Episode: Unleash the Power of Constraints

Michael Hyatt: Hi, I’m Michael Hyatt.

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

Michael: And this is Lead to Win, our podcast to help you win at work and succeed at life. By the way, we talk about that a lot. They’re both important.

Megan: That’s right.

Michael: Which brings us to our topic today. We want to talk about the power of constraints, which sounds bizarre, because most people think freedom is the thing they’re after. “We want more freedom. Don’t put any constraints on us.” But our conviction is that constraints are the very things that lead to freedom, and unless there are constraints, you won’t experience freedom.

Megan: I am so excited about this topic. I can barely stay in my seat. I should probably just go ahead and stand up right now. I’m super passionate about it, because I think that not only is this one of my favorite things to talk about (something you and I both deeply believe), but it has never been more timely. I don’t know about you, Dad, but I am finding that everywhere I go, I hear people whining and complaining (I’m just going to say it like that, because that’s what it is) about 2020.

“2020 sucks. 2020 is the worst year ever. I can’t wait till January ’21 when the new year rolls over and we get to go back to normal.” Blah, blah, blah. It’s this whole… And nobody means it like this, but this is kind of what’s going on. Like, “I’m a victim of this terrible year, and eventually time will pass, and I will no longer be a victim, and then good things can start happening again.”

My conviction is (and I think, Dad, you share this) that 2020 is actually a huge gift for us. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, there have been so many difficult things. No doubt about it. But if you know where to look, there are gifts inside this year, the chief among them being the gift of constraints, because the kind of innovation these constraints make possible is unlike any other. So, that’s what we’re going to talk about today, and I cannot wait to get into it.

Michael: Maybe we should give a little bit of biographical history here. I have an experience with constraints that was kind of unexpected. For example, back 20 years ago, when I had had a major career success and didn’t quite know where to go next… In other words, how could I replicate the success I’d just experienced? I was kind of out of tricks. So I decided to get an executive coach, and I was fortunate enough, blessed enough, to hire Daniel Harkavy at Building Champions. He was my first executive coach.

Daniel’s approach has always been holistic. In other words, he espouses and believes in what we call, at Michael Hyatt & Company, the double win: win at work and succeed at life. Clearly, I was winning at work when I went into that. But the succeeding at life part? Not so much. So, Daniel challenged me to put constraints around my work.

This seemed like a completely foreign idea to me at the time, because my practice up until that point was that I would have my quiet time in the morning before I started work, but I got to the office early. I was there no later than 7:00, oftentimes 6:00 to 6:30 if I could, and I would stay until 6:00 or 7:00 at night. If I did come home (and I did come home when the kids were younger), I’d hastily eat dinner with the family, and then I would open my laptop and continue working until I basically fell asleep, almost, on my computer. Work was just seeping into everything.

The weekend was basically an opportunity to catch up on work. I was at the office on Saturday, as all of the other executives were. That was sort of the de facto standard in every corporate work culture I’d been part of. If you were committed, what that looked like was long hours every day. You had to set the pace. You had to be the example. You had to show everybody else what a work ethic looked like. It meant you were there on Saturday morning. Some guys and gals would also come back on Sunday night. You’re just basically working all the time.

If you were on a vacation, you could not unplug. No, no, no, no. You had to get up early in the morning, and we’re going to give you a little time with your family, but you’re expected to keep up with email. You’re expected to take a conference call or a business call, and your family is just going to have to work around it. Now, I don’t know that anybody ever explicitly said that, but, again, that was just sort of the de facto standard you were expected to live up to, and if you didn’t, you would be perceived as not committed.

Megan: So, you were like, “Hey, this is not working anymore. I’ve got to get some things in check in my life.”

Michael: Yeah. Twenty years ago, I was beginning to think, “If I don’t start focusing on my health a little bit, I’m probably going to explode. I’m going to have a bad health crisis that’s going to take me out.” I’d seen it happen to many of my friends, whether it’s a heart attack or some other disease or something. A lot of things that happen to us we have no control over, but, frankly, a lot of things we experience in our health are self-inflicted.

So I thought to myself, “I’ve got to take control of that.” I thought to myself, “My kids desperately need me right now, and if I don’t give attention to my marriage, I can’t just assume it’s going to rock on without me investing in it. Same thing with my kids.” There’s nothing that’s more disruptive of your business than if you have a marital crisis (I’d seen this up close and personal in my career) or a crisis with your kids where they end up on drugs or end up in jail or worse. That’s incredibly disruptive too.

What Daniel said to me was, “You’ve got to put constraints around your work. There needs to be a boundary. There need to be fences, because your work is not the only thing going on in your life. All of these different domains…” Daniel referred to them as life accounts. He said, “All of these accounts are interrelated. You can’t draw a deficit on one of them, you know, be overdrawn in one of your checking accounts, without it requiring a contribution from one of your other accounts. They’re all interrelated.”

So, I did a couple of things. I decided I wasn’t going to get to the office until 8:30 in the morning and I was going to leave promptly at 6:00 p.m. no matter what. I made that commitment to Gail. I said, “I’m not going to work on the weekends no matter what, and I’m not going to work on my vacations,” which I was less successful with for many years until I kind of broke the code on that and figured out how to do it.

Daniel asked my permission maybe six weeks into this. He said, “Do you mind if I periodically check in with Gail (my wife) to see how you’re doing?” That kind of scared me. I said to him, “Well, like, with me on the phone?” He said, “No. By herself. I want to check in with her so she can be really honest, and I just want her to assess, because she’s the closest person to you, how you’re doing with your constraints.” I said, “Sure.”

So he had several conversations with her, and just that little bit of accountability… Man, that was the biggest accountability. Because if he had said to me, “Look. I’m going to ask you periodically how you’re doing in this,” what do you think I would have said?

Megan: Right. “I’m doing great. Killin’ it.”

Michael: “I’m doing great, man. I’m killin’ it, because one day last week I got home on time.” But he’s asking her, and I’m thinking to myself, “I never know when he’s going to call her.” It just gave me an accountability, and then it became a way of life. It didn’t happen immediately, but building those habits in was huge.

Megan: I have my own story of constraints too. The big idea here is that when you either have constraints that are externally imposed, like so many things that have happened in COVID, in 2020 in general…the inability to have our offices open, the inability to go about most of our routines as normal, at least for some period of time… All of a sudden, those constraints make other things possible. You’re able to get some kind of a breakthrough in your thinking and, therefore, your actions that otherwise would not have been available to you in your “business as usual” thinking.

No one ends up having a balanced life where they’re winning at work and succeeding at life unless they put constraints in, because the constraints actually make the boundaries possible. In setting a boundary, all of a sudden you have to innovate to hold that boundary, which enables you to keep the boundary. There’s a relationship between the success and the constraint in and of itself.

In my own situation… When you asked me to step into the COO role at Michael Hyatt & Company, it wasn’t too long before that that I had adopted my middle two children, who at the time when we adopted them were 3 and 14 months. They had had extensive trauma and some significant special needs. I said to you, “The only way I can step into this role is if I can be done at 3:00 when it’s time to pick them up at school.” They were a little bit older at this point. They were in preschool and kindergarten, I think, at this point.

You said, “Sure. That’s fine. As long as the results are there, it doesn’t matter to me. I’m not hiring you to work a certain number of hours. I’m hiring you to produce results.” What that meant was in order for me to get my work done in six hours a day (or six and a half hours a day is how I started out), I had to really innovate. I had to get very, very clear on what my unique contribution was, and I had to eliminate, automate, or delegate everything else.

I couldn’t afford to get sidetracked. I couldn’t afford to have time spent on social media during the day, and I couldn’t afford to have long social lunches. I had to buckle down, get it done, get in, get out. I’ve done that for years. Those boys now are 12 and 10, and they’re doing well. I think, largely, it was because I was able to put constraints in place that not only actually increased my professional contribution but definitely ensured that I was doing what needed to be done at home, and that’s really what we’re talking about today.

Michael: To use an example everybody can relate to… That Friday before you go on a week-long vacation, how productive are you? You have a constraint. You have a hard stop. Maybe you’re flying out Friday night or Saturday morning to this amazing vacation you’ve been planning for months, so you’re just hyper-focused, hyper-productive. You don’t get sidetracked. You don’t allow yourself to be interrupted. You’re focused on what has to get done. Well, what if every day could be like that? That’s the power of constraints.

I have another story too. Back when I became the COO at Thomas Nelson (the year was 2003), two weeks into the assignment… I’m supposed to be traveling all over, primarily meeting with our institutional investors. We were a publicly held company at the time. Two weeks into that, I fell down the stairs and broke my ankle, so I had to have surgery. I had a plate and six screws put in, which, by the way, are still there in my left foot.

I had to do the surgery, and then the doctor insisted that I stay in bed for a week. Gail said to me, “Instead of whining…” She was kinder than that, but she said, “Instead of whining about the fact that you’ve broken your ankle and you don’t have time to be sidelined and all of these expectations are riding on you, and blah, blah, blah, why don’t you ask yourself the question, ‘What does this make possible?’”

So, as soon as I had my wits about me, after I got out of the surgery and everything, I said, “You know what? I’ve been reading a lot about blogging, and I think I’m going to start a blog.” So I used that time when I was in bed on my laptop to start a blog. Little did I know that that was a seed that would turn into this giant oak tree that has become our business. I probably shouldn’t say this out loud, but even the password for one of our wireless networks at the office is “itbeganwithablog.”

Megan: Now we have to go change that password.

Michael: Now I have to change my password. That office is closed down right now during COVID, so, good luck. At any rate, that blog made possible everything else, but that wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t have been for a forced constraint. Sometimes constraints come at us from the outside, you know, we have no choice, but we do have a choice whether we embrace them or not.

Megan: So here we are. We’re in the middle of 2020. This COVID situation is not going away nearly as fast as some of us thought at the beginning, or hoped, or still are hoping, and I’ve noticed there are so many people fighting the situation. You might think, “Well, yeah, but this is extraordinary.” Yeah, but you’re doing it in other parts of your life too. That’s the truth. We’ve all been there. I’ve done it. You’ve done it.

The mask situation… Everyone is fighting it. They’re fighting to do it. They’re fighting not to do it. Wherever you are on the political spectrum, it’s this whole thing. What I want to say is…What if 2020, in all its weirdness and challenges, was actually a gift? What if you stopped spending all that energy fighting about wearing a mask, fighting about not wearing a mask, you know, all of the different things that are a part of this…the election…all of these things you can’t control, and you took that energy and looked at the constraints in your business…

Maybe you’re having to be remote right now. Maybe you can’t sell your products and services in the same way. Maybe you’ve had to totally change all kinds of things in order to meet the market. What if that was the best thing that ever happened to your business? I think this conversation starts with a belief that constraints are good even if they’re uncomfortable, that they’re beneficial to us. So, instead of thinking, “Oh, gosh. This is going to really make everything hard,” instead, going to the place of, “What does this make possible?”

We hear this from our clients. We have over 500 clients in our BusinessAccelerator coaching program, and we’re hearing from them all the time about the incredible decisions they’re making in their businesses right now, decisions they had been putting off, decisions they weren’t even considering, all kinds of things…

Now, because they’re willing to embrace constraints and say, “Okay, I’m not going to fight it. I’m going to be where I am. I’m going to embrace 2020 as long as this goes on. Obviously, I can’t do anything about the virus, but I’m going to figure out how to thrive in the midst of this…” They go from that place of acceptance or belief that these constraints are good to a place of possibility. “What does this make possible?” That leads them to a place of innovation, and, to me, that’s the exciting part about this.

Michael: Like so many other things, this begins as a shift in our mindset. We have to stop seeing constraints as an impediment on our progress and see them as things that actually facilitate our progress. Here’s another example. Megan, you’ll remember back… Maybe it was the first week of April. At that point we were like two weeks into the pandemic. We have about 40 people on our team, and we have a lot of young parents with small kids running around, and now they’re trying to work remotely. They have kids where there’s no childcare. They’re trying to manage all this stuff.

Megan: It was so crazy.

Michael: We saw kids for the first time showing up in our Zoom meetings.

Megan: Yeah. Some of them were mine.

Michael: I know. Some of them were yours. It was a lot of fun, but it was also a big stressor. Everybody felt this environmental stress from just the uncertainty of what was going to happen and how life-threatening this was and “What happens if we get it?” and all that stuff. So, we made the decision at the time, and at the time we thought it was going to be temporary, but we said, “Hey, we’re going to change our work hours. We know we need to pivot…” And we did pivot in a very profound way in terms of our business.

But we said, “We’re going to restrain our work hours, and we’re going to stop working 40 hours a week, and we’re going to go to 30 hours a week. We’re going to work from 9:00 in the morning until 3:00 in the afternoon, and we don’t expect anybody to be on call or work before that or after that. We’re not going to dock anybody’s pay. We don’t want to lay anybody off.” You think to yourself, “Okay. That seems so counterintuitive.” You would think in a crisis it would be all hands on deck, and everybody…

One of my sons-in-law… They basically suspended PTO. They said you couldn’t have any time off. You were on call all the time. We said just the opposite. Now check this out. This has not hurt our business. We’re projecting right now that by the end of the year, our business is going to be up about 40 percent on the bottom line over what we budgeted for this year, which was already aggressive in terms of our growth vis-à-vis last year.

And we’ve had these constraints in our business for a long time…not a 30-hour workweek, but definitely a very rigorous enforcement of a 40-hour workweek. Of course, there are exceptions from time to time, but for the most part, a 40-hour workweek. We’ve been on the Inc. list of the fastest growing private companies in America three years in a row. We just won this year the Inc. award of being one of the best workplaces in the country, all while having these constraints. I believe not just that we succeeded in spite of those constraints (and, Megan, I’m pretty sure you share this conviction) but because of those constraints.

Megan: Right. Because what happens when you put a constraint in place or there’s a constraint environmentally is that, all of a sudden, your old thinking doesn’t work. The way you normally would have delivered productivity or results doesn’t work anymore. If you don’t have 40 hours or if you don’t have the ability to meet with people in person or you don’t have the ability to serve people in a certain way because of COVID, all of a sudden, all of your old solutions don’t work, which kind of creates a crisis. You have this crisis of, “Oh, shoot! What are we going to do? We can’t do it like we used to.”

The gift right inside of a constraint is, all of a sudden, you have to go to a different place in your thinking. You have to have a kind of innovative thinking that leads you, ultimately, to different kinds of actions and different kinds of results than you could have ever accessed when you were in that old mindset. It’s like when you’re in your “business as usual” mindset… Think of your pre-COVID mindset. Only certain things were possible within that.

Maybe the things that were possible were great. Maybe you were really successful at them, but they only allowed certain things to be true. All of a sudden, when those things start to fall apart and your assumptions don’t make sense anymore… Another great example of this is my boys, who I was talking about earlier… We have a therapist we see in Ohio frequently. We normally go three to four times a year for a weekend at a time and do like six hours of therapy a day. It’s pretty intense, but it has been great for them.

However, the therapist is no longer seeing people in her office, so this past weekend, we did a therapy intensive on Zoom, where we were doing therapy six hours a day for three days. It was probably one of the best intensives we’ve had. And let me tell you something. If you can do therapy with kids for six hours a day virtually, you can do literally anything. I mean, that’s one of the most challenging things.

You’d say, “Oh, absolutely. You’ve got to be in person for that. There’s no way you can get that kind of breakthrough with kids unless they’re sitting in front of you.” Not true. To me, that’s a good example. That’s not something the therapist or we, as clients, would have ever thought of except for there was this major constraint of “We can’t travel, yet our kids still need therapy. How are we going to solve that problem?” All of a sudden, a new solution emerged, and that’s what you get with constraints.

Michael: Another example of that… Gosh, I have a ton of them, but another example of that is what happened with our BusinessAccelerator coaching program. It’s a group coaching program. Ordinarily, our clients come in in groups of 50, a cohort of about 50. They come into Nashville, Tennessee, where we live, and they meet with me or one of our other coaches for a full day. We call it a coaching intensive. You were in a therapy intensive. This is a coaching intensive.

Megan: Yours was probably more fun.

Michael: We do that one full day a quarter. But we couldn’t do that because of social distancing and all of the other constraints that were imposed externally on us. Initially, we said, “Okay. We know we can’t make this as good as what it would be in person, but how can we make it almost as good?” That was an okay experience. Then we said, “Wait a second. We’re not thinking about this in a way that’s innovative. Let’s embrace this constraint and ask, ‘How does this make it possible to create an experience for our clients that’s even better than the in-person experience?’”

Now, we have every intention of going back to in-person coaching as soon as the environment will allow us to do that, but in the meantime, we want to create the most extraordinary experience for our clients that we can. Literally, just this last week as we’re recording this, I was taking my specific groups… We have 10 different coaches, but I was taking my groups through their coaching intensives. I did five days’ worth of that, one day after another, for the most part.

I thought it was an extraordinary experience, because we didn’t let that get in the way. We embraced the constraint, and we created what looked like, at the hotel, a television studio…multi-cameras, lower thirds, side-by-side, breakout rooms using Zoom…an extraordinary experience for our clients. It was great. None of that would have been possible if we had been resisting that constraint.

Megan: Right. We improved our content. We added new things to help people feel supported during this time, including… Our clients have a weekly Q&A call with you, where they get to ask their questions in real time and get feedback from you. We added expert interviews. We added executive masterminds among people in similar-sized businesses within the program, all kinds of stuff that we would have never thought about except that we were trying to figure out, “Okay. Within these constraints, how do we overdeliver for our clients? How do we make sure they get the transformation we promised when they joined the program and so much more?”

Honestly, it’s so much better now. It’s so much better, and I’m so thankful. We’ve made other decisions in our business that were not even on the table…costs we’ve cut or things we’ve added or people we’ve added…that without these constraints we wouldn’t have had to face. We’ve made some significant changes in how our product team works, with our training team, and just internal organizational kinds of things that we really cleaned up and created greater efficiency and more meaning for our team members, all because there were things that were no longer possible for us.

Michael: I want to mention a resource that I think will be helpful to people. It was a book we discovered and started reading after we made the decision to go to a 30-hour workweek, but it enabled us to make the decision that that’s going to be something permanent. Something we’re going to leave the pandemic with, whenever it’s over, is a new and improved workweek. We don’t intend to go back to a 40-hour workweek.

I’m not saying this is for everybody, but I’m saying that there is a book that makes the case of why this might be, for you, the best possible solution. It’s a book called Shorter, and it’s by the author Alex Pang. He does all the research, all of the case studies, to prove that shorter work hours are often the very thing you need to go to the next level. His subtitle is Work Better, Smarter, and Less—Here’s How. He gives one example after another of companies that have done that and seen their results grow exponentially.

Megan: I love that. If you’re a leader listening to this, I think this is a really important thing to talk through for a second. How do you create this mindset that you embrace constraints in your culture? If you’re a leader, you probably have a lot of conversations with people where they’re complaining about constraints. They’re assuming their results are dependent on external factors they can’t control, and when the results aren’t good, they’re going to blame something outside of themselves.

I really think this gets to the heart of the idea of ownership. One of our values is ownership at Michael Hyatt & Company, and we want people taking, what we call, total ownership, that the results are the consequences of our actions as leaders. So, how do we build that into our culture? I think it starts with your mindset as a leader.

When you talk about constraints, when you talk about 2020, how do you talk about it? Do you kind of roll your eyes or do you kind of have a flavor of defeatism in your tone, in your body language? Do you give yourself a pass because it’s 2020 or do you have excitement, even, around it? Those are some of the things to notice, because whatever you do will set the tone in your organization, and also what you reward.

I know at Michael Hyatt & Company we’re having a lot of conversations right now about “How do we reach this big crazy goal we have at the end of the year, and how do we embrace constraints?” Of course, not everything, even in our pivoted plan after COVID, is working exactly like we thought. Some things are working better, some things aren’t working as well as we hoped, and we have to make adjustments along the way, but in order to make those adjustments, people have to get in the headspace of, “Hey, we don’t have to fight these constraints. We can just embrace it and start innovating.”

Michael: What you said about innovation is so key. I’ve been in situations in the past where I’ve said, “If we just had more money to spend on marketing…” or “If we just had more personnel… We just don’t have the capacity we need,” instead of saying, “Actually, that’s a good thing, because if we had all the money we needed, we’d probably just waste it.”

The only organization that really can do that unlimited is the government. They can print more money, and as a result, they have more waste. There’s not the level of innovation that’s required in the private sector. (This obviously reveals my bias.) In the private sector, you don’t have the luxury of having unlimited resources, ever. Probably somebody would argue that the government doesn’t either, but in the private sector, you don’t.

It’s those constraints that force innovation, that cause you to think in a completely different way than you were before. I was thinking about the story of the Wright brothers. I’m about to start reading a biography of the Wright brothers by David McCullough. I had a friend of mine who was telling me about it over the weekend. One of the interesting things about the Wright brothers is these were two brothers who didn’t have a college education. That’s kind of a constraint.

All they had ever done was work in a bicycle shop, so they didn’t have any aeronautical experience or anything related to aviation. Part of it was it just didn’t exist at that point. The government was funding other organizations to invent manned flight. They had (at the time, this was a huge amount of money) hundreds of thousands of dollars the federal government was paying them to come up with manned flight.

Here are a couple of guys who are in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and they have, basically, nothing but their ability to innovate, and they’re the guys who came up with manned flight, not because they had more resources, more capacity, more personnel, more money. No. Because the constraints on that forced them to use the resource that’s the most important, which is their ability to think and their ability to create. And, boy, did they do it.

Megan: So, if you’re listening to us and you’re thinking, “All right. So, what’s the application for me? How do I begin to start this process of embracing constraints so that I have access to innovation like never before?” The first thing to do would be to think about the constraints in your life that you’re fighting. This should not be very hard, because for most of us… I could think of about five things right off the top of my head that I’m fighting a little bit.

Maybe it’s that you can’t go to your gym and work out. Maybe it’s that you can’t go to church. Maybe it’s that you can’t meet with all of your employees in person. Maybe it’s that you can’t go on the road and travel to meet your clients. Whatever it is, you can probably come up with a list right now. Think of your top three things that you feel like you’re fighting, you’re losing sleep over, you’re kind of complaining about to other people, and you’re just wrestling with on a regular basis.

Then ask yourself, “Okay. If I could suspend disbelief for just a second and I could, instead, believe that inside this constraint was actually a gift, what would it make possible?” Then, when you think about that, ask “How could I start innovating around this?” I hope you will send us some kind of message, leave us a review or email us or something, and let us know what you’re coming up with.

I’m going to promise you, if you do this, if you get your Full Focus Planner out right now on the Notes page and write these things out and you do what I just suggested, this is going to lead to a breakthrough for you. You’re going to be in a very different place at the end of five minutes of doing that exercise than you are at the beginning.

Michael: I want to give a really practical exhortation here around constraints. I want to encourage you, if you’ve never done this before, to create a hard start and a hard stop to your workday and your workweek. When are you going to arrive at work? When are you going to end work? Act like that’s inviolable. You cannot change that. So, if it’s 6:00 p.m., no matter what, if that’s the time your day ends, or if it’s 5:00 p.m., whatever it is, there’s no work after that.

Here’s what’s going to happen immediately. You’re going to suddenly become more focused and more productive at work than you’ve ever been, because you’re going to have to force yourself to prioritize the 20 percent of the work that drives the 80 percent of the results. What happens is when you have no boundaries, you think to yourself, “Well, I can just do this whenever I need to. If I don’t get finished by 5:00 or 6:00, I’ll take it home with me, and I’ll finish then.” You don’t have to prioritize anything.

But suddenly, when you have a hard boundary, you have to prioritize. It will dramatically improve the quality of your work product, the focus you experience, your job satisfaction, and, if you refuse to think about work or talk about work or do work outside of those work hours, it’ll suddenly give you a real life, particularly if you can live in the discomfort of not knowing exactly what you’re going to do with this margin and start to pursue hobbies or invest in your most important relationships.

Suddenly, you’re going to find yourself winning at work and succeeding at life in a way you’ve never experienced before. That’s going to keep you from burning out, that’s going to give you longevity, and, believe me, the people who are closest to you are going to thank you for it. You’re going to be much more effective as a human.

Megan: I’ve loved this conversation today, and I hope you’ve caught a vision of what’s possible in 2020 and what’s possible with all constraints. I really believe that 2020, for any of us, could be our best year ever if we’re willing to embrace constraints and use them in our lives to drive innovation. So, hopefully you’ll do that. Hopefully you’ll consider that position. Make sure to let us know how you’re thinking about this. If you have any comments or thoughts on it, please leave it in a review for us so we can follow up there. Otherwise, we’ll see you next week here on Lead to Win.