What if your studies, work, and life were fueled by enjoyment? What if by having more fun, you were more productive and more effective at everything you do? Does it sound too good to be true?
Former junior doctor and productivity expert Ali Abdaal posits that the secret to productivity isn’t discipline, grit, or grind—it’s joy.
In his new book Feel-Good Productivity, Abdaal uses psychological and neuroscientific evidence to illustrate how positive emotions fuel success. When projects feel enjoyable, productivity takes care of itself.
Our team took a deep dive into the newly released book to distill its key messages and provide examples that can help you adapt Ali’s findings to your own life and study techniques.
So, how does Feel-Good Productivity work?
The overarching theme is that success doesn’t lead to feeling good. Instead, feeling good leads to success.
Ali’s book is broken down into 3 parts: Energise, Unblock, and Sustain. Each of those parts is further broken down into three subsections.
Part 1 | ENERGISE
First is Energise.
This section introduces the three ‘energisers’ of true productivity: Play, power, and people.
Play introduces the importance of curiosity and adventure.
Many animals, including humans, use play to learn and develop. Have you ever seen a litter of kittens playing and testing their boundaries? They use play to learn key skills and test the limits of their bodies. Children do the same thing, but at some point along the way, we’re told to stop playing. We stop being curious, pushing boundaries, seeking new adventures, and allowing ourselves to fall down.
The act of being curious helps us not only retain information, but actually learn it. It’s an active learning technique that can be applied to any aspect of your life, including your studies.
Instead of memorizing, aim to understand. If you want to become a doctor, get curious about how the body works. You’re not just memorizing how the nervous system works for a test; you’re learning how it works because of your own curiosity and amusement.
Next, reframe failure as a learning process. How much more could you learn if you saw failure as data points that were necessary to succeed? You can afford to play around a little because failure is another way to learn.
This is the way you should approach studying for a test. Every practice problem you get wrong isn’t a failure—it’s a data point. Figure out why you got the question wrong and learn from it so that you won’t make the same mistakes on the real test.
If you’re not sure what specialty to pursue, seek to collect data points. A terrible rotation is merely one where you learn more about what you like and dislike about medicine. A poor volunteer experience isn’t a waste of time; it’s another data point to help you understand what you want from your career. This reframing prevents regret and gives you more room to learn.
The last point in the Play subsection is to not take yourself too seriously. Instead, approach everything you do with sincerity.
If you go into a medical school interview sincerely rather than seriously, it removes some of the nerves and tension so that you can focus on being present and engaged. Rather than trying to impress the interviewer with your qualifications, aim to sincerely get to know them. This adds a lightness and ease to an otherwise stressful situation.
Acting with sincerity instead of seriousness will also help you see the humor in life. If you fall down, literally or figuratively, have a laugh over it and pick yourself up again. Move forward instead of ruminating on the perceived embarrassment.
The next pillar of Energise is power.
Abdaal states, “Feeling confident about our ability to complete a task makes us feel good when we’re doing it, and helps us do it better.”
This comes down to self-efficacy. An examination of 114 studies involving almost 22,000 participants drew a direct correlation between self-efficacy and work-related performance. Believing you can is the first step to making sure you actually can.
There’s incredible power to positive self-talk. Words of encouragement don’t have to come from other people; they can come from yourself.
David Goggins is full of these tidbits, including “You don’t know me, son!” Or Captain America, who says, “I can do this all day.”
Become your own hype team. What do you need to say to yourself day after day to help you keep going?
Ali shares a strategy he calls the confidence switch. Challenge yourself to behave as if you’re confident in your task, even if you’re not. What would it look and feel like if you were really confident in whatever you’re trying to accomplish?
You can add to your power vicariously through other people’s experiences, too. “This is when you witness or hear about someone else’s performance related to a task that you’re going to undertake yourself. You see other people’s examples, and it boosts your confidence.”
Surround yourself with people and resources that can help you achieve your goals. If you want to start your own business, listen to podcasts and read newsletters from people who have been down the entrepreneurial path you’re about to embark on.
If you’re a premed who hopes to go to medical school, follow YouTube channels, blogs, and newsletters, like the ones from Med School Insiders, that will help you understand the doctor journey. Reach out to people who have successfully been accepted to medical school and residency to learn from their experiences. But not just anyone. Ensure you surround yourself with people who show persistence in overcoming challenges, and their self-efficacy will begin to rub off on you.
The protégé effect—learning by doing is one of the most powerful forces in human psychology. Researchers have found that the act of teaching something helps us learn it. As a study method, this is called the Feynman technique, named after the great physicist Richard Feynman, whereby you learn material so that you can teach it to someone else. The step of teaching a concept ensures you truly understand how it works, and you’ll be more likely to retain it.
Lastly, take control and ownership of your choices. Think about what’s inside your circle of control and do all that you can to focus on that. You can’t control the weather, but you can control if you have an umbrella and if a little bit of rain ruins your day.
Your mindset is something you always have control over.
The final pillar of Energise is People.
As Ali points out, life is more fun with friends around. Some people naturally give us energy and boost our mood. The tricky part is finding them—which is made all the harder when we see others as our competition instead of our comrades.
Have you ever heard the phrase, you are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with? Choose to spend your time with people who challenge themselves so that you do the same.
Finding friends and surrounding ourselves with people who energize us starts with being a team player. What can you do to make someone’s life or work easier? How can you be more helpful? As a student, how can you arrange events that bring people together? Could you share your notes or organize small, two to three person study groups? This is also when you can enact the Feynman technique.
We often choose to see ourselves as an island instead of a connector. We not only avoid helping people, we also avoid asking for help.
Turn your competitor mindset into a comrade mindset. “You win, I lose.” turns into “You win, I win.” “My success.” turns into “Our success.”
Become a cheerleader for those around you. You’ll make more friends, and the act of supporting others will help you feel good yourself.
Sometimes, students fall into the trap of seeing everyone else in medical school as their competition. They pull each other down to try to get ahead. I even remember someone in chemistry class gave me the wrong answer on purpose.
The truth is, you are a team of people headed down the same path. You have the same desire to help people and advance medicine. Many of the students you perceive as competition when you are applying to medical school will become your colleagues. Treat them like that from the very beginning. Your only true competition is with yourself.
The last aspect of harnessing people is to overcommunicate. You probably haven’t communicated enough, even if you think you have. What could you share with someone that would make their day? Are you hoarding information that could make others happy and strengthen your connection to them?
Part 2 | UNBLOCK
Part 2 of Feel-Good Productivity examines three blockers that can help you overcome procrastination. They are uncertainty, fear, and inertia. Removing these blockers improves productivity and how you feel.
4. Seek Clarity
First, seek clarity in moments of uncertainty.
Abdaal proposes that motivation isn’t enough. You can’t simply wait to be motivated in order to do something. And when motivation falls flat, many people suggest discipline. But to someone prone to procrastination, discipline often doesn’t work either.
Ali shares a quote from psychology professor Joseph Ferrari: “To tell the chronic procrastinator to just do it would be like saying to a clinically depressed person, cheer up.”
The key is to dig deeper into the root cause of the procrastination. The motivation method advises us to make ourselves feel like doing the thing. The discipline method advises us to ignore how we feel and do it anyway. Abdaal’s unblock method advises you to understand why you’re feeling bad about the work in the first place so you can tackle the issue head-on.
He says, “When negative feelings like confusion, fear, and inertia stand in our way, we put things off. This leads to even more bad feelings and, in turn, even more procrastination. It’s a negative loop of low mood and stagnation.”
Ask yourself “Why?” to gain clarity around what you’re doing and hope to accomplish. The 5 Whys method works to give clarity around any problem.
So you don’t want to study. Why? Because you’re tired. Why? Because you have trouble sleeping. Why? Because you watch TV too late and don’t follow a bedtime routine. Why? Because your roommates are always up watching TV late at night. From this simple process, you might conclude that you need to leave the common areas of your apartment by a certain time every night to begin your night routine in private.
The next aspect of clarity is understanding “What.”
The book introduces NICE goals instead of SMART goals—N-I-C-E.
- Near-term concentrates on the immediate steps we need to take.
- Input-based emphasizes the process rather than some distant, abstract end goal.
- Controllable focuses on goals that are practical enough to be within our control.
- Energizing integrates play, power, and people into the goals you set.
Lastly, ask ‘When?’ If you don’t know when you’re going to do something, there’s a good chance you won’t do it. Daily habits can help you trigger what you want to work on. We have many videos on habit forming and building routines on this channel. Links in the description.
My lights dim and turn red at the same time every night to signal that it’s time to get ready for bed. I run through the same habits day after day, so they are now ingrained. When the lights kick in, I know it’s time to wind down, and I don’t have to think about it.
Time blocking is another incredibly powerful tool for ensuring you have time for what you want to get done. If you want to do something, stick it in your calendar. This goes for studying, exercise, cooking, dates, classes, calling your mom, and anything you want to make time for. Without the calendar, the things you want to do are just ideas, and there’s a good chance you won’t “find” the time for the things that matter most.
Time blocking your calendar will help clear the fog of uncertainty.
5. Find Courage
The second emotional blocker is fear. Odds are, you’ve encountered fear in your life, such as asking your mentor to write you a letter of recommendation or asking someone out on a date. The solution isn’t getting rid of fear; it’s developing the courage to face it.
First, we need to understand our fear. Ask yourself, “Why have I not started this yet?” “Where is the fear coming from?” “What am I afraid of?”
Too often, our fears are blown way out of proportion, so we need to bring them back down to earth. To reduce fear, ask yourself if it will matter in ten minutes. Will it matter in 10 weeks? Will it matter in 10 years? What are the actual long and short-term consequences if you don’t get a letter from that particular mentor?
If you frequently feel self-conscious and insecure, consciously remind yourself that most people are not actually thinking about you. More likely, they are thinking about you thinking about them, which means they’re really just thinking about themselves.
A strategy that Ali highlights for overcoming fear is called “the Batman effect.” It was first identified by Professor Rachel White and a team of researchers. They ran an experiment to see if a child’s focus could be improved by stepping into the shoes of a superhero or character they admired.
Children between 4 and 6 years were split into three groups, and only one group was asked to pretend they were their favorite hero. The group of kids who were pretending to be their hero had better focus, self-control, and perseverance than the other groups.
By stepping into the shoes of a fearless, capable alter ego, we can discover reservoirs of confidence we don’t feel we possess when we’re just being ourselves.
Think of someone you admire, whether fictional or not, who possesses qualities you desire, such as discipline or courage. Take a few minutes alone to imagine yourself as the character. How do they stand? How do they talk? Transform into this character. The more you practice, the more you can channel the Batman effect to overcome insecurity and procrastination.
6. Get Started
The last emotional blocker is inertia. As Newton’s first law of motion states, An object at rest stays at rest, and an object in motion stays in motion. “When you’re doing nothing, it’s easy to keep on doing nothing. When you’re working, it’s easier to keep working.”
Look for any friction in your life that’s preventing you from getting started. What obstacles are standing in your way, and how can you overcome them?
The best thing you can do if you’re struggling to start is to start anywhere. For example, far too often, we wait to write until we know exactly what we want to say. We’ve seen this with personal statement writing over and over again. Instead, just start writing so that you have something to work with and refine.
Start on one small step of your goals every day so that you’re able to see your progress in small increments. Surround yourself with tangible evidence that you’re making progress toward your goals.
The final step is creating systems that can support you long-term. Find ways to encourage yourself as you work towards your goals. An accountability buddy can do wonders in keeping you on track and helping you feel good during the process. Remember all that talk about who you spend your time with? Look for friends who support you, help you, and hold you accountable.
Ali emphasizes the importance of going easy on yourself. Instead of brooding over small failures, celebrate small wins. Beating yourself up helps nobody and only fuels your own self-loathing—which is one of the least motivating things there is.
You can’t always control procrastination, but you can control whether or not you forgive yourself and move on.
“Find the win.” You didn’t get in the early gym session, but you did follow through on your night routine. You didn’t have a healthy lunch, but you did go for a walk in the afternoon. You didn’t finish editing your resume, but you did make time to call your grandmother. Acknowledging the wins will do far more for your motivation and wellbeing than punishing yourself emotionally.
Part 3 | SUSTAIN
Part 3 of Feel-Good Productivity looks at how you can sustain productivity long-term. The book examines three different types of burnout: Overexertion, depletion, and misalignment.
The lessons and practical tips in this section will help you achieve more while doing less, reflect on what matters most to you, and align your daily actions with your core values.
To learn how to conserve, recharge, and align, check out Feel-Good Productivity yourself as a physical book or on Audible.
If you’d like us to cover any aspects of this book in more detail or Part 3 in another video and blog post, let us know in the comments.