Regardless of what you think about the current U.S. president, the position itself has traditionally been viewed as an extremely important one on the global stage; the U.S. president is considered one the most powerful people in the world because of the country’s global influence. It’s a busy and high-pressure job so being productive is paramount. With that said, here are ten of our favourite productivity tips from former U.S. presidents.
#10 Embrace Change
As humans, we really fear change. We struggle to change habits, reform our financial lives, and are deathly afraid of failure. Presidents do not have the luxury of being afraid of change. They need to hold multiple points of view in their head in order to solve the problems of future generations and their own.
Presidents have to navigate change, so it’s no surprise they have plenty of advice on it. Few lived in a time of as much change as John F. Kennedy, who once said:
But Goethe tells us in his greatest poem that Faust lost the liberty of his soul when he said to the passing moment: “Stay, thou art so fair.” And our liberty, too, is endangered if we pause for the passing moment, if we rest on our achievements, if we resist the pace of progress. For time and the world do not stand still. Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.
#9 Take a Breath Before Replying When You’re Angry
Image from the Jefferson Encyclopedia
Most of us have no qualms shooting our mouth off at the faintest hint of something we disagree with, but that’s a stupid idea. If a president did this, they’d find themselves in some awkward situations.
To keep himself from firing off some stupid comment, Thomas Jefferson gave himself some rules. In Decalogue of Canons for Observation in Practical Life, Jefferson had a whole slew of tips for better living, most notably,”When angry, count ten, before you speak; if very angry, a hundred.” We’ve heard the idea of waiting five minutes before responding to criticism before, and it’s always worth repeating.
Other worthwhile tips from Jefferson’s letter include, “never spend your money before you have it,” “pride costs us more than hunger, thirst, and cold,” and rather curiously, “take things always by their smooth handle.”
#8 Simplify Your Presentations
Illustration by Sam Woolley.
Nobody likes a rambling presentation devoid of meaningful points. While we know that good public speaking requires preparation, Woodrow Wilson reminds us that it also needs precision.
A shorter speech seems easier to write, but it’s more a sign that a lot of work went into it. Short speeches are a sign of strength and preparation, something that Woodrow Wilson knew better than most. He once said, “If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”
#7 Be Truthful
Image by Monkik (Shutterstock).
It is easy to assume that those in power will share lies more often than truth, but there are certain occasions where it’s best to state the truth as plainly as possible. Grover Cleveland, who is often thought of as the most honest president we’ve had, knew this best when asked whether the Democratic Party should coverup a child born out of wedlock when he said, “Whatever you do, tell the truth.“
Cleveland did much more than talk. As the mayor of Buffalo he refused to turn a blind eye to crooked alderman, and as governor he attacked Tammany Hall, a political organisation in New York well known for election fraud. Cleveland also knew the value of saying no, vetoing an insane 584 bills passed by Congress.
#6 Exercise Every Day
Image from Sebastian Kaulitzki (Shutterstock)
Exercise is a very important way to keep your necessity to stay sane in a stressful career.
A large number of presidents have made it a point to add exercise into their daily routine. Obama planned for an hour of exercise a day, Clinton was an avid jogger, Teddy Roosevelt loved tennis, jogging, and boxing. George W. Bush was also an avid tennis player and jogger, while Jimmy Carter was a cross-country runner. John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan were all swimmers. Time and time again we’ve seen that exercise is as important for physical health as it is mental health, and in the stressful position of president, that seems to hold true.
#5 Make What You Cannot Buy
DIY projects have long been one of the best ways to learn new skills and solve your own problems. You probably don’t think presidents have much skill in this department, but perpetual problem solver Thomas Jefferson proves that idea wrong.
Wired once called Thomas Jefferson’s house an “18th century palace of gadget geekery,” filled with all the latest DIY inventions and hacks. While Jefferson loved his old-world modding, few projects exemplify his ingenuity than his revolving bookstand. This book stand held five books open at adjustable angles so he could rotate and read them all at once for research, like some type of twisted, 18th century version of tabbed browsing. He also invented a writing tool called a polygraph (pictured above) that copied whatever he wrote on a duplicate piece of paper.
#4 Write a Rulebook for Yourself
Consistency is important for a president and the best presidents formed some type of rulebook for themselves. Few did so as publicly as George Washington.
Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation were a guidebook to remain open and civil to everyone. Here are a few highlights:
14. Turn not your back to others, especially in speaking; jog not the table or desk on which another reads or writes; lean not upon anyone.
18. Read no letter, books, or papers in company, but when there is a necessity for the doing of it, you must ask leave; come not near the books or writings of another so as to read them unless desired, or give your opinion of them unasked. Also look not nigh when another is writing a letter.
20. The gestures of the body must be suited to the discourse you are upon.
35. Let your discourse with men of business be short and comprehensive.
73. Think before you speak, pronounce not imperfectly, nor bring out your words too hastily, but orderly and distinctly.
Building your own guidebook might seem a little silly, but it’s a great way to ground yourself and figure out exactly what you want your public persona to be. Once that’s down on paper, it’s easier to remain consistent.
#3 Embrace Your Rivals to Get New Points of View
Photo by Daytona.
Most of us do not want to surround ourselves with people with viewpoints that differ from our own. Yet, that’s exactly what Abraham Lincoln did with his cabinet, which we now like to call his “Team of Rivals,” a phrase borrowed from the book of the same name.
Instead of finding like-minded yes-men for his various cabinet positions, Lincoln picked his rivals from the presidential campaign, many of whom didn’t like each other.
While he made a point to surround himself with a variety of people in order to sharpen his own viewpoint, few people are more exemplary of this then William Seward, who’d eventually be his Secretary of State, and who Lincoln had pulled an upset victory on to secure the presidential nomination. Despite that loss, Seward and Lincoln would go on to be inseparable, despite their numerous disagreements on policy. Different points of view are important, and instead of always competing with your rivals, it’s best to learn from them.
#2 Organise Your Day the Night Before
By the end of the day, most of us want to relax with some cable TV and zone out for a while before our next stressful day. Barack Obama reminds us that a better approach is to spend a little bit of time preparing for the next day.
Obama would often stay up until 1am leafing through documents to help him organise his thoughts. We’ve seen this idea echoed by many before, but it’s important to remember that most of us don’t need to do this every night. The president’s job is much more stressful than yours, so implementing this as a daily routine makes sense. The rest of us can utilise this tip before big meetings, presentations, or deadlines.
#1 Associate with People Smarter than You
The people you surround yourself with have a big impact on your own success, so it makes sense to surround yourself with people smarter and more capable then you are. Chances are, you don’t know everything, so if you learn to delegate and get a good crew together, you can accomplish a lot more.
Most presidents have made it a point to find the best and brightest for their cabinet, but Woodrow Wilson might have summed it up best when he said, “I not only use all the brains that I have, but all I can borrow.” Dwight Eisenhower too was a vocal proponent of trusting others intelligence. In his book, At Ease: Stories I Tell My Friends, he says:
Always try to associate yourself with and learn as much as you can from those who know more than you do, who do better than you, who see more clearly than you.
Remember, “I don’t know,” is one of the smartest things you can say, and once you do, you can find the experts you need.