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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)
  • Virginia Smith

    Let’s see… You disagree with prepping for your day the night before, focusing your time and decision-making on important things only (not sweating the less-important parts of your day), and refusing to obsess about your critics? Really? Please, go on. I’d love to know why.

  • lebecka

    Sorry to see that some people are so limited they can’t get past their petty grievances to see the value in listening to a person that they may disagree with in other ways. The way any president manages to get through the day is fascinating.

  • lebecka

    Please, spare me. I lived in Poland for 5 years and they had a very high opinion of Obama there.

  • lebecka

    Wow, ur so meta.

  • Mark Irving

    Very interesting post – although I’d like to read more – there’s got to be a part 2 article coming soon??

  • Sean Blanda

    There’s no part 2 planned as of now.

  • User

    Well, glad to see he’s got the libertine Eurotrash vote. I guess 47% of Ovomit’s constituents don’t shave their jolly Pitts. And that’s exactly why I WON’T vote for him here in the United States — because he’s “President of the World” and doesn’t give a monkey’s alpha-sierra-squared about what’s truly American. Individual responsibility is one of those things, not popping out 25 kids and expecting whitey to pay your 40 acres and a government jackazz. Unfortunately, the respective “minorities” are collectively the majority in this country, including illegal mexicans (lowercase, as a derogatory term rather than “identity as a people”) and arabs (ditto).

    Oreobama has done zilch to improve this country and only wants to put it further into the crapper just like the Eurozone. Those private sector jobs he mentioned were for fast food restaurants. He wants everyone on welfare and those who are not, will have to pay a RINO tax — reparations in name only. Oh, and about that workout regimen: while he’s out shooting hoops like a Harlem Globetrotter, 1) how many U.S. soldiers died in Afghanistan killed by their towelhead mooslim “trainees,” 2) how many REAL jobs were lost vs. created, 3) how much nuke material did Iran just stuff into the bomb, 4) how many anchor babies and crack chitlin’s were born in the ghettos, and 5) how much does Michelle bench? With any “hope” this Martin Luther Joker will get impeached if she tests positive for steroids!

    Romney/Ryan 2012. lmpeach the leech!

  • User

    Your taxes pay for his d*mn cable bill.

  • Obama sux!

    FDR was a communist whose policies of collective labor Ovomit practically salivates over. Lincoln should have been impeached for high treason. Oreobama is nothing more than a token Buckwheat who unfortunately has this thing locked up like he should have been, picking cotton at the WHITE house and not shooting hoops with LeBron and partying with George Clooney.

    They don’t call it the black plague for nothing.

  • Rahowa

    Knit-pick, you mean pick-a-ninny. Well, the “people” sure picked a good one all right.

  • Obama is a Nagger

    Yeah, just like he’s managed to do jack sh!t these past four years. Personality and bullsh!t schmoozing only gets you so far. Eventually you actually have to get off your azz and get something done. No surprise he’s out nibbling on watermelon from his ugly bodybuilder wife Grace Jones’ organic victory garden.

  • Foxtrot Uniform Charlie Kilo

    It’s the taxpayers’ problem. Just like when Sheniqua’s crack baby gets the sniffles and Obamacare puts him at the front of the hospital queue ahead of cancer patients.

    Maybe apartheid wasn’t such a bad idea.

  • Dafuq Youdoin

    What’s your opinion of the other “national socialist” with a soul patch above his upper lip?

  • Cornrow vs Wade

    You probably think this song is about you.

  • I Have a Nightmare

    1) I don’t consider waking up to catch a red-eye to NY to be on The View “work.” Unless you’re Denzel Washington (an actor), which Ovomit’s consh!tuents seem to think he is.

    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.”

    He probably called an emergency meeting in the situation room to decide whether to wear boxers or briefs to the Ellen show. Idiot.

    3) “Exercising has been shown to increase mental clarity. You should try it.”

    Well, Michelle is just an absolute genius (sarcasm) and she benches about 350. Ooh-ooh-ooh, eep-eep-eep. And the NBA is not the presidency. “Exercising … you should try it” You mean like the she-f*ppers getting RSI from their Fifty Shades of Black & White fanfiction?

    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…”

    He is a burnout already. B*stard smokes weed in the rose garden but won’t do sh!t about the unwinnable drug war. And he’s been about as busy as president as he was in the Senate. For him, 100% of success was “just showing up.” Idiot.

  • Oreobama Cookie Monster

    “Despite what the lame media tells us and wants us to believe Obama does nothing more than what most employed people do.”

    I get your argument, but you’re missing an important point:

    What employed people?

  • Shoeless Sambo

    Unfortunately, Joe is going to get b& by the PC police for saying “pot” and “black.” Say it ain’t so, Joe: you can’t say black anymore. You didn’t build that. They own that word. /eyeroll

  • Obama Been Laden

    Like Stevie Wonder.

  • Yuckfoo

    Talk-show appearances and parties at Clooney’s mansion are “important”? Wow, I’d hate to see how he wastes his time.

    His, mine and ours.

  • Jvje

    So you say Obama should stay awake 24/7 and perhaps die of sleep deprivation instead? Who put those soldiers in Iraq in the first place? That was the liberal government you so dearly support right now. Alot of the rubbish most Americans complain about in relation to their country/citizens is the fallout of former liberal regimes. So yes, it would be wise to give Obama another term, give the man a shovel and let him clean up the mess Bush left behind, before the USA will completely implode.

    Greetings from the Eurotrash.

  • Mars Orbital

    If getting things done , meaning the End Of America, then yes your article is accurate.
    Ron Paul would of probably suited your audience better.

    Obama has done nothing but raise taxes, cut America Defense, Killed my civil liberty of owning Health Insurance and so much more , anyone outside of America really doesn’t have a clue.

  • Mars Orbital

    Why would I as an America care what Europe of the world thinks of my Country. Maybe Europe will be really supportive when Obama in his second term kills the Missile Defense system that was to be built in Europe to help protect people from Middle Eastern and Russian Long Range Weapons. Which is part of his defense cuts.

    It is amazing how Europeans and the world crap on the country I live in but expect the billions in Foreign aid to continue to countries who don’t respect the help they are given .

    Vote Romney and America , not for the World.

  • sdfsdf

    you guys don’t even know how much you depend on other countries.. totaly allienated. vote romney, go to war, bare guns, kill yourselves. idiots.

  • Anonymous

    Thornton Niven Wilder Ides of March (1948)

  • Jack Peterson

    I heard that Barack uses this planner to organize his days
    http://www.apolloplanner.com/

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