A Question That Can Change Your Life

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.

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


  1. Dave McGhee says:

    I couldn’t agree more. All too often we are not focused on the most important thing in the moment. We are busy, but not productive. We are efficient, but not effective. Your book 18-Minutes really brought that point home.

  2. Marion says:

    Peter, thanks for some more thought provocation!

    Exercise is a great analogy for life…. If you train yourself to accept the discomfort of “intensity “, not only does your exercise performance skyrocket, but your mental resilience does as well. Getting used to being UNCOMFORTABLE (physically and emotionally) allows you to thrive on all levels.

    At least that’s what i tell my patients !!!



  3. O U T S T A N D I N G ! ! It’s true what you say about choosing how to use your time and to be aware and ready for opportunity when it ARRIVES.

    Love the use of the Billy Joel and Michael Pollack video. Makes your point with precision and deep, deep emotion.

    Ask for what you want.

    Thanks Peter.

  4. Great article – and great analogy. I think the other exercise connection is a well-articulated vision for what comes at the end. It’s easy to back out of half-marathon training when it’s cold and dark out at 6 AM and your running partner has an injury. Or the race itself at mile 11 when feel like you’re dying. But visualizing that finish line – and how you FEEL when you cross that finish line – keeps you going through solo miles and discomfort. So, what do I need to do at this moment that will help me cross that line? Thank you for the great article!

    1. Rakesh Verma says:

      Very nice comments – relevant and to the core.

  5. Paul Claybaker says:

    Thank you, Peter!

    Stay focused, keep the vision, seize the opportunity – pretty much says it all. Or, to quote Mark Suster, “You don’t ask, you don’t get.”

  6. Mapaseka says:


  7. Mao Malambo says:

    This article and the analogy therein is a reality in life. A lot many times we find ourselves in the CEO’s shoes, keeping quite when we should have given feedback. Courage is the factor I take out of the artical. We need to avoid using sympathy in judgements.

  8. Thanks Peter, terrific piece and awesome video. And oh so true!

  9. Dave Berry says:

    Pray for wisdom.

  10. Debbie G says:

    What a great question to ask yourself during the 18 min daily to do list reflection time!

  11. Rakesh Verma says:

    Peter – thanks for your clear message. It is what happens most of the times and we find nothing at the end of the day. Need to be focused on what we do and to be in the moment. Thanks.

  12. nitin jain says:

    Very Aptly said – “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.”

    I was in an award ceremony last week. Project in which I’ve been a part of was getting awarded. My heart was beating as I, along with the team, was moving towards podium. I chose the option to speak about the project journey. With lots of nervousness and emotions inside, I probably spoke for only about 2 minutes. And then I heard applauses.

    Later, I asked for feedback from a known person working in a different department on how did I speak. “He said I did not look nervous and my speech was crisp and inspirational. He enjoyed and others must have enjoyed too.”

    I was relieved and glad. Though I was nervous from inside, I was able to make positive impression on 300 odd audiences, not only about me but also about our project. My decision to speak fully paid off. I made most of that moment.

    + Nitin

  13. EJ says:


    Perhaps your best piece of work that I personally have connected with, both emotionally and technically.. I often remind my kids that output is a function of input.. However LIFE is like most systems ( i.e. solar system, environment, satellite) , it reaches a saturation point where no matter how much you put in it has reached it’s set point or saturation point… Too often we as humans wait way too long to make changes to rebalance the setpoint, change the inputs, and align our habits to get the desired output and impact that we desire.. ReBALANCING is often difficult…LIFE is hard stuff…its interesting to watch my husband continue to do the routine stuff as I attempt to ReBalance and create habits that match my evolving desires…

  14. Andrea D says:

    Thanks for this Peter- I am so impressed with Billy Joel’s courage, generosity and grace here.

  15. Daniel says:

    The phenomenon you describe is so common. It’s why the “Missed Connections” section of Craigslist (and formerly the personal ads of alt newspapers) exist. Does anyone remember Desperately Seeking Susan?We know we missed the moment. We kick ourselves with regret. We tell ourselves we won’t let it happen again. But we do. Think of how vulnerable Michael Pollack made himself. Billy Joel, too. So many times the most powerful thing we can do in the moment is the scariest – expose our vulnerabilities.

  16. Marti says:

    The Billy Joel and Michael Pollack video was very powerful example. It bought tears to my eyes.

  17. Michael Bely says:

    I liked the video. But Was it really real? Not planned show? Or, like Seth Godin says, people believe in what they want to believe? I play piano myself and would say that accompanying a singer is not the same as improvisation. The first is much much harder. And the duet was flawless. Hard to believe it was real. But the story is great.

  18. The video put me in a state of awe and bliss, partly because I’m a coach, and that was the type of perfectly timed, courageous action I love to see! In my book, the student should be commended even if he’d been turn down.

    But I’m so glad he wasn’t! I loved watching Michael smile through the entire song while he was performing so well.

    If anyone out there who read the post but skipped the video, do yourself a favor and go back and watch it. Better yet, encourage everyone you know who is over 10 years old to watch it. What a gift!

    Thanks, Peter, for bringing this video to my attention. It also brought home the point of your post beautifully! ~Susan

  19. Yolanda says:

    You didn’t say the word, but it is between lines and is PASSION…..if we can do whatever you’ll going to do with passion, it means a issue that can change our life. I love your post, thank you!

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