Always Wear The Same Suit: Obama’s Presidential Productivity Secrets

Getting comfortable with complexity, keeping a pack of Nicorette handy, and making no new friends. This is how a commander in chief gets things done.

Always Wear The Same Suit: Obama’s Presidential Productivity Secrets
[Image: Flickr user The White House | Pete Souza]

President Obama always wears the same thing. Which is part of his secret to getting so much done.


As he told Vanity Fair:

“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” [Obama] said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

This is because, the Commander in Chief explained, the act of making a decision erodes your ability to make later decisions. Psychologists call it decision fatigue: it’s why shopping for groceries can be so exhausting and judges give harsher rulings later in the day.

Managing decision fatigue calls for the high-value, low-effort systemization that entrepreneurs swear by. Whether or not our offices are oval, we need to find ways to reduce friction in our days. As Obama says:


“You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”

Obama makes messy decisions cleaner

In 2012, Ryan Lizza had a big scoop for the New Yorker: hundreds of pages of White House memos. Woven together, the memos paint a picture of what the presidential workflow looks like–especially since this president prefers written advice to spoken. What’s most illuminating is how “decision memos” get delivered to his desk with three checkboxes at the bottom:

  • agree
  • disagree
  • let’s discuss

This is effective because, like always wearing the same suit, the checkboxes impose simplicity. While the decisions are obviously complex–how else do they end up at the desk of the president–creating three choices speeds up the feedback loop. Rather than submitting an essay test for each problem, the president can opt for multiple choice.

Obama keeps a select social calendar

During their first presidential campaign, Barack and Michelle made a quizzical vow: “no new friends.” While we can’t peer into their decision-making process, that antisocial statement sounds like the kind of time-protecting strategy that Warren Buffett and Bill Gates always emphasize: you need to keep your calendar empty if you’re going to get anything significant done, like become president.


“There have been times where I’ve been constrained by the fact that I had two young daughters who I wanted to spend time with–and that I wasn’t in a position to work the social scene in Washington,” Obama tells New Yorker editor David Remnick. Now the kids are older, the Obamas are hosting dinners–starting at six, sometimes lasting until 1 a.m.

Image: Flickr user The White House | Pete Souza


The function of that socialness may be to practice something that Obama’s been historically hesitant to do: build relationships, the kind that help make legislation happen. Still, Obama is cool on the networking: “there are some structural institutional realities to our political system that don’t have much to do with schmoozing,” he says.

Obama Gets Started The Night Before

“(T)he president’s day actually starts the night before,” Michael Lewis writes in Vanity Fair. “When he awakens at seven, he already has a jump on things.”

This is because Obama gets started on major tasks in the late hours, after the family has gone to bed. A self-professed nightowl, the wee hours provide what does come readily to a president: uninterrupted time to work. As we’ve noted before, distraction prevents us from getting in deep with a task–and it’s in that depth where the best work happens.


Over at 99u, Sean Blanda supplies a case study:

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.

Obama makes sure he gets enough exercise

The president has a regular pickup basketball game with former pros and he hits his personal gym for about an hour every day–doing weights one day, cardio the next. The logic: the rest of his time will be more productive if he gets his workout time.

“You have to exercise,” he told Vanity Fair. “Or at some point you’ll just break down.”


Hat tip: the New Yorker

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.