Obama makes a brief statement to the news media during a meeting with his cabinet at the White House on May 21, 2015.
Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images
By Merrill Fabry
January 12, 2017

The White House is not just any office. The pressure is high. The technology isn’t as easy to use as your last job—no Slack or Google Chat, for example. And everything moves fast. But White House aides learn to cope, and they have some tips that could help others. From staying on top of email and skipping to-do lists, here are some suggestions from current and former staffers at President Barack Obama’s White House.

  1. Don’t miss the beginning of email chains.

    Dan Pfeiffer, former Senior Adviser to the President: One of the most important things you will do is keep your eye on your BlackBerry at all times. Much of decision ­ making is done by email chain, and if you miss the beginning of the chain, it could go off in a horrible direction pretty quick. You spend the rest of the day trying to unwind all the decisions that were made.

  2. To-do lists don’t always help.

    Mona Sutphen, former Deputy Chief of Staff: I used to be a big fan of to-do lists, but the to-do list actually took too much time. Because I very rarely was able to scratch things off of the to-do list when I did do the to-do list, I found it actually a very dissatisfying exercise. I kind of stopped doing it.

  3. Memos should have a standard format.

    Lisa Brown, former Staff Secretary: We sent senior staff clear templates for how a memo to the President should be written, how a briefing memo for an event that the President’s going to be doing the next day should be written. If you think about it, if you’re the President and you start getting stuff in a gazillion different formats, you can’t make head nor tail of it.

  4. Allow some room in your schedule so you can deal with a crisis.

    Sutphen: The sheer magnitude of the issue set means that you never have enough time in the day. My meetings were typically in 20-minute increments starting at 8 o’clock and going until 7:30 at night. At the beginning, I used to book myself very tightly during the day. But then I quickly realized, if you do have a crisis, it blows up your whole day. It’s a little bit like Amtrak. The train can be delayed and then they start canceling. It has this cascading effect if you’re not careful. I created a little bit of room in the morning, just after the meetings, to try to account for things that may have happened overnight.

  5. Work together

    Rahm Emanuel, former Chief of Staff: Twice a day I would walk the halls and go put my head in somebody’s office. My rule as chief of staff was the door is always open. I might tell you something you don’t want me to say when you walk in, but the door is always open to come in and say something. You’ve got to have that attitude. You can’t close the door. You can’t exclude.

    Macon Phillips, former Director of Digital Strategy: Close your eyes and imagine the physical space at the ­campaign—one giant room. Desks and people collaborating throughout the day. Fast-­forward to the White House and the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. It is a series of compartments. It’s almost like a catacomb. What we ended up doing was actually taking our team, we started around 12 or 13, and jamming them all into large rooms, so we could kind of replicate the experience from the campaign.

    Brown: Over time working with the President, I learned there are a bunch of routine things he didn’t actually have to sign. I could use the auto­pen, but I needed to work with him so that he knew I was never exercising my authority beyond my bounds. I never wanted to do anything without his consent. It turns out that there are a bunch of routine things that once you said, “O.K., here’s a bucket of things,” he can say, “That’s fine, you do that” or “Here are things that I never ever want to auto­pen.” I found it was actually common sense.

  6. Choose your sleeping pills wisely.

    Katie Lillie, former Director of Press Advance: You need something to help you sleep. Ambien is not the way to go. It lasts eight hours. You will not get eight hours. Sonata—I feel like I am doing an ad for a drug company—Sonata was my lifesaver, because it only really lasts four hours and it’s out of your system, so it’s perfect for plane rides, for nights when you’re not getting more than four hours of sleep.

  7. Keep a red phone for your family.

    Jen Psaki, Communications Director: After I had a baby, I wanted the day care to always be able to reach me. I gave them my assistant’s phone number because I’m often in meetings where I can’t bring my phone. There are things like that that are not that complicated but you have to do in order to be accessible to your loved ones.

  8. Be good to the people around you.

    Yohannes Abraham, Deputy Assistant to the President for the Office of Public Engagement and Inter­governmental Affairs: Emotions can get high. It’s really important to remember to just be a good person, a nice person to the people around you, people you disagree with in debate, people you work with on a day-to-day basis. My personal belief is that the building functions best when there’s a real ethos of just being decent to the people who work around you.

Dan Pfeiffer, former Senior Adviser to the President: One of the most important things you will do is keep your eye on your BlackBerry at all times. Much of decision ­ making is done by email chain, and if you miss the beginning of the chain, it could go off in a horrible direction pretty quick. You spend the rest of the day trying to unwind all the decisions that were made.

Mona Sutphen, former Deputy Chief of Staff: I used to be a big fan of to-do lists, but the to-do list actually took too much time. Because I very rarely was able to scratch things off of the to-do list when I did do the to-do list, I found it actually a very dissatisfying exercise. I kind of stopped doing it.

Lisa Brown, former Staff Secretary: We sent senior staff clear templates for how a memo to the President should be written, how a briefing memo for an event that the President’s going to be doing the next day should be written. If you think about it, if you’re the President and you start getting stuff in a gazillion different formats, you can’t make head nor tail of it.

Sutphen: The sheer magnitude of the issue set means that you never have enough time in the day. My meetings were typically in 20-minute increments starting at 8 o’clock and going until 7:30 at night. At the beginning, I used to book myself very tightly during the day. But then I quickly realized, if you do have a crisis, it blows up your whole day. It’s a little bit like Amtrak. The train can be delayed and then they start canceling. It has this cascading effect if you’re not careful. I created a little bit of room in the morning, just after the meetings, to try to account for things that may have happened overnight.

Rahm Emanuel, former Chief of Staff: Twice a day I would walk the halls and go put my head in somebody’s office. My rule as chief of staff was the door is always open. I might tell you something you don’t want me to say when you walk in, but the door is always open to come in and say something. You’ve got to have that attitude. You can’t close the door. You can’t exclude.

Macon Phillips, former Director of Digital Strategy: Close your eyes and imagine the physical space at the ­campaign—one giant room. Desks and people collaborating throughout the day. Fast-­forward to the White House and the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. It is a series of compartments. It’s almost like a catacomb. What we ended up doing was actually taking our team, we started around 12 or 13, and jamming them all into large rooms, so we could kind of replicate the experience from the campaign.

Brown: Over time working with the President, I learned there are a bunch of routine things he didn’t actually have to sign. I could use the auto­pen, but I needed to work with him so that he knew I was never exercising my authority beyond my bounds. I never wanted to do anything without his consent. It turns out that there are a bunch of routine things that once you said, “O.K., here’s a bucket of things,” he can say, “That’s fine, you do that” or “Here are things that I never ever want to auto­pen.” I found it was actually common sense.

Katie Lillie, former Director of Press Advance: You need something to help you sleep. Ambien is not the way to go. It lasts eight hours. You will not get eight hours. Sonata—I feel like I am doing an ad for a drug company—Sonata was my lifesaver, because it only really lasts four hours and it’s out of your system, so it’s perfect for plane rides, for nights when you’re not getting more than four hours of sleep.

Jen Psaki, Communications Director: After I had a baby, I wanted the day care to always be able to reach me. I gave them my assistant’s phone number because I’m often in meetings where I can’t bring my phone. There are things like that that are not that complicated but you have to do in order to be accessible to your loved ones.

Yohannes Abraham, Deputy Assistant to the President for the Office of Public Engagement and Inter­governmental Affairs: Emotions can get high. It’s really important to remember to just be a good person, a nice person to the people around you, people you disagree with in debate, people you work with on a day-to-day basis. My personal belief is that the building functions best when there’s a real ethos of just being decent to the people who work around you.

To read more advice from Obama’s White House team to Donald Trump’s incoming advisers, see the full story here, or pick up a copy of the latest issue of TIME magazine.

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