21st-century presidents like Barack Obama face an especially daunting task. How can he get anything done with 300 million bosses, a horde of relentless critics fueled by a 24-hour news cycle, and a life or death to-do list? And all in a city plagued by bureaucracy and inefficiency?
Forty-four American presidents have navigated the complicated roles and responsibilities of the Executive Branch, each with their own style. Thanks to the fantastic journalism of Michael Lewis of Vanity Fair, Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker, and a few others, we were able to draw a detailed portrait of how the modern-day presidency works.
Here are 5 productivity tips from him:
1. Start 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 goes to bed, Obama stays up working and ends left over from the day. The president’s nighttime responsibilities include leafing through the binder of documents that his staff has asked him to review.
After winning 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 used the nighttime to complete the job. First off, he copied the staff speech by hand to gather his thoughts and then he used the exercise to write his own speech, a time-consuming approach which would be impossible during his regular days.
2. Don’t make useless decisions
White House operations have grown increasingly complex over the years. President Harry Truman had 12 so-called “assistants to the president.” Now there are more than 100 people who have a similar title. As a result, President Obama tries to limit the number of decisions he has to make, including those about what he is going to wear.
“I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing,” as he told Michael Lewis. “I have too many other decisions to make.”
He doesn’t only apply the practice of limiting decision fatigue to his wardrobe. In early 2012, The New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza obtained hundreds of pages of White House memos that offered an intimate portrait of the inner-workings of the Executive team. According to Lizza, the president likes to have “decision” memos delivered to him with three checkboxes that read: agree, disagree, or “let’s discuss.”
3. Don’t listen to your critics
Richard Nixon famously kept a “list of enemies,” but today’s polarized news cycle doesn’t leave a president enough time to collect enemies. Profiles of the president have repeatedly mentioned 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 filters the news as much as he can, but he also knows he can’t live in bubble. He told Michael Lewis, “one of the things you realize fairly quickly in this job is that there is a character people see out there called Barack Obama,” and “that’s not you.”
4. Get your workout
President Obama starts out 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,’” as Obama’s former campaign manager told WebMD.
Obama also holds a regular basketball game with a handful of friends, all of them experienced basketball players. For basketball fans, 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. Consider your personal time as sacred.
The president only has three times in his schedule that are his to control: his morning workout, dinner with his daughters, and in the evening after his family falls asleep. Each block of time serves a different purpose: the gym keeps his body in good health, the late night helps him catch up on work, and the dinner is especially sacred time, giving the president some perspective outside his busy workday.