In order to truly understand Abraham Lincoln’s work ethic, a closer look at his daily routine is needed.
A strong work ethic is one of Abraham Lincoln’s best qualities and one of his core values. He was not someone who believed in shortcuts when it came time to roll up the sleeves and finish the hard work.
“Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm,” was a favorite motto of Lincoln’s and it is one that he applied directly to his day to day duties. Let’s take a closer look at how Abraham Lincoln’s work ethic manifested itself each day.
Abraham Lincoln’s Daily Routine
For starters, he would wake up each day around 7 AM. Before he even had some breakfast, he would start working. On some days, he would even head outside to track down a copy of the daily newspaper. In fact, there is one aspect of his daily routine that is much like the rest of us.
His wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, said that he would often forget about meals completely. That’s why she would invite guests over for breakfast. Otherwise, there was no guarantee that her husband would even bother to show up.
That’s just how engrossed he was in his work. If he did happen to eat breakfast, he was not one for anything fancy. Eggs, toast and coffee were as far as he would go. After all, there is no time to put together a breakfast banquet when there is so much work to be done.
Once breakfast was completed, Lincoln would head to the White House’s East Wing to get started on his tasks. Each day was full of different presidential duties that needed to be carried out. Lincoln did not rely on anyone else to assist him with any of them.
Whether it was time to write a speech or meet with his Cabinet, Lincoln strongly believed in the power of remaining fully committed to the task at hand. He would even make time to have meet and greets with the general public.
Additionally, he would go through all of the correspondence that he had received from his constituents. While this is a task that many leaders would delegate to their staffers, Lincoln was not like the rest. He wanted to answer all of these letters himself, or at least as many as he could.
According to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lincoln’s speech writing methods were a bit unorthodox. Lincoln did not write speeches in a traditional start to finish pattern. Instead, he would write out bits and pieces of his speeches on scraps of paper.
From there, these scraps of paper were hoarded inside of his desk. “When the time came for the speech, he’d just pick these little thoughts out,” Goodwin shared. “Somehow he managed to get the Gettysburg Address from those scraps.” Even though he was very busy, Lincoln still made time to become an avid reader as well.
This practice dated back to his days spent as an Illinois lawyer. Can you believe that he would read the newspaper aloud, in an effort to retain as much information as possible? His colleagues may have been annoyed but in his mind, this was the best way to go about the process.
Some days, he would take a break for lunch at 1 o’clock but he would often subsist on snacks instead. Lincoln was said to have a major affinity for apples. He is said to have enjoyed them alongside crackers, cheese and nuts.
If not for the First Lady’s efforts, Lincoln would have remained hunkered over his desk all day. That’s why she made sure that he took a late afternoon carriage ride. There were some instances where the president would go for horseback rides on his own, though.
By six o’clock, dinner time would roll around and these were no frills meals, too. Corn pone and oyster stew are the types of simplistic dishes that he would favor. He did not consume alcohol and preferred to drink water instead.
Once dinner was finished, he would finally take a moment to spend time with colleagues and loved ones. Lincoln enjoyed hanging out in the Red Room. As you would expect, he went to bed on the early side most days.
He’d retire to his sleeping quarters during the hours of 10 and 11 PM. However, he would stay up until at least 2 AM if war was imminent. On these nights, he would spend his time waiting with the War Department’s telegraph operators.
Lincoln did not always have the most restful sleep. He was a known insomniac who would be seen taking late night walks frequently. Abraham Lincoln’s work ethic was not a switch that could be flipped on and off at his leisure. He was wired to be this way, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Lincoln’s Lessons on Work Ethic
Of course, Lincoln’s work ethic did not develop overnight. In fact, having the ability to articulate the importance of hard work and core values was one of Abraham Lincoln’s best qualities. He had no shortage of lessons to offer on how his work ethic was built.
For starters, he did not engage with negative discourse about the valuable work he was doing.
“If I were to try to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business. I do the very best I know how–the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end,” he said.
Instead of allowing others to tell him how to think and feel, he trusted his own process. In fact, procrastination had zero place in this process and he let the world know it.
“Leave nothing for tomorrow which can be done today,” said Lincoln.
This is why his law partner, William Herndon, referred to him as a little engine that knew no rest.
The final (and most enduring) lesson that Lincoln had to offer about his work ethic was a simple one.
“Adhere to your purpose, and you will soon feel as well as you ever did. On the contrary, if you falter, and give up, you will lose the power of keeping any resolution, and will regret it all your life,” he wrote in an 1862 letter.
He worked so hard because he believed in following his purpose. As someone who tried on many hats over the course of his life, he was no stranger to failure. Unlike many, who would allow these failures to become major setbacks, Lincoln persevered and learned from his mistakes. That’s how one of the most legendary work ethics was built.