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Decision-Making

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)
  • Joe Nicklo

    How about get some big timers at BBDO, Landor, Y&R, McCann etc., and discuss this? Industry related posts would be far more helpful (and interesting) than this. Politics will never be a topic that receives civil comments. As a daily reader of 99U and one of the early members of Behance for that matter, I’m really surprised you guys posted this.

  • Joe Nicklo

    I don’t mean to sound like I’m anti-Obama or Pro-Romney. I’m honestly neither. I feel that while the post is interesting, it’s so far apart from our industry that it (obviously) left a bad taste in some people’s mouths.

  • 99U

    Thanks for reading, Joe. It is certainly now clear the community does not have a taste for politics, and has been duly noted.

  • Drewsy

    Y’know, the ideas in here reflect how I am when I’m at my most productive, and I produce purely creative written content.

    So… yeah, I guess it kinda is like a creative work day, huh?

  • Byron Palmer

    Loved the post. I have been wondering about the way the president manages his time as well. How any president has. I don’t have strong feelings about the president one way or the other, but I would like to think that if I did have strong feelings I would still be able to differentiate your article’s content from my political leanings and my belief in his job performance. Seriously, who can imagine the scope and difficulty of that job, no matter which idiot holds it. Thank you Jocelyn, it was great.

  • siatome

    The problem with this post isn’t the tips, those are fine, the man clearly has a hold on discipline, scheduling, etc. otherwise he wouldn’t make it in politics. The problem is that he has personally become a symbol of so much, and so much of what he is a symbol if is inherently polarizing. The minute a picture of him appears sides are taken.

    Add to that the fact that this particular industry loves the guy and you end up with a large number of creative professionals who are downright sick of hearing about him.

    That said, the design on his 2008 campaign was a game changer, for politics AND for the industry, an article comparing romney’s and obama’s designs this year and the sorts of images and feelings that their print and web is trying to invoke would be very interesting. If you could make it even handed enough.

    That said, people would still argue in the comments. lol.

  • senhor roo

    This is not politics. It’s an insight into how one person does their job and gets it done.

    There was nothing about policy or anything even remotely political at all. The only politics in the article is what’s been brought into it in the comments section.

    Great article 99U.

  • Saida de Vries

    Anyone, so relaxed as president Obama, will be able to manage anything. What a great personality and surely hope that he will be re-elected.

  • Anna

    What really hit home for me was that this schedule isn’t super-human — really the only thing different from lots of 9-5ers is that he goes back to work after dinner (and lots of people do that on at least some days of the week). As a grad student (with presumably fewer people to bomb then the president), it is good to know that I don’t have to wake up at some ungodly hour, or give up on personal care to do well.
    I was curious about sleep and when he went to bed. You hear about people like Clinton who didn’t sleep much – it would make a difference to know if he pushes for a solid 8 hours, or if he’s going to bed at 2AM.

  • Tom

    What I learned about the President:

    1. He prefers not to wake up too early.2. He avoids having to make too many decisions.3. He likes playing basketball.4. He enjoys personal time.
    Cool story bro.

  • Michael Chan

    How did you gather that? There is no mention of the time he wakes up int he morning. He could wake up at 4 AM to go work out for all we know. I’d assume its closer to 6 AM though.

  • Tim J Taaffe

    The article is a fine example of what one man (Obama) does from morning to late at night to efficiently do his job. Let’s face facts. Despite what the lame media tells us and wants us to believe Obama does nothing more than what most employed people do. There is nothing extraordinary about his use (or lack) of useful time management. I would be most impressed with his skills if actually accomplished something he told us he would do. He says one thing. He does something entirely different. Fact: U.S. unemployment rate 9/1/2012- 8.1%(down from 8.3%) In September 2008 the unemployment rate was 6.1% (figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics)
    Please people wake-up. Give Obama a gold watch and send him into retirement.

  • Anushka

    I am super glad you put this up. It helps some of us understand what kind of a life he likes to lead even in his busy schedule. Gives you insight on how insightful he is about work, family, and business matters. A man like that with these kinds of methods (though only a few were mentioned) is on a path that no president would have found easy. I admire him for various reasons …Thank you again!

  • andy

    i always feel people who say these things have never lived in a society with them.

  • Anna

    Yes, the story does mention it: “
    When he awakens at seven, he already has a jump on things.”

  • W01F

    Sure, get a Republican candidate that actually has more to offer the American people than catering to the evangelical movement, Multi-national corporations and “business-as-usual” buddies and perhaps, just perhaps we would have an alternative. It’s not that Obama is “better” it’s that the opposition is now just plain lousy.

  • Thea

    He works until 1 and gets up at 7. So, 6 hours sleep. Not bad.

  • Shoichi Toyama

    99U.

    This is really a great article. I’m going to use this as a talk material for a English conversation circle.

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/1066

    *This is the second article I chose for the circle from 99U

  • Dax Bercasio

    Thanks for this post!

  • Anushka

    Love the article. Its brilliant to see how such a man functions! (the stars thing … i have no clue how that works!)

  • Nicholas Mapes

    I think it would be fair to wait 50 to a 100 years before we try and make that comparison.

  • Nicholas Mapes

    If I remember correctly, in the case of Lincoln, he was so hated in the south that they left the Union and went to war.

  • poppa

    Great article and insight into this unique president’s life. Not many pointers, (he hasn’t had much life experience to draw on), but some weIl-taken. I also prefer the quiet of 1pm to assemble my thoughts (research the pros and cons of upcoming procedures), and finalize preparations for a full day with complex patients. Unfortunately, I have to get back up at 6. Love the exercise and sport comments, and will try for a second 5min. round of chinups mid-day (since not much time to spare). I would expect more hard work from a president, knowing that he is only in it for 4 or 8 years, especially compared to most doctors, who have the intense life-death decision making burden for often 40+ years.

    re: Europe: was in Poland teaching, recently, and they think US is foolish for letting Obama take us in the direction they are so happy to have extracted themselves from!

  • Virginia Smith

    1. Waking up at 7am *is* early when you work until 1am (as was mentioned in the article).
    2. Minimizing the number of unimportant decisions you have to make (when you’re likely making hundreds of important decisions per week) is a great tip.
    3. Exercising has been shown to increase mental clarity. You should try it.
    4. For busy people, maintaining some personal time is critical to avoiding burnout. If you ever become a busy person, you should keep that in mind…

    Whether you’re an Obama fan or not, there was nothing silly in this article.

  • Virginia Smith


    Fact: U.S. unemployment rate 9/1/2012- 8.1%(down from 8.3%) In September 2008 the unemployment rate was 6.1% (figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics)”

    I know 2008 was so long ago, but if you do a little research, you can see that we were spiraling into what they’ve called The Great Recession before Obama took office. Unemployment had been steadily rising in Bush’s last year, from 5.0% in January up to 6.8% in November. Obama won the election Nov 2008. By the time he was sworn in in January 2009, the rate was 7.8%.
    http://data.bls.gov/timeseries

    The stimulus (despite what everyone says) kept us from having a Great Depression. Unemployment peaked around 10% in Obama’s first year (in Oct 2009) and has going down (if slowly and erratically) since then.

    Obama’s not perfect, but the disaster of an economy was clearly something he inherited. He didn’t turn us into a sinking ship–he hopped onboard a sinking ship and kept the whole thing from going under. Sure, things don’t look pretty yet. But you’d think people would show some gratitude. Are memories really that short?

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