Time Management Tips From President Barack Obama

President Obama’s party took a beating in the 2014 mid-term elections. It’s not likely his last two years in office will be all that productive on the legislative front.

But what can the president himself teach us about personal productivity?

Time Management Tips From President Barack Obama

Welcome to Throwback Thursday, where we take a look at a past Agile Lifestyle feature that’s still as timely and relevant as ever. This article has been completely updated and expanded with the latest research and information.

Regardless of your politics (and Agile Lifestyle is not a political site, naturally), I think we can all agree that the job of being President of the United States is one of the most demanding and difficult jobs on the planet.

The POTUS naturally picks up some tips and tricks along the way to make sure his days are operating at peak productivity.

What President Barack Obama Can Teach Us About Time Management

The President often has to make difficult decisions with incomplete information on a diverse set of topics, from diplomatic relations with hostile nations to preserving the national parks.

And a crisis can spring up at any time at home or around the world, and the President will have to respond.

In short, the President’s days are packed.

Most of us are facing a shortage of time, in our work and personal lives. So what can the President teach us about time management? After all, if the President has one of the most stressful jobs in the world, he must have some great time management tips!

As it turns out, he does.

President Barack Obama was profiled by Michael Lewis (of Moneyball and The Big Short fame) for Vanity Fair back in October of 2012.

In the profile, the story of a captured U.S. soldier is cross-cut with Lewis’s interviews with the President. In the article, President Obama reveals some of the high-level techniques he uses to manage his busy days.

How Night Owls Get Things Done

One of the most revealing tidbits from the article is that President Obama is a night owl. Yes, contrary to the Morning Person Bias that plagues corporate America, the busiest man on earth stays up until 1:00 AM and doesn’t wake up until 7:30 in the morning.

(There’s hope for the rest of us! Although that still sounds pretty early to me …)

A study by Satoshi Kanazawa at the London School of Economics revealed that people who preferred to stay up late had a better time juggling cognitive complexity.

Another research team from Belgium and Switzerland found that night owls are more productive because early birds tend to get tired out by the tenth hour of wakefulness.

The always-helpful animators at AsapSCIENCE created a video to explain the cognitive differences between early birds and night owls (note the undercurrent of Morning Person Bias even in this educational video):

 

Whether intentionally or not, President Obama’s preference for working late into the night fits perfectly with the cognitively challenging and exhausting job of being President of the United States.

3 Time Management Tips Fit for a President

#1: Carve out personal time

The rest of my time will be more productive if you give me my workout time.

Barack Obama

The demands on the President’s time are enormous during the day. But President Barack Obama makes a point to find two large chunks of time during the day when he can be alone with his thoughts.

One is from the time his wife falls asleep to about 1 AM. The other is his workout time.

Like many of us, he surfs the web, reads books, and makes time to write (he was a best-selling author before he became President, after all). The key is that these times are his own, and neither his family nor his work can interrupt him except in the case of national emergencies.

Most of our personal emergencies aren’t anywhere near as extreme as the President’s. So how come most of us can’t find this uninterrupted time in our own days?

Might it be that you enjoy feeling needed by your boss and coworkers so much that you allow them to constantly interrupt your personal time with emails and calls?

The lesson from the President is that this ultimately hurts our productivity in the end. Creating clear boundaries and buffers on your time improves time management, it doesn’t detract from it.

#2: Stick to a routine

My wife makes fun of how routinized I’ve become.

Barack Obama

There are cognitive benefits to keeping a precise routine. In many ways, President Barack Obama’s routine resembles what many people do.

The President starts every day at 7:30 in the morning and works out until 8:30. He gets dressed in a blue or gray suit. Then he eats breakfast and scans the news until he’s ready to start the day by diving into his first assignment: the daily security briefing from the national security team.

(That’s where the President’s day diverges from most of ours.)

Because anything can happen in a President’s day that requires his response, from violence in the Middle East to a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy, having a few routine aspects provides needed predictability to the day.

For a job as stressful as being the President of the United States, making it up as you go along every hour of every day would add an enormous mental tax to decision-making, the President’s single-most important task.

While you and I aren’t the sovereign leaders of anyplace in particular (unless you are, in which case, kudos), Barack Obama’s routine is a smart template to follow.

#3: Conserve your willpower

I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing because I have too many other decisions to make.

Barack Obama

A President’s job is to make tough calls, every hour of the day. Whether it’s foreign or domestic policy, education or defense, or working with Congress and the Senate, the President exercises one power over and over: decision-making.

Because brainpower is a finite resource, President Obama has to be ruthless about every trivial decision that enters his life, like what to eat and what to wear. He can’t afford to be distracted by the everyday decisions that consume most of our lives. That’s why he only wears gray or blue suits.

How can you manage the number of decisions you make each day?

Could you develop a rotation for your clothes so you don’t need to think about it each time you open the closet?

Could you prepare food once during the week for the entire week?

Your decision-making muscle degrades over the course of the day as you use it. The more menial decisions you can pare down, the greater gains you can make with the decisions that matter.

Final Thoughts

The theme throughout President Obama’s time management tips is to preserve your most precious resources: Your time and your attention.

He does this by preserving the following three resources:

  1. His personal time. Finding margin in your day-to-day schedule creates the space for reflection and rest. The remainder of your time reaps the benefits.
  2. His routine. One of the most productive work habits you can establish, a routine brings structure to your day and conserves precious brainpower for the decisions that matter.
  3. His willpower. Your decision-making power fatigues like a muscle over the course of the day. Routines, habits, and virtuous cycles all conserve your willpower

Most of us expend mental resources like there are no limits to how long we can work and still make good decisions. This is a mistake.

Carving out time for yourself and reducing irrelevant decision-making are great time management strategies for anyone.

Even if you are the leader of the free world.

♦♦♦

I recognize that politics inflames the passions, but please keep it civil and restrict your comments to time management tips and techniques discussed in the article. Thanks!

An earlier version of this article first appeared on November 2, 2012.

Image by Beverly & Pack.

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