er hat seine Routine.Er startet seinen Tag mit einer 45 minütigen Kardio  Übung .http://99u.com/articles/7223/how-barack-obama-gets-things-done […]

  • http://productivitymind.de/2-faktoren-gewohnheiten-aendern/ 2 essentielle Faktoren um deine Gewohnheiten zu ändern - PRODUCTIVITYMIND

    […] Der Präsident der Vereinigten Staaten hat in seinem Schrank X Anzüge. Nicht mehr. Nur um seine Willenskraft nicht mit solchen Kleinigkeiten zu beeinflussen wie Anzug wählen. […]

  • https://roadtobetterment.wordpress.com/2016/01/06/how-do-i-get-motivated-every-single-day-i-mean-every-single-day/ How do I get motivated every single day? I mean every single day. | roadtobetterment

    […] typically have some sort of morning  routine or quirk that gets them fired up for the day — most exercise, some dip themselves into an ice bath and others rub lotion all over their skin or else they get […]

  • http://www.stcoach.com/blog/2016/01/22/decision-fatigue/ Decision Fatigue & Other Late-In-the-Day Maladies - Sharon Teitelbaum

    […] Here’s an article containing more of Barack Obama’s productivity habits. […]

  • http://thesius.com/blog/articles/stress-bewaeltigung-relax/ „STRESS MICH NICHT!“ | Thesius Blog

    […] Wusstest Du, dass sich der US- amerikanische Präsident Barack Obama bewusst verschiedenen Belastungen aussetzt, oder sich die kreativsten Möglichkeiten ausdenkt, um in Form zu bleiben und Stress zu vermeiden? Er hat z.B. seinen „Anger-Translator“, läuft lieber die Treppe und hat seine ganz eigene Art, die Dinge zum Laufen zu bringen. […]

  • http://leadershiphq.com.au/leadership-exhaustion/ Leadership Exhaustion | Leadership HQ

    […] to get more done and reduce his stress by reducing his workload. According to an article at 99u, President Obama has over 100 assistants that help to keep him on task, briefed and informed so […]

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    […] they typically have some sort of morning routine or quirk that gets them fired up for the day—most exercise, some dip themselves into an ice bath and others rub lotion all over their skin or else they get […]

  • https://labohemefr.wordpress.com/2016/02/14/the-obama-diet/ The Obama Diet | La Bohème

    […] answer – Obama and Kaisen. Click on this link for Obama and this for Kaisen (detailed […]

  • http://GPonline-shop.com/top-10-fashion-donts-back-school-fashion-guide/ Top 10 Fashion Don’ts: Your Back To School Fashion Guide | GP Online Shoping Blog – Fashion, Lifestyle, Beauty & More

    […] Fatal Fashion Mistake #4: Keeping a wardrobe that runs through the entire color spectrum. Having a colorful wardrobe isn’t bad in and of itself, but the fact is that it can make choosing outfits a royal pain. Unless you’re cool with dealing with mismatched clothing, or dealing with spending a good half hour picking out an outfit for the next day, it’s best to limit the bulk of your back to school clothing to 2 to 4 colors. Keeping colors limited is such a good practice, even Barack Obama endorses it! […]

  • https://blog.crew.co/why-we-crave-junk-food-and-how-to-turn-down-the-cravings/ Why we crave junk food and how to turn down the cravings - Crew Blog

    […] minor decisions. Barack Obama offers a good example: he limits his suits to only black and blue, so the decision of what to wear never takes much out of him in the […]

  • http://adrenalfatiguecoach.com/6-ways-men-improve-worklife-balance/ 6 Ways for Men to Improve Their Work/Life Balance - Adrenal Fatigue: How To Heal From Adrenal Fatigue

    […] a reason that the most successful people all have developed a routine that they stick to every day. Here you can read more about Barack Obama’s daily routine. I always use the POTUS as an example […]

  • http://www.adrenalfatiguecoach.com/6-ways-men-improve-worklife-balance/ 6 Ways for Men to Improve Their Work/Life Balance - Adrenal Fatigue: How To Heal From Adrenal Fatigue

    […] Here you can read more about Barack Obama’s daily routine. I always use the POTUS as an example because he has probably the most stressful job on the planet. If he can somehow find a healthy work/life balance so can you. What does your current daily routine look like? […]

  • http://schreibwahnsinn.de/warum-du-eine-morgenroutine-brauchst/ Warum du eine Morgenroutine brauchst - Schreibwahnsinn

    […] Barack Obama es als Präsident der Vereinigten Staaten schafft, trotz seines stressigen Zeitplans jeden Morgen 45 Minuten Sport zu machen, dann kriegen wir das ja wohl auch hin. […]

  • http://testondev.com/EPD-Development/experiencing-leadership-exhaustion-sonia-mcdonald/ Are you experiencing leadership exhaustion – Sonia McDonald - EPD Development

    […] to get more done and reduce his stress by reducing his workload. According to an article at 99u, President Obama has over 100 assistants that help to keep him on task, briefed and informed so […]

  • http://inonecreative.com/how-to-fight-through-intellectual-discomfort-6/ How to Fight Through Intellectual Discomfort | In One Creative

    […] limiting thought, the more you can simplify your life and focus energy elsewhere.” [A practice also shared by Barack Obama] Recognize and acknowledge time periods or days when you’ve made a lot of decisions, and realize […]

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