Ali Abdaal
Feel-Good Productivity

Feel-Good Productivity

How to Do More of What Matters to You

by Ali Abdaal, 304 pages

Finished on 16th of January
🛒 Buy here
🎧 Listen to the podcast

Productivity advice YouTuber Ali Abdaal has jumped many hurdles to become a bestselling book author. He is well versed in the topic of the book, but doesn’t bring much new to the table if you’ve followed his videos. There’s good advice in it, though.

🚀 The Book in 3 Sentences

  1. Increasing our productivity and finding purpose is closely aligned with choosing the right paths which make us feel good.
  2. Procrastination is a problem affecting almost everyone, but can be systematically beaten if we make the right choices.
  3. Stopping regularly and thinking about the ways we‘re headed in order to course-correct at the right times will prevent many different forms of burnout.

🎨 Impressions

Ali Abdaal has been a successful educational YouTuber for many years and I have been following his career and advice with great interest. When he made the public announcement of writing a book about his findings so far, I was on board and it was clear to me I would be reading it. The process then took 3.5 years, during which Ali pushed out a bunch of updates on how the book writing process was going, an entertaining and interesting story for itself. Of course, an unintended consequence of that behavior was that he built expectations, big ones. Would he be able to write a life-changing book, worthy being called a true bestseller? One to recommend to your friends? I was excited to see for myself and rooting for him.

About twenty percent in, I thought he was off to a good start. The first chapters are on par with other genre bestsellers, filled with anecdotes and scientific studies presented in interesting ways, and the powerful reframings for some of our entrenched modes of thinking.

Over the course of the next few chapters, it became clear to me, though. Ali wanted to write a book to write a book. I knew that his main motivation going into this writing process was that he wanted to become a bestselling book author, and not, as it should be, mainly put a unique new idea or way of thinking out into the world no matter what the personal outcome for him might be.

The whole idea of the book is quite thin, to be honest. “Feel-good productivity” is about how to be more productive by taking care of your own well-being at first in order to combat exhaustion, dissatisfaction, and prevent burnout. It’s not a groundbreaking idea. It’s good though, and he structured the book well and gives lots of useful information and suggestions surrounding reaching those goals.

For a longtime consumer of his videos, there was almost nothing new in the book. I don’t know why I expected that to be different, it’s probably too much to ask of an author who does so many things at the same time. And I never really read a book written by someone else who had a long YouTube career going before writing it.

Even though there was not much to gain for me personally from reading this book, I was still invested in it and hoped Ali would reach his goal of becoming a New York Times Bestseller. It did happen, barely, but it did. And I’m very happy for him. Maybe he will take this newly earned esteem and put it into a second book in five years which will then give me some new insights into the fascinating world he presents to us.

For everyone else reading this, if you don’t know Ali Abdaal and are curious about increasing your well-being and productivity the right way, I recommend this book. It’s well written and has lots of useful information. But if you are familiar with his video content, you can pick up a different book instead.

🍀 How the Book Changed Me

  • You don’t need to feel ashamed for trying to optimize your career and life for “feeling good”, because the science is clear that a strong base of that inner positivity helps with being a useful and productive part to other humans around you. Therefore, it’s not selfish to do so.
  • When a necessary task feels annoying, I now ask myself “What would this look like if it were fun?” and see how I can optimize it in any non-obvious ways.

📔 Highlights


‘I hated every minute of training, but I said, “Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.”’ (Quote by Muhammed Ali)

‘If the treatment isn’t working, question the diagnosis.’ (Wisdom from Ali’s old tutor, Dr Barclay)

[..] the immediate effect of positive emotions: when we’re feeling good, our minds open up, we take in more information, and we see more possibilities around us.

It’s the energy you feel when you’re working on a particularly engrossing task, or when you’re surrounded by inspiring people. This energy has many different names. It’s been labelled as ‘emotional’, ‘spiritual’, ‘mental’ or ‘motivational’ energy by psychologists; ‘zest’, ‘vitality’ or ‘energetic arousal’ by neuroscientists.

Positive emotions are bound up with a set of four hormones–endorphins, serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin–which are often labelled as the ‘feel-good hormones’.

  • Endorphins are often released during physical activity, stress or pain and bring about feelings of happiness and diminished discomfort – and elevated levels usually correlate with increased energy and motivation.
  • Serotonin is connected to mood regulation, sleep, appetite and overall feelings of wellbeing; it underpins our sense of contentment and gives us the energy to tackle tasks efficiently.
  • Dopamine, or the ‘reward’ hormone, is linked with motivation and pleasure and its release provides a satisfaction that allows us to focus for longer.
  • And oxytocin, known as the ‘love’ hormone, is associated with social bonding, trust and relationship-building, which enhances our capacity to connect with others, boosts our mood and, in turn, impacts our productivity.

Chapter 1: Play

Psychologists increasingly believe that play holds the key to true productivity, partly because it provides a sense of psychological relief.

Play is our first energiser. Life is stressful. Play makes it fun. If we can integrate the spirit of play into our lives, we’ll feel better–and do more too.

Harnessing your curiosity is a second method for building adventure into your life. Curiosity doesn’t simply make our lives more enjoyable. It also allows us to focus longer.

[In his autobiography of Leonardo DaVinci,] Walter Isaacson summarised his findings thus: ‘Being curious about everything not only makes you more creative. It enriches your life.’

What would this look like if it were fun?

Think of a task that you don’t want to do right now, and ask what would it look like if it were fun? Could you do it in a different way? Could you add music, or a sense of humour, or get creative?

And studies of adults in the workplace have found that the feeling of relaxation promotes playful behaviours, as well as promoting creativity and wellbeing.

[YouTuber and NASA engineer Mark Rober asks] ‘If we could just frame our learning process so that we weren’t so concerned with failure, how much more could we learn? How much more could we succeed?’

With an experimental mindset, an internship that you end up hating wouldn’t be a ‘failure’ or a ‘waste of time’; it’d just be another data point to help you realise that that’s not what you want.

No failure is ever just a failure. It’s an invitation to try something new.

When you step into the right ‘play personality’, every day abounds with opportunities to see life as a game, filled with surprises and side quests.

Chapter 2: Power

When [Patty] McCord [, Netflix’ chief talent officer] used the word [power], she meant a sense of personal empowerment: the sense that your job is in your control, your life is in your hands, and that decisions about your future are yours alone. This power isn’t something that we exert on others; it’s something we feel, the energy that makes us want to shout from the rooftops: ‘I can do it!’

Feeling confident about our ability to complete a task makes us feel good when we’re doing it, and helps us do it better.

After decades of research, [psychologist Albert Bandura] concluded that confidence isn’t something you’re born with; it’s something you learn.

Next time you’re feeling like a task or project is particularly difficult, ask yourself, ‘What would it look like if I were really confident at this?’ Just by asking yourself the question, you’ll visualise yourself confidently approaching the task at hand. The switch has been flipped.

‘Seeing people similar to oneself succeed by sustained effort raises observers’ beliefs that they too possess the capabilities to master comparable activities to succeed.’

Shoshin refers to a state of mind in which we approach every task and situation with the curiosity, openness and humility of a beginner. It might sound odd that adopting a beginner’s mind helps you become more of an expert in that field.

Seneca said, Qui docet discit–‘He who teaches learns’.

Wandering around with a frown and thinking, ‘Why do I have to do this?’ was a decision. And I could decide to think about it another way. ‘I choose to do this,’ I could tell myself. ‘I get to do this.’ Or even, ‘I’m blessed to do this.’

Chapter 3: People

So being able to celebrate people’s wins matters. And the best way to do so is to adopt an active-constructive approach to all good news.

Building connections with people is also about lending them a hand. This cuts both ways; not only do we too rarely help others, we also too rarely ask for help.

Chapter 4: Seek Clarity

In the words of psychology professor Joseph Ferrari, ‘to tell the chronic procrastinator to just do it would be like saying to a clinically depressed person, cheer up.’

Often, the reason we don’t make a start is because we don’t know what we’re supposed to be doing in the first place–a mystifying fog has set in around us. I call it the fog of uncertainty.

While we’re often told that we all have the same 24 hours in a day, this obviously isn’t true. There may be 24 hours in every day, but how many of those hours are within your control depends on an awful lot.

If you want to practise mindfulness but aren’t sure how to fit this practice into your schedule, create a trigger: ‘When I get up for my regular midday cup of tea today, I will take five deep breaths before walking to the staff kitchen.’

The first emotional barrier is the simplest: uncertainty. The solution? To gain clarity about what you’re actually doing. That involves asking ‘why?’ and then using this to figure out your ‘how’.

Chapter 5: Find Courage

This technique is called ‘affective labelling’. Put simply, it’s the act of putting your feelings into words, which forces you to identify and get to know the sensations you’re experiencing.

One method involves asking yourself a few questions. When you’re procrastinating, say to yourself, ‘What am I afraid of?’ Our core vulnerabilities and insecurities are often at the heart of procrastination.

For example, when I’m experiencing self-doubt, a favourite label for myself is ‘lifelong learner’. This label highlights my willingness to learn and grow.

The scientific name for this process is ‘cognitive reappraisal’: changing the interpretation of a situation so that we feel better emotionally.

The 10/10/10 Rule

If something bad happens to you like getting rejected by someone you like, not getting hired for a job, or failing you driving test, ask yourself:

Will this matter in 10 minutes?

Will this matter in 10 weeks?

Will this matter in 10 years?

When you’re trying something new, the idea that you should only begin when you feel confident to begin is a blocker all of its own. The solution? Just do it, even if you feel like you’re doing it badly. Make a start. You won’t need to get perfect for a long time yet.

In a series of papers published in the early 2000s, psychology professor Thomas Gilovich and his co-authors proved, time and again, that individuals have a remarkable tendency to overestimate the degree to which others are thinking about or judging them.

The mindset of ‘no one cares’ can be totally transformative. It’s one of the simplest methods I’ve identified to reduce my anxiety-related procrastination.

Ask yourself these questions to prevent yourself from catastrophising: will this matter in 10 minutes? Will this matter in 10 weeks? Will this matter in 10 years?

Chapter 6: Get Started

The five-minute rule is a simple but powerful technique that encourages you to commit to working on a task for just five minutes.

[Procrastination researcher Tim] Pychyl told me that whenever he finds himself procrastinating from anything, he simply asks himself, ‘What’s the next action step?’ For instance, when he knows he’s procrastinating from doing yoga, his next action step is to roll out his yoga mat and stand on it. That’s it.

By monitoring your progress, you can identify patterns, habits or obstacles that may be hindering your progress.

Tracking your progress provides you with tangible evidence that you’re moving towards your goals.

Just as Wohl had guessed, students who said they were able to forgive themselves for not studying were much more productive. Self-forgiveness allowed students to let go of post-procrastination guilt and shame.

inertia. When you’re doing nothing, it’s easy to carry on doing nothing. And when you’re working, it’s much easier to carry on working.

Chapter 7: Conserve

The energy investment portfolio is crucial in resisting the seductive logic of overcommitment. We tend to think we can do everything. It’s a myth.

With this [hell yeah or no] filter, you start finding that 95 per cent of commitments are ones you should reject. Rarely are things a ‘hell yeah’. They’re usually along the lines of ‘This could conceivably be useful or semi-interesting, so yeah, why not?’ These are justifications from your brain that you need to overrule. Think about how much you have on already. If it isn’t a ‘hell yeah’, it’s not worth doing.

Every time you’re presented with a request for a few weeks’ time, think: ‘Would I be excited about this commitment if it was happening tomorrow? Or am I only thinking about saying “yes” to it because it’s easier to make it a problem for my future self?’

There was a healthy level of distraction in the middle–the highest performers were those who occasionally switched between tasks, but didn’t go overboard.

I often recite the mantra ‘Begin again’ when I find myself getting distracted. It’s a powerful reminder. Don’t fail with abandon.

Breaks aren’t a special treat. They’re an absolute necessity.

It’s about allowing space for little moments of serendipity and joy.

Chapter 8: Recharge

So basking in the glory of the natural world is our second way to recharge properly. Nature replenishes our cognitive abilities and boosts our energy. Nature makes us feel good. We need a way to integrate it into our rest.

They recruited twenty university students to participate in a field experiment. The results showed, unsurprisingly, that walking made people feel better, less anxious and less time-pressured.

And they felt more revitalised during park walks when alone–perhaps because this let them soak up the natural world better–but more revitalised during street walks when with a friend–probably because of the effect of people on our energy levels.

The Reitoff principle is the idea that we should grant ourselves permission to write off a day and intentionally step away from achieving anything. For many of us, the challenge of rest lies in the act of stepping back from the things we think we should be doing.

Chapter 9: Align

A group of researchers led by Professor Emily Lykins at the University of Kentucky used this harrowing experience to explore a simple concept: that when we think about death, we get a clearer view of life.

The professor, Rod Kramer, routinely assigns his students to write their own obituaries as though they have lived an ideal life–the best they can imagine–to its end. ‘The goal of this course is to change the way you think about your life and its possible impact on the world,’ the description reads.

So values affirmations make our most abstract ideals real. And they boost our confidence along the way.

What are three actions today that might take you a little step closer to the life you want in a year?

Last Word: Think Like a Productivity Scientist

[..] in the long run, it’s only by adopting an experimental outlook that you can hope to learn the secrets of feel-good productivity.

How do you feel after reading this?

This helps me assess the quality of my writing and improve it.

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