Lifehacking for Candidates

The pros give productivity advice to the presidential hopefuls.

Presidential candidates try to connect with voters in different ways. They bowl. They attend motorcycle rallies. Sometimes they drink boilermakers. They do not, as a general matter, discuss time-management strategies. In a campaign, as in real life, such talk tends to make people wonder about you.

Yet when Barack Obama and British conservative leader David Cameron talked recently in London about their hyperscheduled lives, I found myself fascinated—and sympathetic. And then I wondered if I could help. Sen. Obama, Mr. Cameron, and Sen. McCain, allow me to introduce you to a term you may not have heard of: lifehacking.

In London, Obama and Cameron commiserated about their days, which are arranged in 15-minute intervals of crisis. They react, but they never have time to reflect. Cameron said he tried to not let aides “chalk up” his schedule with too many commitments. Obama’s solution was to set aside time to let his brain work during his mid-August vacation. “The most important thing you need to do is to have big chunks of time during the day when all you’re doing is thinking,” he said, repeating advice he’d gotten from a Clinton administration veteran.

What made the conversation so recognizable was not just the description of a busy life but the way the two politicians exchanged lifehacking tips—those elegant tricks and long-term productivity strategies that help you control your time and attention, which the world conspires to take from you.

I have increasingly become drawn to lifehacking and studying personal productivity because my own commitments have stretched me into transparency. I don’t think I have read more than 50 pages in a book without interruption since college. I have stacks of legal pads with notions I’ve dashed off but haven’t had time to think through. I know, I’m often my own worst enemy: I take time to answer rude readers who don’t deserve it, and, hey look, I Twitter!

What I’m looking for is the same thing Obama craves—space to think. So I read Linda Stone and Web sites like lifehacker.com and 43folders, where author Merlin Mann found inspiration in Obama’s conversation. I’ve adopted Mann’s smart approach to managing the flood of e-mail and turned my life over to David Allen’s Getting Things Done system. (I know it sounds like I should be handing out pamphlets at the airport, and I’m OK with that. Except for those hooded robes, which are limiting.)

Given that I’ve found some halting success, I wondered whether these ideas could help the presidential candidates. So I asked the professionals.

The experts who spend their time thinking about how knowledge workers can be most efficient all agree that Obama is taking the right first step. He recognizes the value of making time to take a programmatic look at his world. Presidential candidates have always had time-management issues. When William Jennings Bryan’s opponent heard that he’d given 16 speeches in a day, he quipped, “When does he think?” And there are always events the candidate cannot outsource. He has to give speeches, answer reporters, and keep smiling while a big money-raiser explains his unworkable theory for addressing high gas prices. Long plane flights offer little rest: The candidate studies policies, talks to staffers, answers starlet e-mail, and makes decisions about ads, where to campaign next, and just how hard to hit back against an opponent. I asked McCain’s top staffer Mark Salter when the candidate has time to himself to think, and he said: “In the shower.”

A candidate needs to set aside time to think because campaigns conspire to crush him. We all know what it’s like to come to the end of a day of e-mails and interruptions and wonder where the previous 12 hours went. Now imagine that feeling in a day that’s six hours longer and you’re forced to spend most of it behaving artificially. When you’re a candidate, the press, your strategists, and voters determine who you are, and each day you must either fulfill or refute the cartoon, usually by moving through a range of unnatural behaviors—constant repetition of the same talking points, feigning umbrage, or sometimes just by playing dumb.

At the end of the day, a candidate feels not just numb but also displaced. A string of hasty tactical decisions puts him in danger of contradicting his core message. After running on Straight Talk, he’s fibbing. After vowing to change the old style of politics, he’s practicing the old tricks themselves. “You lose the big picture,” as Obama put it to Cameron. “You lose a feel.” This not only affects judgment but also threatens success. While candidates are engaged in an enterprise that drives them away from their authentic selves, voters are craving authenticity.

Candidates have long known to create what Linda Stone calls receptive distractions, those little vacations that give them time to think. Bill Clinton used to read mystery novels on the campaign plane. McCain and Obama watch sports to get their minds off the day. (Obama is reportedly better at this than McCain, whose aides may ban him from watching late-night cable news because it winds him up.)

The time for the thinking prized by Obama and productivity analysts represents a more programmatic approach than merely finding free time. It seems absurd that anyone would need an instruction manual for vacation, but without one, the ambitious candidate might come to the end of his time off without any insight. Imagine you’ve set aside an afternoon to clean the garage. Where do you begin? You could just dive in, but in an hour you’ll find yourself sitting on a canister of Lincoln Logs, going through your high-school yearbooks. “If you write, ‘Solve problem of world peace’on the whiteboard,” says Mann, “that’s a big hoagie.”

David Allen, who coaches CEOs all over the world on how to be more productive, says the first question he’d ask a candidate is what has taken hold on their attention. What’s eating at them that must be cleared so that they can start doing the big thinking? Attention can be eaten up by specific problems (“We must kick that reporter off the plane!”) and existential ones (“Do I believe in free trade?”).

This isn’t a one-time process. Candidates need to use some of their thinking time to find a system for dealing with issues that are always going to pop up. There are many solutions here. They could carry a Hipster PDA—index cards that track goals and capture ideas and problems that need to be addressed before disappearing. Or they could draw up a project list. The truly committed candidate could embrace the entire Getting Things Done methodology, but he’d have to do it two years before he started running.

The idea is to break down whatever distracts them into addressable nibblets that can be tackled before they accumulate into big problems that require a vacation’s worth of thinking. If a candidate plans well, he’ll trust his in-the-moment responses (because they’re part of a strategy), and he’ll reduce the indefinable nagging feeling that unaddressed problems remain.

The point of blocking out periods of undisturbed attention, say the experts, is to apply your best creative thinking to your most important problems. But if that means getting back to your true self, as Obama suggests, how do you do that? This process requires a level of self-awareness that atrophies over a campaign. You’re not supposed to be self-aware or ponderous. There’s no time for it, and it’s unhealthy for lots of reasons. You start to worry that Maureen Dowd is going to call you an elitist, for one thing. Obama and McCain could read the biographies they wrote, I suppose, though they might find unpleasant contradictions with the campaigns they’re running.

Both candidates are fortunate, because they know what produces their best thinking. Barack Obama will probably spend some of his vacation writing. It’s clear from his autobiography, and from the model answers he gave students when he was a law professor, that he processes ideas by working them out on paper. Yes, he writes speeches during the campaign, but as good as they may sometimes be, they are programmatic, formulaic, and targeted. If he’s trying to recapture his center, it’s going to take a deeper kind of writing.

McCain would design the opposite regimen for his vacation. He’s not a writer; he’s a talker. In conversation he tries out new ideas and thinks aloud, changing his mind as he engages in back-and-forth with advisers and others. That’s why he’s so frustrated by his new on-message campaign. The freewheeling conversations on his campaign bus used to sustain him, but now his aides worry that they will interrupt his daily campaign message. (The equivalent would be if Obama were to let the press watch over his shoulder as he writes.) On his vacation, maybe McCain could schedule off-the-record bus tours with reporters, editorial writers, and experts in various fields.

Politicians may have the most acute form of a condition Linda Stone calls “continuous partial attention.” In this state, our minds are constantly scanning for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, at any given moment. The analogy for me is my e-mail inbox: I hate it. It is a Superfund Site. But I keep checking it because there might be a new opportunity I should grab or a response I’ve been waiting for that will allow me to get back to work on an idea. I don’t want to miss anything. I’m Gollum, and I can’t take off the ring.

Presidential candidates don’t have to worry about e-mail—they’ve got staffers who can handle that—but they live in a world where speed is rewarded. Candidates who move quickly can define an issue on their terms. Those who don’t move quickly let their opponents define them, which can take weeks to undo. The challenge for presidential candidates, as Merlin Mann puts it, is “to know when to stop scanning your campground for bears long enough to make S’mores.”

Good luck with your vacation, Sen. Obama. And Sen. McCain, maybe you can find some time on the bus.