How We Work

Stories and thoughts about the things we do that (sometimes) work

A Question That Can Change Your Life

Find out how to make your days more productive by asking one simple question.

For years I’ve exercised every day — doing weights, cardio, yoga — but despite my continuous effort, I haven’t seen much change.

Until a few months ago.

Recently, my body has changed. My muscles are stronger, more defined, and I’ve lost five pounds along with a visible layer of fat. So what did I do differently?

Let’s start with what I didn’t do: Spend more time exercising. In fact, I’ve spent less. What I did change is how I use the time I spend working out.

Instead of doing the same old workout, day after day, I’m mixing it up with new routines. I’m focusing my effort more wisely — confusing my muscles with different exercises, adding balance challenges, power moves, and intervals.

The rapid results I achieved by changing my exercise routine made something very clear to me: We habitually squander time and effort on behaviors that do little to move us toward the outcomes we’re seeking. Spending an hour on a treadmill watching TV had no visible impact on my fitness. But when I used that hour differently, I saw improvement.

It’s not that we’re lazy. We put effort into what we do. I ran on the treadmill every day. But, like my daily run, our efforts often don’t translate into optimum results.

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The basic principle is simple: We’re already spending a certain amount of time doing things — in meetings, managing businesses, writing emails, making decisions. If we could just make a higher impact during that time, it’s all upside with no cost.

So here’s the question I’d like to propose you ask yourself throughout your day: What can I do, right now, that would be the most powerful use of this moment?

What can I say? What action can I take? What question can I ask? What issue can I bring up? What decision can I make that would have the greatest impact?

Asking these questions — and answering them honestly — is the path to choosing new actions that could bring better outcomes. The hard part is following through on the answers and taking the risks to reap the full benefits of each moment. That takes courage. But it’s also what brings the payoff.

I was once sitting in a meeting with the CEO of a large bank and his head of HR. Right before the meeting, the CEO had told me that he had lost confidence in his HR chief after he had made a number of blunders without accepting any responsibility. “He really needs to go,” the CEO told me.

Then, during the meeting, the head of HR asked the CEO for feedback. He’s opened the door, I thought to myself. But the CEO said nothing. That led to more dysfunction as the head of HR stayed on, continuing to disappoint the CEO, but without getting straight feedback.

It’s easy to judge the CEO. And he certainly should have been bolder. But how many of us miss similar opportunities out of fear or nervousness or even simply concern for hurting other people’s feelings?

While the CEO’s missed opportunity was a glaring omission with painful consequences, it is, unfortunately, not unusual.

There’s some good reason for that: Sometimes the bold move can backfire. I know a similar situation to the one above, where a VP level person asked her employee for feedback, but when the employee answered honestly, he was shunned and treated poorly afterwards.

Rejection, failure, even ridicule — those are the risks of making the most powerful use of a moment. But in my experience, boldness, combined with skilled communication, almost always pays off because it moves the energy of a situation and creates new possibilities in otherwise old ruts.

Having the courage to take the kind of bold action that creates new opportunities is, possibly, the most critical skill a leader can have. It’s why leadership development should involve experiences that hone emotional courage, and the communication abilities necessary to use it productively.

I recently saw a short video that perfectly illustrates the risk-reward payoff of courageously using a moment well. Billy Joel was speaking at Vanderbilt University when a young student, Michael Pollack, raised his hand. When Joel called on him, Michael asked if he could play the piano to accompany the musician for a song. A silence followed. Michael had taken a big risk just by asking and you could feel the tension and suspense in the room. After a pause, Joel said “yes” and the video of their astounding spontaneous collaboration has now been viewed over 2.5 million times.

How often have you been in a similar situation, at one time or another, wanting to say something or do something, yet letting the moment pass by? Next time you’re in that situation, pay attention to it. Notice the feelings that come along with it. Observe the physical sensations in your body. Can you feel your heart beating? Can you connect with the conflicting urges to act and not to? Getting in touch with those feelings is the first step to acting in the face of them.

Woody Allen famously said that 80% of success is showing up. Maybe that’s true. But, if it is, then I’d say the other 20% is the most important. Simply showing up and watching TV on a treadmill — that’s not enough. Your greatest opportunity is to use your time in a way that will garner the most productive return. To take risks that will shake things up.

What can you do, right now, that would be the most powerful use of this moment?

Originally Published at Harvard Business Review

Peter Bregman is the author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done and Point B: A Short Guide to Leading a Big Change.

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