On Daily Routines, we profile successful leaders, entrepreneurs, artists, executives and athletes to explore the routines, schedules, habits and typical day in their life.
During his presidency Barack Obama gained the reputation of being a “night guy,” known for carving out late nights hours in his upstairs office in the Treaty Room, when things were calmer, with fewer people running around and less demands on his attention.
In a 2009 interview with Newsweek’s Jon Meacham, Obama outlined his daily routine as the 44th President of the United States:
I’m a night owl. My usual day is: I work out in the morning; I get to the office around 9, 8:30 a.m. to 9 a.m.; work till about 6:30 p.m.; have dinner with the family, hang out with the kids and put them to bed about 8:30 p.m. And then I’ll probably read briefing papers or do paperwork or write stuff until about 11:30 p.m., and then I usually have about a half hour to read before I go to bed, about midnight, 12:30 a.m.—sometimes a little later.Q&A: Obama on Dick Cheney, War and Star Trek | Newsweek
A 2016 New York Times profile showcased a nightly routine that consisted of reading, writing and planning, as well as ESPN and Words With Friends. Obama often used this time to catch up on the day, decompress, and also just to think. He also had a habit of snacking on “seven lightly salted almonds” every night.
“For me, these were often the quietest and most product hours of the day, a time when I could catch up on work and prepare myself for whatever was coming next, poring over the stacks of material my staff secretary sent up to the residence for my review,” he wrote in his 2020 memoir, A Promised Land. “The latest economic data Decision memos. Informational memos. Intelligence briefings. Legislative proposals. Drafts of speeches. Press conference talking points.”
“The most difficult thing is to carve out time to think, which is probably the most important time for somebody who’s trying to shift an organization, or in this case, the country, as opposed to doing the same things that have been done before. And I find that time slips away,” Obama said in an interview with Men’s Health.
With a wake up time of around 7am, Obama typically got 5 to 7 hours of sleep every night. He liked to work out first thing in the morning, alternating between weights and cardio. Obama’s daily 45 minutes of exercise, 6 days a week, was a non-negotiable in his routine, similar to his wife, Michelle Obama, who wakes up at 4.30am to get her workout in.
“His logic was always, ‘The rest of my time will be more productive if you give me my workout time,’” says Jim Cauley, who managed Obama’s 2004 U.S. Senate campaign.
Even during the grueling 2008 presidential campaign, which he also had to balance with senate duties, Obama was adamant about including his exercise routine every morning. In his memoir, he writes about the daily grind of the presidential campaign:
I’d wake up after five or six hours and try to squeeze in a workout at whatever facility we could find (the old treadmill in the back of a tanning salon was memorable), before packing up my clothes and gulping down a haphazard breakfast; before hopping into a van and making fundraising calls on the way to the first town hall meeting of the day; before interviews with the local paper or news station, several meets-and-greets with local party leaders, a bath-room stop, and maybe a swing by the local eatery to shake hands; before hopping back in the van to dial for more dollars. I’d repeat this three or four times, with a cold sandwich or salad wedged in there somewhere, before finally staggering into another motel around nine p.m, trying to catch Michelle and the girls by phone before they went to bed, before reading the next day’s briefing materials, the binder gradually slipping out of my hands as exhaustion knocked me out.A Promised Land | Barack Obama
After his workout, Obama joined his family for breakfast. According to his personal aide Reggie Love, during his tenure as president Obama rarely drank coffee, opting for orange juice, green tea or water instead. After his daughters, Malia and Sasha, were packed and left for school, Obama made the 30-second commute to his office, usually at around 9am to start his workday.
In a Vanity Fair profile of a day in the life of Obama, Todd S. Purdum described the start of his work day.
When Obama arrives in the office this morning, just before 9:30, the first item on his agenda, as always, is a meeting with his chief of staff for a quick rundown of the coming day: “three minutes, four minutes, five minutes—whatever it takes, but you’ve got to make it quick.”Washington, We Have a Problem | Vanity Fair
Each evening, after the end of each day, Obama would have a similar wrap up session with his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, returning to the residence by 6 or 6:30pm, then into his office by 8.30pm.
While the demands of running a country can undoubtedly be suffocating and at times overwhelming, Obama managed to find his balance, by sticking to his daily habits, whether that’s dinner with his family, exercise, late night hours to himself, or minimising decision fatigue.
“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions,” he told Vanity Fair. “I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”
He also took advantage of his commute, a one minute walk between the White House residence and the West Wing, to get him ready for the day, as well as to decompress. “It was along this walkway that I’d gather my thoughts for the day, preparing for conversations with members of Congress and constituents, reviewing plans and proposals to move the country forward,” he revealed on Instagram.
“On the way back to the residence in the evenings, my briefcase stuffed with papers, I’d use the time to clear my mind, anticipating my dinner with Michelle and the girls, and an exuberant greeting from the dogs.”
Family time is especially important to Obama for unwind from his day. “The chance to be under the same roof with his kids, essentially to live over the store, to be able to see them whenever he wants, to wake up with them, have breakfast and dinner with them — that has made him a very happy man,” David Axelrod, Obama’s Senior Adviser, said to The New York Times.
One of the advantages of essentially living above the Oval Office was that Obama could essentially take a break out of his day to spend time with his family; having dinner, reading the girls bedtime stories and catching up on movies with Michelle.
“In that hour and a half or so each evening, I found myself replenished – my mind cleansed and my heart cured of whatever damage a day spent pondering the world and its intractable problems may have done,” he wrote.
Obama handed over the Presidential reins to Donald Trump in 2017 and embarked on much-needed holiday in the British Virgin Islands, staying on Richard Branson’s private island and spending time kiteboarding. He also spent time travelling the world, giving out speeches, making appearances, writing his memoir, and no doubt, enjoying quality time with his family.
He doesn’t spend any time at all wishing he were back in the Oval Office. He is just very much enjoying the new chapter of his life, and he’s had a chance to spend real quality time with Mrs. Obama and his familyLife after the White House: How Obama spent his first year out of office | NBC NEWS
In a 2018 post-presidency interview with BBC Radio 4, Obama reflected on his new, “hugely liberating” routine as a former president, “now when I wake up, I can make my own decisions about how do I want to spend my time.”
But it wasn’t long before Obama settled back into work, this time on his memoir which he began writing while he was on holidays with Michelle. He described the writing process for the book in a recent interview with PopSugar:
I began the book shortly after the end of my presidency when I was on an actual holiday with Michelle. I’m old fashioned, so I found yellow legal pads, bought some pens I liked — I was very particular about the pens — and by the end of the trip, I had a clear outline of the book in my head. Sitting down to actually write it was a different story, which I’m sure you’ve figured out, seeing as that trip with Michelle was almost four years ago. But, eventually, I found my flow, especially during the summer when we had a deadline to hit.Interview With Barack Obama on A Promised Land | Popsugar
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