How to manage your time like a world leader

February 18, 2021
Do you manage your work through a to-do list, or by the emails in your inbox? Rather than on to-do lists, some researchers argue we should keep our tasks in our calendar. We thought it would be interesting to see how world leaders do it.

Tim Urban, writer of Wait But Why, has an interesting way of looking at time management. He works out that if the time we’re awake roughly equates to 16 or 17 hours, this means our “day” consists of 100 blocks of ten minutes each.

He says: "Imagine these blocks laid out on a grid. What if you had to label each one with a purpose?"

Photo credit: Tim Urban, Wait But Why

Urban asks: "Cooking dinner requires three blocks, while ordering in requires zero - is cooking dinner worth three blocks to you? Is 10 minutes of meditation a day important enough to dedicate a block to it? Reading 20 minutes a night allows you to read 15 additional books a year - is that worth two blocks?"

Or what about those three hours a day you spend on email (18 blocks) and that daily catch-up meeting (three blocks), and that hour-long conference call (six blocks)?

What about your commute (12 blocks), and more email in the evening (nine blocks)?

It’s an interesting perspective on time management.

Time Blocking

Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, has a similar view. He calls it time blocking.

He says: "This type of planning, to me, is like a chess game, with blocks of work getting spread and sorted in such a way that projects big and small all seem to click into completion with (just enough) time to spare."

Cal Newport's time blocking system. Photo credit: Cal Newport
Cal Newport's time blocking system. Photo credit: Cal Newport

When people ask why Newport bothers with such a detailed level of planning, his answer is simple: "It generates a massive amount of productivity. A 40 hour time-blocked work week, I estimate, produces the same amount of output as a 60+ hour work week pursued without structure."

From Newport again: "In the context of work, uncontrolled time makes me uncomfortable. If you’re serious about working deeply and producing high-end value, it should probably make you uncomfortable as well. Using your inbox to drive your daily schedule might be fine for the entry-level or those content with a career of cubicle-dwelling mediocrity, but the best knowledge workers view their time like the best investors view their capital, as a resource to wield for maximum returns."

Many of us manage our work through a to-do list, or by the emails in our inbox. I’m interested in the idea of using our calendars to plan and account for our work - which, like the approaches of Newport and Urban, I think must be the purest form of time management.

Schedules of World Leaders

Due to the sheer volume and importance of their work, top leaders are generally ruled by their schedule. Pretty much every minute is accounted for, in order to fit in the highest priority tasks and actions within the limited time available each day.

A recent profile of Bill Gates reveals that he breaks his day down into blocks too:

"Gates’s timetable is planned for him, in the style of the US president, on a minute-by- minute basis. Long days are carved into five-minute slices, with every meeting and handshake timed to the second."

This got me thinking that it would be interesting to look at people who by necessity live like this every day: world leaders. Presidents, prime ministers and monarchs are whisked from meeting to meeting, with each time block highly prioritised and with its own strict agenda.

US Presidents

The best example is probably the President of the United States, whose daily schedule is generally available to view on the White House website.

Here’s President Obama’s schedule for October 20th 2016:

President Obama's schedule on 20th October 2016
President Obama's schedule on 20th October 2016

From other sources we can find out that President Obama wakes up at around 7am each day, and his routine usually includes a morning workout: 45 minutes of weights or cardio in his personal gym. He says: "The rest of my time will be more productive if you give me my workout time."

He generally arrives at the Oval Office between 8:30 and 9am, and the end of the normal workday is around 6pm, when he’ll make time for his family. But, once they’re asleep Obama will get back to work, reading briefing papers or working on speeches. A self-confessed night owl, he will often stay up into the early hours.

A whole department is responsible: "an entire office of people who do nothing but" compile demands on the president’s time. As many as nine aides play a role in presidential scheduling, all overseen by a director of scheduling and ultimately the White House chief of staff. They meet for 90 minutes each week, to ponder, "Are we using the president’s time correctly?"

After all, “the most valuable asset in any White House is not money, it’s the president’s time," says Josh Bolten, George W. Bush’s chief of staff from 2006 to 2009.

Barack Obama and Bill Clinton
Barack Obama and Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton was apparently less fond of a rigorous schedule, but as you can see here, his time was pretty tightly planned:

Schedule for President Clinton on January 25th 1993
Schedule for President Clinton on January 25th 1993

George W Bush was a regular early starter, usually in the Oval Office by 7am, often making calls:

Schedule of President George W Bush, February 14th 2001
Schedule of President George W Bush, February 14th 2001

Here’s a morning in the life of Richard Nixon:

President Richard Nixon's diary, June 2nd 1969
President Richard Nixon's diary, June 2nd 1969

And here are some of John F. Kennedy’s appointments:

Schedule of John F Kennedy, June 1st 1963
Schedule of John F Kennedy, June 1st 1963

He also made a lot of phone calls:

JFK's phone calls on Sept 29th 1962
JFK's phone calls on Sept 29th 1962

Phone transcript from JFK, 1962
Phone transcript from JFK, 1962

You can also check out the schedules of other presidents, including Jimmy Carter, Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truman.

Other world leaders

It’s not easy to find the daily schedules of other world leaders. Britain’s Theresa May doesn’t reveal her appointments diary. Although I did find this "day in the life" video of former PM David Cameron:

Canada’s Justin Trudeau has a daily schedule for viewing, but it’s not very comprehensive. Ireland’s Michael D. Higgins only seems to reveal his public appointments. It’s a similar story for France’s Francois Hollande.

It’s the same with many other world leaders I looked for, including the British Royals. But no matter. There are other interesting places we can look.

Back in time

World leaders haven’t always followed such rigorous, virtuous schedules. According to the website Daily Routines, Winston Churchill often started his day working from bed.

"He awoke about 7:30am and remained in bed for a substantial breakfast and reading of mail and all the national newspapers. For the next couple of hours, still in bed, he worked, dictating to his secretaries."

Winston Churchill, May 1943
Winston Churchill, May 1943

Churchill would finally rise at 11am, taking a weak whisky and soda to his study. At 1pm he would take a three-course lunch (with Pol Roger champagne, plus port brandy and cigars). He would then work in his study from 3:30pm until 5pm, when he returned to bed for a nap. At 6:30pm he awoke, bathed again, and dressed for dinner at 8, which would often last until past midnight. Once all guests had left, Churchill knocked out another hour of work in his study.

Founding father Benjamin Franklin is worth looking at in contrast to Churchill. He famously set himself a strict daily routine:

Benjamin Franklin's schedule
Benjamin Franklin's schedule

Whether Franklin actually followed this schedule is not known, but it provides an interesting version of the time-blocking concept outlined at the beginning of this article.

Final thoughts

It would be interesting to see more examples of leaders and their approach to calendar and task management. I'll look at corporate CEOs in another post to see how they compare.

For me, keeping your tasks solely on a to-do list can be a recipe for disaster: by not allocating time - both in the sense of the time it will take to complete and the time you will actually work on it - meaning that we are likely to have tasks left over when the day runs out.

In Peter Bregman’s book 18 Minutes, he notes that studies have shown that people are more likely to accomplish a task when they set a very specific time and place.

Bregman calls it the power of when and where. He says: "Decide when and where you will do something, and the likelihood that you’ll follow through increases dramatically. Since your entire to-do list will not fit into your calendar — and I can assure you that it won’t — you need to prioritize your list for that day. What is it that really needs to get done today?"

Behavioural economist Dan Ariely sums this up nicely. He says:

"Imagine if you have a calendar. And imagine that you say that are some things that get represented on this calendar and some things that don’t. On a regular calendar things that get represented are meetings with other people. The things that don’t get represented are things that will take 30 or 100 hours. Exercising or meditation. The things that don’t get represented are calling your mother. So what happens is that the moment you have a way to represent things easily like meetings and you don’t have a good way to represent something like writing a book or meditating, or exercising and so on, the things that are represented will be carried out and the things that are not represented will not get carried out. And as a consequence, your life will be filled with things that might not fit with your agenda."

How do you manage your time? Could you pick up any tips from any of the examples outlined above? What do you think of the idea of time-blocking, and how do you feel about the fact that you have just 100 ten-minute blocks available to you each day?

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