Episode: How to Stay Mentally Fit

Michael Hyatt: Hi, I’m Michael Hyatt.

Megan Hyatt Miller: And I’m Megan Hyatt Miller.

Michael:  And this is Lead to Win, our weekly podcast to help you win at work and succeed at life. In this episode, we’re talking about something that too many leaders don’t pay attention to: how to stay mentally fit.

Megan: I think this is really important, because if you are in a rapidly scaling business or if you’re growing at any good clip, mental fatigue is a real challenge you’re going to face. For example, we grew 62 percent last year. That’s a lot.

Michael: That’s crazy. When I think about that, I go, “Wow! No wonder we were tired.”

Megan: Yeah. We were named in the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing businesses for the third year in a row. The truth is growth brings a whole new set of challenges. You have to figure out hiring. You have to figure out financial management at a higher level. You have to figure out how to preserve your culture as you’re growing it, how to continue to innovate and be relevant in the market with more complexity. There are just so many things you have to think about that can be really overwhelming, and all that problem-solving can be exhausting. You can end up in reaction mode before you even know it.

Michael: Years ago, when I first became the CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, I consulted with John Maxwell, who was one of our authors and is a leadership expert, a renowned author. He was kind of my de facto coach. One of the things he told me was, “One of the things that’s different about this job, and one of the things you have to get used to is you have to set aside time for thinking.

How you think about the business and how you solve the problems you’re facing are going to be crucial to your success in this role as the CEO, and if you don’t spend adequate time thinking about it, you’re going to be overrun by these problems you can’t solve. You don’t want to be so totally dependent upon outside consultants that they’re running your business, so you have to set aside time for thinking.”

So for years, I tried to do that. I would block out time on my schedule, because I know, like Daniel Harkavy and I say, that what gets scheduled gets done, but I would find myself blowing that time off. I’m going to talk about in this episode how I feel like I’ve finally conquered that and how I’ve allocated a regular time that makes it work. We’re going to talk about an acronym I came up with, but before we do that, we want to recognize and introduce Larry into the episode, because Larry Wilson is here, like always. Larry, good to see you.

Larry Wilson: Hey.

Megan: Hey, Larry.

Michael: We’re going to count on you to lead us through this. This is really an important topic that demands some of our best conversation and our best thinking.

Larry: The idea is that growth is fueled by innovation, and innovation requires focused thought. You have to train yourself to slow down if you want to speed up or keep up, and that’s where we’re headed today. You have an acronym, which we’re going to introduce right now, that’ll guide the whole episode.

Michael: The acronym is FFIT, but it’s spelled a little differently than you’d think. It’s FFIT, and it stands for frequent, focused, intentional thinking.

Larry: Let’s dive right in with that. Let’s talk about the frequent part. You mean just schedule time every Friday to think? Or what do you mean by frequent?

Michael: Yeah, kind of. The faster you’re growing, the more time you have to dedicate to thinking. I think this is a hard transition for a lot of leaders, because they’re used to doing. They measure their productivity and their contribution by how much time they’re spending doing, but as you move up the organization, the more of your time has to be allocated to thinking. That’s what you’re being hired to do: to be able to innovate, to be able to solve problems, to be able to analyze and assess, and all of those are thinking skills.

Certainly, you can do that in real time and in a reactive way as it comes to you, but I think you have to set aside time for what Cal Newport calls that deep work, because the problems most of us are solving at a higher level are things you can’t solve in a 20-minute conversation with somebody. Those are things that require deep thinking, deep reflection, and sometimes it’s a multi-day or multi-week project.

Megan: This is hard, though, for leaders and entrepreneurs, because the day-to-day firefighting you’re doing in a high-growth business is a very different kind of thinking. It’s very fast-paced. It’s kind of an adrenaline rush. There’s something about going into this space (I hope you’re going to talk about this) where you have to learn how to stay there. It’s difficult. It really is a challenge of focus to stay with the thinking, because when you’re in that place of exhaustion and mental exhaustion, you’re not really able to innovate, and this is tough work.

Michael: I almost think of it like deep-sea diving. Like, you can snorkel. You could even dive with scuba gear, but the treasure is on the bottom of the ocean floor where you have to put on that heavy gear. What that means is that when you get down there, you have to stay down there for a while. You can’t be yanked back up to the surface and expect to get anything done. So once you get down there, you want to stay down there.

The way I found to do this is to do it frequently. What I mean by that is making it a habit and, if possible, baking it into your routine. I’ve incorporated this into my morning routine. It’s now a regular thing where I do this for about an hour every morning, and I’m going to explain, as we go through this, my specific process for doing this and why it’s really valuable.

Megan: This is really timely for me, personally. This is where I’m kind of standing in for the audience, but really, because I just came back from parental leave and did some thinking while I was gone about what was going to be necessary in this next season of my leadership, and this is one of the things that, honestly, is lacking. I need more time to think regularly for the benefit of the business.

Michael: You do, and it has to become a habit. I think that’s where we can really help you and the people listening to this to bake this into their routine so it gets done. This will really give you an edge. If you can learn to be curious, if you can learn to think and dedicate time to thinking, this will give your business an edge, because too many leaders are reacting; they’re not proacting. They’re not spending the time thinking about their business.

Larry: You may know the name Eric Schmidt. He was Google’s CEO for a number of years, about 10 or 11 years, back in the early 2000s. He said, “We run this company on questions, not answers.” What’s your reaction to that?

Michael: I think that’s right. Early in my career, I thought being a leader was all about having the answers, and the older I’ve gotten, the more I realize it’s really about having the right questions, particularly if I can ask myself the right questions. By that I mean open-ended questions, to be curious, to say, “I wonder why we got that result” or “I wonder why that thing seems broken.”

Yesterday, we had an issue with a person who was frustrated because they didn’t get their Full Focus Planner, so they complained to our customer experience team. So they sent them out another planner, they thought. Well, then he complained again that he didn’t get the second one. So I’m thinking to myself, “How is it…?” These are the kinds of real-life problems we have to solve by thinking. “How is it that we had that breakdown twice in a row?” I ended up having my assistant go to the FedEx and just overnight him one so that he’s getting it today.

I’m thinking to myself, “What kind of system problem…?” Because we have very conscientious people, and everybody is working hard. Everybody is trying to do their best, but what’s the system problem that needs to be addressed? I just spent several minutes thinking about that problem. How could we attack this at a system level? That comes from curiosity, and that comes from realizing we need to innovate. That’s a real problem our customers face, and it has to be solved.

Megan: I think, also, going into that without assuming you know the answer, really suspending disbelief, because we can often bias our own question asking with limiting beliefs or other opinions we have without even knowing it, and it keeps us from getting the great answers that come from really good questions.

Michael: Yeah, it does. I was thinking of another issue today. I was thinking, “Why do we keep feeling the need to discount this one program we sell?” You know what I’m talking about. I kept thinking, “Is that one of those areas where we just make an assumption that we can’t sell it without discounting it or is there some issue? How could we add more value so that we have less need to discount?”

Megan: That’s a great question.

Michael: Those are all of the thinking things we have to do, but we have to make it a frequent practice. It has to be a habit.

Larry: Do you ever find yourself getting curious or investigating things that actually don’t bear on a problem?

Megan: Yeah, I think so. For example, our Full Focus Planner line has been tremendously successful. We’re coming out with new editions in another week at the time of this recording. We’re really excited about that. We’re beginning to ask, “What else do our customers need in this space of physical products to win at work and succeed at life? What would be complementary to the planner that would be beneficial for our customers and clients?” That’s not really solving a problem. It is addressing a need. I don’t know the answer to that yet, but I’m excited to just ask it and see what comes.

Michael: Well, it’s a thinking exercise. Yesterday, you and I were talking about this very thing, and I sort of posed this idea. I said, “Well, what if we owned a retail store that was called the Full Focus Store? What would we put in that store besides our planner?”

Megan: Right. We came up with some neat ideas.

Michael: We did.

Larry: So, the first element of this thought pattern is that it has to be frequent. It’s all about developing the habit of being curious, asking questions, and doing that on a frequent, almost constant basis. That brings us to the second element, which is focused.

Michael: This is key. Focus is an important thing for us at Michael Hyatt & Company. We have The Focused Leader conference that we do. We have the Full Focus Planner. Focus is really at the heart of what we’re about. Cal Newport writes that solving complex problems is deep work, and it is deep work. It requires a level of focus that… Shallow thinking will never give you the results you want. It requires single-minded focus where you’re not distracted.

That’s why I’ve dedicated this time as part of my morning ritual to this kind of thinking, because I’m less likely to be interrupted. Whoever is listening to this, and if they’re trying to set aside time for this, they need to do it in a time when there’s… First of all, an extended period of time. This is not a 10-minute thing. “I’m just going to think for 10 minutes and solve all of the problems.” It has to be an extended period of time. It also has to be a focused time where you’re less likely to be interrupted.

Megan: I have a question for you about that. One of the ways that I feel like I come up with really good ideas and have a lot of breakthroughs is in conversation with my husband Joel. Joel is our chief content officer. All of his top five strengths, if you use the StrengthsFinder test, are in thinking, ideation, those kinds of things. Similar to you.

Out of those conversations come some really important thoughts and innovations that we need as a business. That’s not solitary, however. In this FITT concept, are you only talking about solitary time? Because sometimes you and I do the same thing, and we have great ideas, like yesterday, for example. Or does this really have to be done alone?

Michael: Well, first of all, I admitted to you before we started recording this that I really wasn’t thinking of the context of doing this with a group. I think that’s a valid context, but I don’t think it’s either/or; I think it’s both/and. If I’m going to have something to bring to the team, I have to be able… I talk about this sometimes in terms of writing blog posts or podcasting, that part of my job is to go forage for the team or to forage for the tribe.

I want to have something I bring to the table, that I have original thinking, that it’s not just in the context of the group but I have something to bring to the table. It’s kind of like a potluck supper. I don’t just want to show up being the guy who’s eating everybody else’s stuff, but I want to bring something to the party too.

Megan: So often, when we are with the right people, we have those catalytic moments where, all of a sudden, a thought or an inspiration comes that we wouldn’t have had except we’re pinging off of something they said, and there’s a certain kind of synergy that happens there.

Michael: Absolutely. Again, I think it’s not either/or; it’s both/and. To that point I would say that when I go into my focused time, I’m kind of priming the pump before I get there. This is one of the reasons, for example, I seek outside input. This is one of the reasons I’m reading voraciously, why I listen to a lot of podcasts, and, in fact, in my morning ritual before I get to this thinking time, I go to the gym or I go outside for a walk. I’m doing my exercise thing before I do the thinking thing. There are a couple of reasons for that. One of them is really practical.

When I can get my blood circulation going and oxygenate my brain, I’m going to be more awake, more alert, and just able to think better. I can think better when I’m doing that. In addition to that, it’s oftentimes in listening to somebody else’s content that it stimulates (kind of what you were talking about) my own thinking, and I go, “Oh!” It can be completely out of left field, have nothing to do with our business. I could be listening to a history book or a biography, or whatever, and I think, “Oh! Well, that applies to this thing.”

Megan: You’re making connections.

Michael: Some people call that lateral thinking. I think it’s really important, as a leader, to get that outside input so you’re not just left with your own resources but are able to tap into what other people are doing.

Megan: This is really true. Very often, the best thinking I have happens on a walk. I’ll be out. I’ll be on a walk. I’ll listen to a podcast, and I get 10 minutes in, and I have to turn it off because my brain is exploding. Very often, I’ll call you or you’ll call me, and you’ll say, “I have to tell you about this thing,” and we’ll have a whole conversation about it. It’s before 8:00 a.m., and our brains are just on fire.

Michael: That’s right.

Larry: I have a question on the focused part of this equation. Frequent, focused, intentional thinking. So, frequent and focused. For some of us and the temperament that does like to investigate things, the high fact finders, we can spend all day on this. In fact, somebody asked me, “What’s your favorite method of procrastination?”

Michael: Research?

Larry: Yeah. Looking up stuff on Wikipedia. You look for one fact, and it’s all linked. So, “Oh, that’s interesting. Let’s check the context.” You click to the next thing and the next thing and the next thing. Before long, I’ve spent 30 minutes just reading about nothing or nothing that bears on my work. But I don’t do that very often.

Michael: Let the record show.

Megan: To be clear.

Larry: How do you balance the need to get outside input, to indulge your curiosity, to ask questions, with the need to actually get stuff done?

Michael: Well, I think that comes to the third element.

Larry: Let’s go there now. The third element is intentional. Frequent, focused, intentional thinking.

Michael: Here’s the thing. Some thinking happens unintentionally. I may have a breakthrough in the shower, at the gym, in a conversation with Megan, whatever. We’re always thinking about something. Right? But critical thought has to be intentional. You don’t usually arrive at a huge breakthrough by accident. It has to be intentional. Or the way I like to think of it, it has to be caused.

Frankly, I achieve this by writing. This gives me a focus to my thinking, and it also helps me disentangle my thoughts. Writing forces a level of clarity about your thinking that sometimes won’t happen unless you write it down. You know what I’m saying? You can have a thought, and it’s kind of muddled, and it’s not really going anywhere, but when I subject myself to the discipline of writing, then all of a sudden, those vague ideas, those aspirations, the analysis, and all that, has to get real as I write.

So, my process about critical thinking… It happens when I go to the gym, when I’m beginning to exercise, and all that, but where the rubber really meets the road is when I come home, and I’m going to spend 45 minutes to an hour, and my rule is I’m going to write 500 words a day. This morning, I wrote 586. I just happen to remember it because I logged it. I wrote 586 words. The day before, I wrote over 700 words. Sometimes it’s not quite 500.

It’s just a good measure for me to do that. If you think about it, if you write 500 words every day…it’s 2,500 a week, 10,000 a month…you could write a 50,000-word business book, or the equivalent of one, over a five-month period. That’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m not trying to write a book. I’m just trying to disentangle my own thinking and get really clear on the issues I’m trying to address.

Megan: Okay. I have to argue with you about something here. You said that you can’t arrive at a huge breakthrough by accident. When you were talking, I thought the unintentional and intentional parts of this are really two parts of a process that are critical. One is kind of the spark at the beginning, the genius that just happens when you’re out walking or having a conversation, or whatever, and you really need that, and then the other part is where you flesh it out so it can be applied in some way that’s meaningful.

But you can’t have, necessarily, one without the other or they work best when they’re together. It’s not like the unintentional time is less valuable than the intentional time. It’s just that based on what you’re saying about your process, what I hear you saying is you start with the unstructured time (I think I would probably frame it a little more that way), and then the kind of natural process for it to be useful to you is to put it in a structured format so there’s more clarity around it; you could communicate it to others; it’s a full thought where you can act on it.

Michael: I think you’re actually right.

Megan: I love it when I get to be right.

Michael: I think you’re right, but I think if you don’t do something like writing… That’s how you capture lightning in a bottle.

Megan: I think that’s a great way to describe it. You still need the lightning, but the bottle is really important.

Michael: You have to have a container for it, and you have to have a way to transmit it, and you want to have a way to go deeper. It forces me to go deeper, because I can have this vague idea, but as I drill down and start to write, I go, “Oh, I wasn’t clear on that” or “Maybe I need to define this or flesh this out or do some research,” or whatever.

Megan: I feel like this is the part I’m missing: the structure, the intentional part. I do really well with the unstructured part. I think that’s happening all the time, as I described earlier, but what I need to make that more actionable for our team, in particular, right now and for our audience is to put that in a document and write it out.

Larry: Okay. Writing works well for you, Michael. You’re an excellent writer, and you enjoy doing it. A lot of people just don’t. It’s not something they feel good at, and they just don’t like doing it. How can they catch lightning in a bottle?

Michael: First of all, I wasn’t good at writing at the beginning either, nor did I enjoy it. One of the things we talk about in the Freedom Compass is this idea of the Development Zone, which we put right in the middle of the Freedom Compass, where there are things you’re not proficient at yet or maybe you don’t love yet. Writing was kind of in my Drudgery Zone at the beginning, but like a lot of things, the more you do it, the better you get at it.

If all you do is just jot down some bulleted points and try to capture it like you were journaling, even if it’s not going to be for dissemination to anybody else but it’s for your own edification and your own use, I think it’s really helpful to discipline yourself to do that. It’s the same reason I take notes when I’m in meetings. I want to capture what was said, because I’m going to forget that stuff. I get insights in those meetings that if I don’t record I’m going to forget.

So I do think it’s a skill that’s important for leaders to develop. You’re going to be judged, at one level or another, by how you write and how you speak, and it’s worth taking time, as a leader, if you’re serious about influence, because all influence comes back to communication… If you’re serious about influence, you’re going to be serious about communication, and you’re going to learn the skills necessary to write. Maybe you’re not going to be Hemingway, but you’re going to be able to communicate clearly and directly, whether it’s in written or in oral form.

Larry: I’ve noticed that some people will come back to a meeting or come back after working on a problem and say, “I’ve been thinking a lot about this,” and then give their solution, and actually, what they’re doing is just kind of justifying what we knew they already thought.

Megan: So true. A lot of people think they’re deep thinkers, but really, they’re just rehearsing the same old patterns of thinking. They sort of have this loop they’re on that they can’t get out of, because they have a risk-aversion or a set of limiting beliefs that are unclear to them that are kind of invisible, and that clouds their ability to think widely, to think deeply, to think beyond their current circumstances to something that is bigger and better than where they are, and that’s tough.

I think we all have to be mindful of that and notice where we get stuck, where we’re stuck in our day-to-day activities, and where it becomes difficult for us to think critically, because we want to be reflecting, not just be reflexive, not reactive.

Larry: It’s really back to the asking questions, but the second part of that, and then not knowing the answer ahead of time, just being agnostic about what the solution will be. We’re talking about being intentional. I want to mention this study of college-educated adults in professional careers. That’s who the subjects of the study were. At mid-career, they were asked to rate their decision-making, and less than 50 percent of the decisions they had made recently they rated as successful.

Megan: Wow.

Michael: That’s interesting.

Larry: It was. One of the respondents added this comment: “When making this decision, I was so busy with day-to-day work that I didn’t have enough time to think strategically.”

Megan: We hear this all the time from our clients. They often come to us because this is their reality. They’re overwhelmed, and they feel like they can’t see beyond the day to day, and that’s what they’re asking us to help them do.

Michael: We’ve faced that so many times ourselves. There are few problems we encounter that better, deeper thinking wouldn’t solve, but so often (and that leads us right to the next element, the fourth element: thinking), it’s easy for us to succumb to the hustle fallacy, which is to think that all progress relies on us doing more. “If I’m going to be more productive, if I’m going to be more successful, I just have to do more stuff.”

I don’t really think that’s the key to success. I think it’s doing the right stuff, and doing the right stuff takes discernment, and discernment takes thinking. I have to figure out if all this stuff I have to do… Not everything has the same value, so I need to think about what’s really going to add value, what’s going to be the highest-leverage activity, and again, that requires thinking. We have to make a case for thinking to ourselves and value it, esteem it, ourselves if we’re going to make it a priority.

Larry: I have a definition of critical thinking I’d like you to react to. This comes from the Foundation for Critical Thinking.

Michael: That’s a thing?

Larry: Apparently it is. They define critical thinking this way: a person is a critical thinker to the extent that he or she regularly improves thinking by studying and critiquing it. So, thinking about the way you think.

Michael: I love that idea. Some people call that metacognition, thinking about thinking.

Larry: I was satisfied with “critical thinking.”

Michael: I think it’s a really, really important skill to not just be able to think about, you know, other people, events, and all that kind of stuff, or to even think about other people’s thoughts, but to think about our own thinking and how we’re processing our thinking and to be objective is really important.

The first time I was made aware of this, it was from an executive coach I had probably 10 years ago who really challenged me to think about my thinking. Again, if we believe thoughts manifest themselves in actions and actions lead to the results in our business, then if we want to trace that back to the source, we have to be thinking about our thinking, because the best way to change the results in the business is to change my thinking about it.

But to think that there’s a cause-and-effect relationship and that how I’m thinking about the business has basically created the results I’m experiencing right now. If I have problems in my business, if I’m not as profitable as I’d like to be, if I’m not growing like I’d like, if I don’t have the right clients, all that can be traced back, if I’m the leader of that business, to my thinking about the business. So I have to get clear on how I’m thinking about all of these different things.

Larry: That kind of unlocks the door to seeing what you’re not seeing and knowing what you don’t know.

Megan: Larry, that’s a great point, because real creativity happens when, like you said, Dad, you start thinking about your thinking. For example, are you asking the right questions? Can I really conclude that I have only two options here? What’s making me think this idea won’t work? What if we thought about this as a product problem versus a marketing problem, for example? I was thinking recently that we keep having something that is coming up for us in our decision-making that I don’t like. I don’t like the results of it.

I just was thinking as you were talking, “What is the question we’re asking right before that decision gets made?” All of a sudden, I was like, “Oh! I’m seeing several questions there, that if we asked different questions we would end up at a different result.” It’s not just that we’re not being good decision-makers in that context; it’s that the questions that lead up to the decision are leading us astray. They’re biasing us toward the decision that’s not the best decision we could make.

Michael: That’s good.

Megan: So this is helpful.

Larry: Well, today we’ve learned that growth is fueled by innovation and innovation requires focused thought. You can keep yourself mentally fit by remembering the acronym FFIT. Make sure your thought regimen includes frequent, focused, intentional thinking. Michael, Megan, final thoughts today?

Megan: This has been super helpful for me.

Michael: Good!

Megan: I kind of feel like you read my mail of some of the conversations I was having with myself while I was on parental leave. I think this is the structure I need to add another component to my thinking to take it to the next level, so I’m excited to apply this in my own life and leadership.

Michael: Good. Well, I hope the rest of you listening will try this too, because I really do think this will give you an edge. This will make all the difference in your business. If you can take time on a frequent basis to do this kind of frequent, focused, intentional thinking, it’s going to drive business results, it’s going to give you an edge against the competition, and I think you’ll enjoy your work more.

Larry: Well, thanks for sharing this concept. You’ve really given us something to think about.

Michael: Oh brother!

Megan: The dad jokes are wild.

Michael: Thank you, Larry. Thank you for leading us through this conversation, and thank you guys for joining us today. We’ll see you right here next week. Until then, lead to win.