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Leadership

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)
  • Luther

    All-in-all, a fairly normal approach.

  • shutyourmouthuseyourbrain

    Good read,,,,,thank you. He is one of a kind the best president.

  • garcia_IS_shill

    Wow, Obama must be some kind of God 😉 LOL Thanks for sharing this trivial info.

  • Mike Lambert

    Seems typical of most modern day presidents. I would have liked to have seen something that he did that was radically different from the rest.

  • mybuddhistlife

    Great post. Always inspiring to learn how effective people do their day. I am now going to hire a 100-person team and buy a big pile of post-it notes.

  • Joe Nicklo

    But is he really “getting things done” ??? :/

  • Joe Nicklo

    Totally better than FDR, Lincoln, Washington or any other President — right?

  • SatyenH

    Key takeaway – forget anything other than sports on TV. It’s a waste of time for the President, it’s a waste of time for me.

  • Bonna

    Hope you guys re-elect this president. He’s so much more taken serious than monkey Bush over here in Europe.

  • barry fan

    Another great technique that Obama used to be more efficient, in this case in the area of decision-making, is that he just abolished the right to a fair trial for many suspects. This way he didn’t have to waste any time on having to find and present evidence and convince a judge or jury of somebody’s guilt, but could instead directly proceed to the sentencing part: indefinite detention or murder by drone.

  • Daniel

    I don’t care about politics, but I don’t see how this is relevant to the audience of your site. This is not a creative professional, and is no more relevant than the average CEO to the readers of 99u. Except unlike the average CEO, this is a potentially very polarizing figure. Content fail, IMO. In general I love this site.

  • FrankB

    A “Dear Leader” hagiography.

  • Phelps

    Given how little Obama has gotten done compared to actually productive presidents (like Roosevelt and Reagan) I think I will use these as “how to NOT be productive” tips. Especially 1, 2, and 3.

  • Calvin Mlynarczyk

    I’m sure if the same media system was around during their terms, we would have found ways to make them look bad as well.

  • boomergran

    Trivial minds trivialize everything.

  • Bobby Toms

    How he gets so much done? He skips all of his security briefings and gets in as much golf as possible on our nickel.

  • politiquillo

    To my recollection this has been on the books since 2002 or there about. Not sure how you can blame Obama for that?

  • politiquillo

    You should add, “Not waste time commenting on websites” as your “how to NOT be productive” list =)

  • Joe Nicklo

    How DARE you insult Obama! He’s the best President since ever! No really, you’re right but sadly, some people are blind.

  • Joe Nicklo

    I agree 100%. It’s pretty sad when people shove politics down our throat just because they have a large audience (or in this case, traffic).

    Obama’s work day is NOTHING like a Creative’s work day and our work day is nothing like his.

    Compare Apples to Apples here 99%. You guys always put out great articles but this one is pure crap that is clearly aimed at pushing your political views/agenda.

  • Joe Nicklo

    The pot calling the kettle black.

  • Joe Nicklo

    That’s a cop-out. What you’re saying is “It’s ok for Obama to suck as a President because if we had the media when Roosevelt was President, we’d think he sucked too”.

  • 99U

    Their have been quite a few negative comments on this post, so I want to take a moment to respond regarding our motivations. This post does not express the political views of 99 nor Behance, and we’re not interested in trying to make anyone vote a particular way.

    We thought it would be interesting to dig into some of the many lengthy profiles of Obama, and pull out some tips about managing your day effectively because few people have to make as many important decisions in a day as the sitting president (whichever president we’re talking about).

    It’s a topic I’ve always been curious about. I often get overwhelmed in my own day, so how does a President — who has a million more things, and things of significantly greater import to do — get everything done?

    If you’re not a fan of the insights here, I would love to hear your comments on *other* presidents of any political persuasion, who have great insights on managing the day to day. Quotes, stories, whatever.

    Editor-in-Chief // Jocelyn K. Glei

  • Calvin Mlynarczyk

    I wasn’t making excuses for anyone. You implied that yourself. All I was talking about was how the information age allows everyone to knit-pick a person’s every single action and try to find hidden meanings or agendas behind them all.

    Sound familiar?

  • ronnie

    wonder how he manages when he gets sick?

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