How to Stay Sane While Working in the World’s Most Powerful Office

6 minute read

Everyone craves some balance between work and a personal life. But how do you balance your job and personal life when you are always on call because you work for the President of the United States? White House aides to President Obama gave us some tips they learned over the last eight years working in the world’s most powerful building.

1. The job will interfere. Even when watching TV.

Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting: I love to watch Homeland and The Americans as much as anybody else, but you find yourself watching it with this kind of peculiar eye where you think to yourself, “How is this person having this conversation on a cell phone? How is this person able to bring their phone into a secure working space? How did this person get into this facility?” You find yourself as kind of an inspector general of the screenwriting for those shows

2. The balance between work and life doesn’t exist.

Cody Keenan, Director of Speechwriting: Your lives are no longer your own. I mean, if you plan a date with somebody, if you have a weekend planned, a wedding, none of that is yours anymore. Work-life balance doesn’t exist.

Dan Pfeiffer, former Senior Adviser to the President: If I look back, I remember weddings of very close friends I had missed, not seeing my family, like my parents and my brother, for almost the entire first year. I didn’t take a vacation of more than a day or so from the day we walked in the White House until April 2010.

3. Take a walk sometimes

Jen Psaki, Communications Director: On the days that you feel tired or disgruntled or frustrated, one of the best cures is to take the walk from the West Wing on the colonnade and through the East Wing and out the other door of the building. It really gives you a moment of meditation. The colonnade is of course the walk next to the Rose Garden that the President takes home at night. I don’t think people know that the White House staff can walk that walk too. You walk into the East Wing where there all the grand rooms and buildings and all this history. I wish I would have known that from the first day, but I learned it pretty early on.

4. Sometimes you just have to go home

Rhodes: You can find a reason to stay at work all night, every night here. There is always going to be something to do. You are never going to clear out your inbox. You are never going to return every phone call. You are never going to read every paper that you could. Ultimately if you do that, you’ll be worse at your job. Not only will your family life suffer, you also will lose some perspective. . . . Some colleagues very much focused on going home at 5 p.m. one night during the week. For me, I didn’t work on Sundays unless I absolutely had to. I tried to go home and eat dinner at home every night that I could.

Valerie Jarrett, Senior Adviser to the President: I have brunch every Sunday with the same group of friends. Relatives or friends who I’ve known in some cases my whole life, all of them at least 25 years, long before any of this happened. The ritual of seeing the same people every Sunday for brunch, and then I have dinner most Sundays with my family who lives here—I find that helps. We don’t talk about work, we talk about what normal people talk about, and that allows me to catch my breath. Whenever we are all in town, that brunch and dinner are sacrosanct.

5. Parenting requires compromise

Rhodes: Negotiating day-care drop-offs and pickups takes some precedence. I did have a number my wife could call if I needed to get to day care or there was an emergency. There is kind of a red phone. You know that there’s a possibility that you were going to miss a meeting that you never would have missed otherwise. After you have a kid, that happens.

Rahm Emanuel, Former Chief of Staff: I used to joke, “the White House was family-friendly—to the First Family.” The other thing I used to joke in the White House was, “Thank God it’s Friday. Two more workdays till Monday.” I used to carve out Friday nights for Sabbath. I wasn’t really great because I still stayed on the phone, and then Saturday or Sunday we’d always take a half day as a family to do trips around. We went to Gettysburg, other battlefields. I can be connected by phone, try to do something with my family, but it’s brutal. There’s no way you don’t take that job home with you.

6. You can’t always explain to others why you’re so busy

Rhodes: In addition to not having your phone for long stretches of time, there are some times that you’re very busy but you can’t tell anybody why. I remember in the month leading up to the bin Laden raid, there were lengthy workdays on the weekends or nights when you couldn’t really say what you were working on or why you weren’t going to be at home. That is a strange feeling. You know why you’re unavailable, but you can’t really explain to people why you can’t make it to this dinner or you can’t be available. That happens a fair amount in national security. Your wife gets used to it, and the people in your life get used to it.

7. Get exercise

Mona Sutphen, former Deputy Chief of Staff: My advice, which I didn’t do immediately the first time I was in the White House, is to join the gym. Because the combination of sitting basically all day, the stress, three meals a day at the White House mess is just a recipe for being super-­unhealthy.

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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