Productivity Habits of the U.S. Presidents


It’s President’s Day, a holiday that originally coincided with George Washington’s birthday. In the 1970’s, however, it was moved to the Monday before his birthday, and turned into a day to honor all of our U.S. Presidents.

As such, I thought I’d take this chance to look at some of the best productivity hacks employed by some of the leaders of the free world.  From sharp axes to afternoon naps, here are some of the things that have kept our presidents productive:

Washington: Maximizing Strengths and Listening to Your Team

As this Lifehacker post points out, one of the secrets to George Washington’s success was his ability to listen to his entire team (even dissenting voices) and make tough decisions based on that advice:

“George Washington decided to use guerrilla tactics instead of facing the British head-on as was the custom at the time. This wasn’t just a decision that came overnight of course. Washington and his generals had to look at the strengths of the American army and figure out how to maximize them, even if that meant breaking long-standing rules of war.”

Washington instinctively knew that, “when taking on an enemy that was far bigger than him, he looked to anyone—regardless of age or rank—for ideas.”

Lincoln: Sharpen Your Axe

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

As the quote above implies, Abraham Lincoln knew the value of preparation. He knew that, failure to plan on the front end can lead to failure to execute on the back end. There is, of course, a difference between preparation and analysis paralysis (few would doubt Honest Abe was a man of action), but aiming before you fire is rarely the wrong course of action. As this LifeOptimizer post points out:

When they have a project to work on, many people just work on it directly with little or no preparation. To the contrary, smart people prepare things well in advance and that way they outperform those with little or no preparation. They accomplish the job in less time and with less stress. That’s what I call working smart.

Teddy Roosevelt: Constantly Expand Your Mind

Like him or not, Theodore Roosevelt was one of the most mythically productive leaders in American history. During the course of his career, he served as a New York state assemblyman, frontier rancher (and sheriff), New York City Police Commissioner, war hero, Secretary of the Navy, Vice President of the United States, and, of course, President.  As this Los Angeles Times piece points out:

Along the way, T.R. found the time to write 40 books and hundreds of magazine articles and book reviews. He rode horses, boxed, rowed, played tennis and polo and skinny-dipped in the Potomac. Oh, yeah, he also won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War.

There were a number of productivity hacks Teddy employed, but one of the most striking to me was how he always fit time into his super-busy schedule for personal development. This Casting Out Nines post examines Teddy’s daily to-do lists, specifically his scheduling of as much as “4.5 hours a day” of reading each day.

Nate Desmond writes at CollegePlus that Teddy:

“Made learning a life habit. While enforcing the law on the windswept prairies of the Dakota Badlands, Sheriff Roosevelt carried a book to fill his spare moments. Even in the White House, President Roosevelt purportedly read an average of five books a week.”

The Nap Times of Kennedy, LBJ, and Reagan

One of the best things we can do to help boost our daily productivity is take more naps. According to this bit of research, a “solid 10 minute nap” can go a long way to making us more productive.

So it should come as no surprise that some of our more recent presidents (as this Filemobile post points out) employed daily naps as part of their routine:

President John F. Kennedy ate his lunch in bed and then settled in for a nap—every day!

President Lyndon B. Johnson took a nap every afternoon at 3:30 p.m. in order to break his day up into “two shifts.”

Though criticized for it, President Ronald Reagan famously took naps as well.

Obama: Avoid Decision Fatigue

Some recent interviews provide insights into our our current Commander in Chief remains productive. As this Fast Company article points out, President Obama works hard to avoid “decision fatigue” — something that derail even the most successful leaders and entrepreneurs.

According to LifeHacker:

Decision fatigue refers to the idea that people tend to make worse decisions after having made a lot of decisions. Much like muscle fatigue, if you flex your ‘decision’ muscle too much, it will fail you.

That’s one reason Obama told Vanity Fair he only wears gray or blue suits as part of his effort to pare down decisions. He has “too many other decisions to make” to have to make simple decisions such as what to eat or wear.  He also employs a simple “Agree-Disagree-Let’s Discuss” checkmark system on decision memos that make their way to his desk.

For more information on research about decision fatigue, and some great tips to help avoid it, read James Clear’s blog post here.

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