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  • Writer's pictureLars Christensen

Feel-Good Productivity by Ali Abdaal

I finished this book in February 2024. I recommend this book 8/10.

Why you should read this book:

If you follow Ali's YouTube channel, you know he has a great personality. In this book, he lays out his journey from a medical doctor to an author, describing his obsession with productivity. The findings are that there needs to be a red line of happiness in your journey of improving your best self. This book has many different techniques you can use to test yourself.

Get your copy here.

🚀 The book in three sentences

  1. Feeling good increases productivity, not just discipline.

  2. Many tips and tricks to test

  3. In the end, what are your goals? What are your values?

🎨 Impressions

It's not the best productivity book ever, but I love the "Feel-Good" aspect.

📝 My notes and thoughts

  • P6. When I first read about Isen's experiment during my psychology degree, I found it interesting but not exactly transformative. Personally, I'd never felt the overwhelming urge to stick a candle to a wall. But coming back to it as a junior doctor, I realized that Isen's insight was quite profound. It suggested that feeling good doesn't just end with feeling good. It actually changes our patterns of thought and behavior. I now learned that the study had become the cornerstone of a wave of research exploring the way positive emotion affects many of our cognitive processes. It showed that when we're in a positive mood, we tend to consider a broader range of actions, be more open to new experiences, and better integrate the information we receive. In other words, feeling good boosts our creativity—and our productivity.

  • P11. To test this out, Fredrickson came up with a rather mean study. Researchers told a group of people that they had one minute to prepare a public speech that would be filmed and judged by their peers. Knowing that the fear of public speaking is practically universal, Fredrickson hypothesized that this would elevate the subject's levels of anxiety and stress. And it did; people reported feeling more anxious and experienced increases in heart rate and blood pressure. Next, the researchers randomly assigned participants to watch one of four films: two evoking mildly positive emotions, the third neutral ones, and the fourth sad ones. Then, they measured how long it took the participants to 'recover' from stress. Their findings were intriguing. The participants who watched the positive-emotion films took significantly less time to return to their baseline state in terms of heart rate and blood pressure. And those who watched the sadness-evoking film took the longest time to return to baseline.

  • P26. Choose your character: By finding the ones that resonate with us the most, we can start to take on a 'play personality' that frees up our sense of adventure. These are the eight 'play personalities' that Dr. Brown distilled through his research:

  • The Collector loves to gather and organize, enjoying activities like searching for rare plants or rummaging around in archives or garage sales.

  • The Competitor enjoys games and sports and takes pleasure in trying their best and winning.

  • The Explorer likes to wander, discovering new places and things they've never seen through hiking, road-tripping, and other adventures.

  • The Creator finds joy in making things and can spend hours every day drawing, painting, making music, gardening, and more.

  • The Storyteller has an active imagination and uses their imagination to entertain others. They're drawn to activities like writing, dance, theatre, and role-playing games.

  • The Joker endeavors to make people laugh and may play by performing stand-up, doing improv, or just pulling a lot of pranks to make you smile.

  • The Director likes to plan, organize, and lead others and can fit into many different roles and activities, from directing stage performances to running a company to working in political or social advocacy.

  • The Kinesthete finds play in physical activities like acrobatics, gymnastics, and free running.

  • P29. Embrace your curiosity: I often think of my life as containing a series of side quests. Every day, as I sit down to work, I look at my calendar and to-do list, and I ask myself: 'What's today's side quest going to be?' This question helps me shift my mindset from the obvious tasks that lie ahead to the potential alternative avenues that might take me down. It might prompt me to leave my office and spend a few hours working in a local coffee shop. Or it might encourage me to explore new software I could use to solve the problem I'm working on. By adding a side quest to your day, you create space for curiosity, exploration, and playfulness - and could discover something amazing and totally unexpected along the way.

  • P33. The Magic Post-It Note: 'What would this look like if it were fun?' has now become a guiding question in my life. And it's surprisingly easy to draw upon. Think of a task that you don't want to do right now, and ask what it would look like if it were fun. Could you do it in a different way? Could you add music, or a sense of humor, or get creative? What if you set out to do the task with friends or promised yourself a treat at the end of the process? Is there a way to make this draining process a little more fun?

  • P36. Enjoy the process, not the outcome: Dick says that the effects of these little changes in his routine were unexpectedly significant. They were the kind of mini-tasks that might, in his words, make the customer's day a little better and definitely make me feel more energized on days that felt like they were dragging. And they worked. Dicks found himself looking forward to his shifts, eager to see how many people he could convince to try the BBQ sauce. The process was not inherently enjoyable. But Dicks had created a way to enjoy it. And in doing so, he had found the fun in an uninspiring situation.

  • P41. Reframe your failure: With an experimental mindset, a date that doesn't lead to a second one or a friendship that doesn't blossom wouldn't be a failure; it'd just be another data point to help you understand your compatibility. No failure is ever just a failure. It's an invitation to try something new.

  • P43. Don't be serious. Be sincere: If you were approaching a difficult project at work sincerely rather than seriously, you might focus on the process of completing each task rather than becoming fixated on the end result. You might also seek out the input and collaboration of others rather than trying to tackle the project on your own. By doing these things, you may find that it's easier to approach it in the spirit of play and that you're better able to stay focused and motivated throughout. If you were approaching a job interview sincerely rather than seriously, then instead of becoming overly nervous and stressed about the outcome, you might focus on being present and engaged. You might also try to connect with the interviewer on a more personal level rather than simply trying to impress them with your credentials. By doing so, you might be more likely to approach the interview with lightness and ease and to come away from the interview feeling more confident and satisfied with your performance.

  • P46. In the medical drama Grey's Anatomy, Dr Derek Shepard, the handsome neurosurgeon played by Patrick Dempsey, has a ritual at the start of each of his operations. He greets the team, puts some energizing music on in the background, and says, 'It's a beautiful day to save lives. Let's have some fun.'

  • P55. The confidence switch: 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 visualize yourself confidently approaching the task at hand. The switch has been flipped.

  • P58. The Social Model Method: It's a toolkit anyone can draw upon. Find people who are going through the same challenges as you and spend time with them—or find other ways to hear their stories. By immersing yourself in vicarious success, you'll be building a powerful story in your own mind: that if they can, you can too.

  • P63. The Shoshin Approach: If you're in the world of business, shoshin might mean embracing innovation and experimentation, reminding yourself that 'masters' become limited by their beliefs in what's been done and how, while beginners seek new approaches to problem-solving and explore new markets or opportunities. Or if you work in creative fields like writing or music, shoshin might mean deliberately maintaining your interest in different techniques and pushing yourself to collaborate with people with different styles. Beginners don't hold strong beliefs about what will work; they just try. By letting go of the idea that we know everything, or somehow should, we actually feel more powerful. In this way, shoshin can help us approach challenges with a greater sense of curiosity, humility, and resilience—and help us to learn.

  • P66. The Protégé Effect: Say you work in software development; you might offer to mentor a junior developer or intern. By explaining complex coding concepts and best practices to someone else, you'll be forced to think more deeply about them yourself, leading to a deeper understanding and improved skill level. And if you're concerned that you're not 'qualified' enough to teach someone else, it's worth remembering that the people we learn from best are often the ones who are just a step ahead of us in the journey. So anyone can become a teacher. You don't need to be a guru. You can just be a guide.

  • P72. Own the Process: If you're a teacher, you may not have control over the curriculum. But you can take ownership of how you teach the material. You can find innovative ways to engage your students, create fun activities that reinforce the concepts, and give personalized feedback that helps each student improve.

  • P74. Own Your Mindset: 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.' Victor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist and survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War Two, put it beautifully: 'Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.'

  • P92. It's a pity, then, that most of us are bad at asking for help. We might need a crucial piece of information from a colleague, but instead of 'bothering' them, we try to figure it out ourselves, wasting time in the process. Or we might be struggling with a particular problem in class but find ourselves not wanting to ask for help from the person next to us, or even the teacher, for fear of looking stupid. So how can we learn to ask for help—in a way that warms people to us rather than alienates them? Well, there are a few ways. First, we need to get over our reluctance to ask. The easiest way to do this is by simply adopting a maxim: people are more eager to help than you think. We have by now repeatedly seen how energizing it can be to make others smile, to teach, and to mentor. Even so, a lot of us underestimate how willing other people are to help us. According to the academics Francis Flynn and Vanessa Bohns, people tend to underestimate the likelihood that other people will agree to help us by up to 50 percent. Second, frame the request in the right way. In particular, do your best to ask for help in person. Asking virtually makes everything more difficult. In a 2017 study, Bohns found that 'help-seekers assumed making a request via email would be equally as effective as making the request in person; in particular, asking for help in person was approximately thirty-four times more effective.' Finally, make sure you're using the right language. Avoid using negative phrases like 'I feel really bad for asking you this...' and avoid turning it into a transaction by saying things like 'If you help me. I'll do this for you.' Instead, emphasize the positive reasons for why you're going to that specific person for advice: 'I saw your work on X, Y, Z, and it really had an impact on me. I would love to hear how you did A, B, and C' By emphasizing the positive aspects of the person you admire, they'll think you genuinely value their opinion—and be more likely to help you.

  • P107. So when motivation fails, where do we turn? When not obsessing over whether you truly are motivated, much advice turns to another principle: discipline. Put simply, discipline is when we do stuff that we don't feel like doing. It's the opposite of motivation; it's taking action despite how unmotivated you are. If you're trying to go for a jog, a motivated response would be: 'I feel like going for a run because I want to win the marathon more than I want to rest today." A disciplined response would be: 'I'm going for a run regardless of how I feel about it.' This is the Nike school of getting things done—' Just do it.' I'm a little more sympathetic to the discipline method than the motivation method. Discipline can be useful. Sometimes, I don't feel like going to work in the morning, but I do it anyway. Maybe that's discipline. But the narrative is incomplete. If you're procrastinating from writing that speech you've got coming up, it might not necessarily be that you just aren't disciplined enough to prepare for it. There might be something else going on under the surface that's holding you back, and the discipline narrative doesn't care about what it is. It just makes you feel bad about yourself. 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.' Motivation and discipline are useful strategies, but they're band-aids covering up deeper wounds. They might sometimes work to treat the symptoms, but they don't change the underlying condition. So, what does work in the age-old fight against procrastination? That's where our third approach comes in. I call it the 'unblock method. The unblock method encourages us to understand why we're feeling bad about work in the first place.

  • P112. The IUI offers the first hint as to how and why uncertainty drives procrastination. People with a low tolerance for uncertainty tend to view uncertain situations as threatening and anxiety-provoking, leading them to put things off—particularly on tasks involving any ambiguity. Why?

  • We overestimate what's at stake. Someone who's already anxious will think that the uncertain event is going to be worse than it already is.

  • We become hypervigilant. Sensing that something negative might happen, our safety antennae prick up to the signs of any potential danger.

  • We stop recognizing safety cues. Because we're hypervigilant to threats, we're not able to calm down when there really is no danger.

  • We become avoidant. Our brains encourage us to adopt behavioral and cognitive avoidance strategies to get us out of there as soon as possible.

  • P115. Using Commander's Intent:

  • The purpose behind the operation.

  • The end state is what the commander is aiming for.

  • The key tasks that the commander felt should be taken to accomplish the objective.

  • P118. The Five Whys: My twist to Toyoda's method is to use the five whys not only to explain mistakes but to determine whether a task is worth doing in the first place. Whenever somebody in my team suggests we embark on a new project, I ask 'why' five times. The first time, the answer usually relates to completing a short-term objective. But if it is really worth doing, all that why-ing should lead you back to your ultimate purpose, as laid out in your commander's intent. If it doesn't, you probably shouldn't bother. I find this method helpful in keeping me and my team's attention on what matters. Asking 'why' repeatedly reminds us of what we should really be focusing on—and allows us to hone in on it. Suddenly, those irrelevant pressing tasks seem less important. The greatest purpose—the big 'why'—comes into sharp relief.

  • My preferred method doesn't involve fixating on an external outcome or destination but instead emphasizes the feel-good journey. It's based on what I call NICE Goals:

  • Near-term: Near-term goals that we're concentrating on are the immediate steps we need to take along our journey.

  • Input-based: Input-based goals emphasize the process, rather than some distant, abstract end-goal. Where as output-based goal would home in on the end result—and input-based goal would focus on what we can do in the here and now.

  • Controllable: We want to focus on goals that are within our control. 'Spend eight hours a day on my novel' probably isn't something you can actually do.

  • Energizing: We've already discussed plenty of principles and strategies for making our projects, tasks, and chores more energizing. Is there a way to integrate play, power, and people into the goals you set yourself?

  • P126. The Crystal Ball Method: The idea is simple. By running through what could go wrong in your head, you dramatically reduce the likelihood that it actually will. In fact, according to an influential study by Wharton professor Deborah Mitchell, 'prospective hindsight'—the process of making that an event has already occurred—increases our ability to identify why things will go right or wrong by 30%. For me, the crystal ball method is most powerful when you drill into a few simple questions—ones that I've taken to asking my team and which I encourage them to ask me, too:

  • Imagine it's one week later, and you haven't actually started the task you intended to. What are the top three reasons why you didn't get to it?

  • What can you do to help mitigate the risk of those top three reasons derailing you?

  • Who can you ask for help in sticking to this commitment?

  • What action can you take right now that will help increase the odds that you'll actually do the task?

  • P131. Time Blocking: Structure gives you more freedom, not less. By carving out specific chunks of time for different activities, you're ensuring that you have time for everything that's important to you: work, hobbies, relaxation, and relationships. You're not just reacting to whatever comes up or gets thrown at you during the day. Instead, you're designing your life according to your priorities. Think of time blocking as a budget for your time. Just like you allocate your income to different categories like rent, groceries, entertainment, and savings, you allocate your 24 hours to different activities. And just like monetary budgeting can give you financial freedom, time blocking can give you time freedom.

  • P142. The Identity Label: Just as a negative label can amplify our fears, a positive label can overcome them. For example, when I'm experiencing self-doubt, a favorite label for myself is 'lifelong learner.' This label highlights my willingness to learn and grow. It also shifts my focus away from the negative aspects of procrastination, like shame and regret, and instead gives me the confidence to move forward and continue learning. A lifelong learner is constantly looking for new ways to improve themself. A lifelong learner would never get stuck in a procrastination rut for long.

  • P146. The 10/10/10 Rule: A simple way to put cognitive reappraisal into practice is to remind yourself that the thing you're feeling so bad about probably won't matter that much in the future. You can do this by asking yourself the following three questions, which add up to what I call the 10/10/10 rule. Ask yourself:

  • You get rejected by someone you like. Will this matter in 10 minutes?

  • You don't get hired for a job. Will this matter in 10 weeks?

  • You fail at your driving test. Will this matter in 10 years?

  • P150. The Confidence Equation: So I can make a start, even if it's a shaky one. I don't need to feel like a Schwarzenegger-style bodybuilder to work out for an hour. I don't need my first crack at my business strategy to be a work of visionary corporate genius. And I definitely don't need the first draft of my book to be a masterpiece. When you're trying something new, the idea that you should only begin when you feel confident about being 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.

  • P154: Stop Spotlighting: The truth is, everyone is concerned mostly about themselves and how they're coming across. They're not spending much time (if any) thinking about us.

  • P157. The Batman Effect: And finally, I find it helpful to create a mantra or affirmation: a short, empowering phrase that represents your alter ego's mindset. Repeat this mantra to yourself when you need a boost of courage or motivation:

  • I am confident.

  • I am fearless.

  • I am unstoppable.

  • P163. Reduce Environmental Friction: The trick is to tweak your environment to make the thing you want to make a start on the most obvious default decision. And, in turn, to make the things you don't want to do the more difficult decision. Consider some examples:

  • Practicing the guitar: Moving your guitar stand into your living room makes it the default choice.

  • Struggling to concentrate: Keeping your study or work material organized and visible—by for example, having a notebook right next to your laptop.

  • Reducing phone usage: Turning off notifications stops you from picking up your phone.

  • P165. Reduce Emotional Friction: The five-minute rule is weirdly effective. Usually, imagining yourself doing the thing that you're procrastinating on for only five minutes isn't as horrible as really committing to it. Especially when, in our heads, that commitment feels like 'doing that thing for the rest of life.' Around 80 percent of the time, after those five minutes are up, I keep going. Once I've started filling in the paperwork, nodding my head to a string quartet cover of 'Concerning Hobbits' from the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, I find that I'm starting to enjoy myself—more, at least realizing it's not as bad as I'd built it up to be. It's crucial, however, that you don't force yourself to carry on working; otherwise, the five-minute rule would become a misnomer. So, for the remaining 20 percent of the time, I genuinely allow myself to stop after five minutes. Yes, it might mean I put off completing my tax return until another day. But hey, at least I've made five minutes of progress on it.

  • P168. Define the Next Action Step: Think of what this might look like in a few different situations:

  • If you're procrastinating from studying for an exam, your next action step is to get your textbook out and open it to the page you're going to start from.

  • If you're procrastinating about going to the gym, your next action step is to change into your gym kit.

  • And if you're procrastinating from writing a book, your next action step is to turn on your laptop and open Google Docs.

  • P171. Track Your Progress: Tracking your progress provides you with tangible evidence that you're moving towards your goals. I see my word count creeping up word by word and know that I'm ever closer to having a finished manuscript. This sense of progress has helped me keep my momentum up and made me more committed to keeping going. It's a motivation boost like none other.

  • P184. First up, there are the burnouts that come about from simply taking on too much work. Your mood is suffering because you're packing too much into each day. I call these over-exertions burnouts. Next, there are burnouts that relate to a misguided approach to rest. Your mood is suffering because you haven't given yourself the deeper periods of time off that you need—not just little breaks throughout the day but the longer breaks that recharge the energy of your mind, body, and spirit. I call these depletion burnouts. Finally, there are burnouts that relate to doing the wrong stuff. Your mood is suffering because of the weeks, years, or decades when you're putting all your efforts into something that doesn't bring you joy or meaning, and it has worn you down. You've been using your energy in the wrong way. I call these misalignment burnouts.

  • P190. The Energy Investment Portfolio: When you've got a large degree of choice in what you could be doing with your time, it makes it a lot harder to commit to something in a given time slot. Our brain is always thinking, 'I'm working on X right now, but maybe I could be working on Y, or possibly even Z.' This is risky; if you're doing a house renovation while working on a huge project at work, while also trying to learn Japanese, while also trying to get your blog off the ground, while also trying to coach your kids's football team, everything is going to feel a lot more stressful. The energy investment portfolio is crucial in resisting the seductive logic of ever-commitment. We tend to think we can do everything. It's a myth. Sustainable productivity means recognizing the limitations of our time. Everybody has them.

  • P192. If it isn't a 'Hell Yeah', it's not worth doing. The solution is to ask yourself a simple question. Every time you're presented with a request for a few weeks's 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?' It's so tempting to think, 'Six weeks from now, my schedule is going to be totally clear, so I'll definitely have time and energy to do this thing.' You won't. In six weeks, your life is going to be just as busy as it is today. If you wouldn't say yes to something happening tomorrow, you shouldn't say yes to it in a month or more.

  • P200. Break More: In fact, the people who seem to get the most done are often those who've turned doing nothing for large chunks of time into a fine art. In one study, the software company Draugiem Group set out to find out how much time people spent on various tasks and how it related to each worker's productivity. The workers who were most productive were not the ones who chained themselves to their desks. Nor were they the ones who gave themselves a healthy-sounding five-minute break every hour. The most productive workers gave themselves an almost unbelievable amount of time off, a work-to-break ratio of fifty-two minutes of work to seventeen minutes of rest. So the last step to conserve your energy is even simpler than the first two: find moments in your working day to do nothing. And embrace them.

  • P203. Remember Dr Adcock. Even if you're in the business of saving lives, breaks aren't a special treat. They're an absolute necessity.

  • P205. There's a joy to some distractions. Think of them as short, sharp invitations to pause—like Nhat Hana's awakening bell. Life isn't about maintaining focus all the time. It's about allowing space for little moments of serendipity and joy.

  • 220. Take a walk: If you're looking for a simple and easy way to immediately feel rejuvenated, just try taking a walk—no time limit, no distance to reach, no place in particular to go. If you can, take your stroll through a park, or a forest, or just a particularly verdant street. If you want, bring a friend. It may not be the four hours that Thoreau recommended, but even a ten-minute stroll down the block during your break might be enough to change your day—and your life—for the better.

  • P225. The Reitoff Principle: 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. We're conditioned to value self-control, grit, and persistence. We equate rest with laziness, weakness, or failure. Embracing the Reitoff principle means recognizing that—sometimes—it's worth doing nothing at all. Not having deep shower thoughts. Not having a gentle walk. Nada.

  • P241. The Odyssey Plan: At the heart of the exercise was a simple question: what do you want your life to look like in five years' time? Nothing particularly profound there, I thought; anyone who has never had a middle-of-the-road job interview has thought about that one. But Burnett's design mindset offers an unusual way to answer the question. He invites you to reflect on it. The point is to just open your mind:

  • Your current path: Write out, in detail, what your life would look like five years from now if you continued down your current path.

  • Your alternative path: Write out, in detail, what your life would look like five years from now if you took a completely different path.

  • Write radical path: Write out, in detail, what your life would look like five years from now if you took a completely different path, where money, social obligations, and what people would think were irrelevant.

  • P247. The Wheel of Life: Draw a circle and divide it into a nine-slice pie. The idea is to write the following list at each slice and rank your current progress or value (1-5) in this topic (Do this every 6 months):

  • Friends (4)

  • Body (4)

  • Mind (5)

  • Soul (5)

  • Mission (5)

  • Money (4)

  • Growth (5)

  • Family (4)

  • Romance (5)

  • P248. Look back at the values that you identified in the wheel of life. Now, write down what you'd want to tell your best friend about your progress in each of them.

  • P253. Or you're a working parent, juggling the demands of your job, your health, and your family life. The benefit of this approach is that it diminishes the terror-inducing scale of the massive 12-month objective. By focusing on the immediate, short-term steps—rather than on the whole year ahead—you turn living your values into something immediate. And Achievable. Your alignment quests could include:

  • Health—Take a 15-minute walk during my lunch break.

  • Work—Complete the project proposal draft by lunchtime.

  • Relationships—Cook a healthy dinner for the family and spend quality time together.

  • P260. In the years since everything about my life has changed. These days, I know that productivity isn't about discipline; it's about doing more of what makes you feel happier, less stressed, and more energized. And I know that the only way to escape procrastination and burnout is to find the joy in your situation. So enjoy the process. And as you go, remember that this process isn't about striving for perfection. It's about strategically stumbling your way to what works. Learning from your failures and celebrating your successes. Transforming your work from a drain on your resources to a source of energy.

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