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How Abraham Lincoln’s Work Habits Keep Doris Kearns Goodwin On Track

The historian and political commentator shares the productivity secrets of former U.S. presidents—plus a few of her own.

How Abraham Lincoln’s Work Habits Keep Doris Kearns Goodwin On Track
Doris Kearns Goodwin: Historian, writer, and political commentator [Photo: Noel Spirandelli]

Every morning I go downstairs to this room we call the “reading room.” There’s a couch—and a fireplace in the wintertime—and I sit with a blanket and my laptop perched on a pillow. I start immediately on whatever book I’m working on. I don’t turn email on, don’t turn the television on for news. Those are wonderful hours. I feel this great sense of solace to know that I’ll have, maybe, three hours and the outer world is gone completely. That’s when I get my best work done.

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I always take notes. If I don’t have the computer, I have a piece of paper. Lincoln had this rolltop desk, and he would scratch thoughts out for speeches and then put them in this desk. When the time came for the speech, he’d just pick these little thoughts out. Somehow he managed to get the Gettysburg Address from those scraps. If you can do one-millionth of that you’ll be in great shape.

I love planes. I can’t wait to get on the plane. If I’m traveling from San Francisco to Boston, I’ll be able to work for five hours straight.

I’ve built a social life into my writing life. Every night during World War II, FDR had a cocktail hour, and the rule was, when you’re at the cocktail hour you can’t talk about the war. [For] a few precious hours you could forget the war was raging. I became obsessed with this idea. The same thing happens here. One night it may be trivia night, another night perhaps live music. It’s the most relaxing thing in the world.

Time she wakes up: 5 a.m. “No alarm is necessary. It’s 5 a.m., and there it is.”

Breakfast routine: “I have breakfast with my husband around 9. I eat a poached egg and an English muffin, and I read the newspapers. Then I turn the computer on and start checking my email.”

Productivity philosophy: “Teddy Roosevelt thought procrastination was a mortal sin. If he were given a speech to write, he would start working on it right away. Sometimes, if I start to put things off, I think of Teddy Roosevelt.”

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Best habit: “My ability to focus.”

Nightly routine: “FDR read mysteries—and that’s what I do at night too. I just read a mystery book for about 20 minutes, something to take my mind off of things.”

Time she goes to bed: Between 10 and 11 p.m.