Book Summary: Feel-Good Productivity by Ali Abdaal

Book Cover for Feel Good Productivity by Ali Abdaal

Feel-Good Productivity: How to Do More of What Matters to You by Ali Abdaal explains how to increase your productivity without relying on discipline or motivation. Throughout the book, he includes small experiments to put the ideas into practice.

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Key Takeaways from Feel-Good Productivity

  • Feeling good makes us more productive.
    • There’s a limit to discipline and working harder.
    • Negative emotions may motivate us in the short-term, but take a toll in the long run.
    • By contrast, positive emotions boost our creativity and build up our emotional and mental resources in the long-term.
  • Incorporate Energisers into your life:
    • Play. Finding ways to make things fun and less stressful will make you more productive.
    • Power. When you feel empowered and confident, your performance increases.
    • People. People can fill us with energy and motivate us to perform better.
  • Overcome procrastination by Unblocking the root cause:
    • Clarity. We often procrastinate when we feel uncertain about at ask. Overcome this by clarifying: why you are doing a project, what your tasks are, and when you will do them.
    • Courage. Fear can also block us, triggering our brains’ ‘flight’ response. Overcome fear by labelling them, gaining perspective, and lowering the stakes.
    • Get started. It’s often much harder to get started than to keep going. Overcome inertia by reducing friction, taking just a small step, and tracking your progress.
  • Burnout can occur due to overexertion (too much work), depletion (not enough breaks), or misalignment (doing the wrong things). Make your efforts Sustainable by:
    • Conserving. Don’t overcommit. It may be tempting to say yes to things in the future, but weigh up the opportunity costs.
    • Recharging. Take quality breaks. Do creative activities that make you feel CALM (Competent, Autonomous, Liberty and Mellow). Go for a walk, maybe incorporate nature. It’s also fine to recharge mindlessly sometimes, doing whatever you want guilt-free.
    • Aligning. When our behaviour is driven by external forces, instead of our values, we can burn out. Reflect on what matters most to you and experiment with ways to incorporate them into your daily life.

Detailed Summary of Feel-Good Productivity

Feeling good makes us more productive

Feel-Good Productivity isn’t about doing more at all costs, but doing more of what matters to you.

In each chapter, Abdaal suggests various experiments to help you put the ideas into practice. Not all of them will work for everyone. But even when an experiment doesn’t work, it can give you useful feedback. That’s fine. Enjoy the experimentation process. And along the way, you may well discover techniques that work better for you than any of Abdaal’s suggestions.

There’s a limit to discipline and working harder

For a long time, Abdaal’s only productivity strategy was just to work harder. It worked. But only up to a point. Once he became a junior doctor, he felt he was drowning in work, which made him neglect his health and relationships.

Positive emotions are linked to four “feel-good” hormones: endorphins, serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin. For example, curiosity gives us a dopamine hit that makes us feel good, helps us focus and remember details better. By contrast, negative emotions release stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Stress hormones can motivate us in the short-term but take a toll in the long-term. [See also The Power of Full Engagement for more on these ideas.]

Positive emotions help us “broaden and build”

In the 1990s, Barbara Fredrickson came up with the “broaden-and-build” theory of positive emotions.

  • Broaden. We’re more open to possibilities and new information. Various studies show that positive emotions make us more open to new ideas and improve our ability to integrate information. This all boosts our creativity.
  • Build. Over the long-term, we build up emotional and mental resources such as resilience, social connections and physical health. These can help our performance in the future.

The two processes reinforce each other, creating a positive spiral. A 2005 meta-analysis of over 225 papers found that people who frequently experience positive emotions tend to accomplish more. They have more fulfilling relationships, less stress, and higher salaries.



Playing comes naturally to us as kids, but not as adults. Yet a growing body of research finds that play makes us more productive, because it gives us psychological relief.

Example: Richard Feynman

Despite all of Richard Feynman’s early success as a physicist, he started to feel burnt out and bored by age 27.

When he started “playing” around with his work again (i.e. working on whatever interested him, even if it had no apparent usefulness), he found it reignited his earlier passion for physics. One problem in particular that intrigued him was how a dinner plate wobbled when he came across a student repeatedly and aimlessly tossing it into the air.

Soon, he was “working” in physics again, but this time the work didn’t lead to burnout. The spinning plate even ended up helping him make sense of quantum electrodynamics, which earned him a Nobel Prize in 1965.

Create an adventure and find the fun

For your tasks, ask yourself, “What would this look like if it were fun?” Adventure is a major ingredient in play, so incorporating it can make many tasks more fun.

Some ideas:

  • Take on a character. There are 8 play personalities: Collector, Competitor, Creator, Director, Explorer, Joker, Kinesthete and Storyteller. Most people will resonate with one or two of these. Taking on a character can increase your sense of adventure and help you express different aspects of yourself.
  • Side quests. Abdaal thinks of his life as containing a bunch of “side quests”, like in a video game. Side quests are things that don’t obviously move him forward towards his goals, but are simply interesting. For example, leaving his office and working for a few hours from a café, or trying some new software. [I wish he’d come up with more examples because these seem rather bland.]
  • Add music. This is an easy thing that makes many tasks more fun.
Lower the stakes

It’s much easier to have fun when we’re secure and comfortable. There’s a difference between being serious and sincere. When we take things too seriously, the stakes feel very high and it sucks the fun out of the room. Sincerity, on the other hand, allows us to enjoy the process without being too invested in the outcome.

Focus on the process over the outcome. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (the author of Flow) found that the biggest difference between rock climbing and other competitive sports is that climbers tend to be immersed in the process of climbing itself, instead of the end result, and have enjoy more fun and camaraderie as a result.

We can also reframe failures. When we’re afraid of failure, we feel stressed, which inhibits play. But if you imagine yourself earning 5 points for every failure, you’d experiment a lot more. Besides, each failure does give you more data.


Power refers to a sense of personal empowerment — the idea that you control your own fate. [i.e. not exerting power over others like in The 48 Laws of Power.]

We can become more empowered by: increasing our confidence; increasing our skills; and taking ownership.

Boost your confidence

Confidence or self-efficacy refers to how we feel about our abilities, regardless of how we objectively perform. But studies show that when our confidence increases, our performance does too.

We can learn to increase our confidence. A 2014 study on self-talk found that people could cycle for longer if they were shown generic motivational phrases such as “You’re doing great!” compared to a control group that got no such prompts. This was the case even though the motivational group chose the phrases themselves!

Abdaal suggests boosting your own confidence in several ways:

  • The Confidence Switch. Ask yourself, “What would it look like if I were really confident at this?” Then act as if you’re confident, even if you’re not feeling it. It’s surprisingly effective at increasing your actual confidence.
  • Vicarious mastery. Seeing someone else successfully perform a task you’re about to do boosts your confidence, because it shows you the task is not impossible. The effect is stronger if the person is similar to you. Abdaal incorporates this into his own life by reading or listening to inspirational stories of people who have succeeded in areas he wants to improve in.
  • The Batman effect. Imagining yourself as a fearless superhero or alter ego lets you tap into courage you cannot otherwise access. Start off doing this in a quiet space by yourself. The more you practice, the easier it becomes to channel your superhero when you need it. You can also repeat a short confidence-boosting mantra to help you get through this (e.g. “I am confident”). It may sound cheesy but is remarkably effective.

Example: Confident alter egos

  • Abdaal imagines himself as Charles Xavier (from X-Men) when he has to present in public.
  • Beyoncé admits to channelling a more confident and sensual alter ego (Sasha Fierce) when she’s on stage.
  • Adele copied Beyoncé and created her own alter ego (Sasha Carter).
Increase your skills

Think like a beginner (aka “the Shoshin method”). Shoshin is a concept from Zen Buddhism, roughly meaning “beginner’s mind”. A beginner approaches every task with curiosity, openness and humility. Instead of being biased towards what has worked before, you gain a fresh perspective. The beginner’s mind makes you more willing to experiment — and fail — and you’ll learn more in the process.

Teach other people. When people have to teach others something, they learn the material better themselves. This is called the ‘protégé effect’. You can incorporate this by taking on the role of a teacher or mentor to more junior team members in almost any domain. Don’t worry about not being qualified enough — people often learn better from those who are just slightly ahead of them in the journey than from seasoned experts.

Take ownership of your work

When we feel a sense of autonomy, control and ownership over our work, our intrinsic motivation increases. And intrinsic motivation is a lot more powerful than extrinsic motivation.

In some situations, our control may be limited. But there are still two things we can usually take ownership of:

  • The Process. Many jobs only judge your output. But even if you can’t control what you do (you have to deliver that output), you may be able to control how you do it. A teacher may not be able to choose their curriculum, but can take ownership of how they engage their students.
  • Your Mindset. Instead of thinking about tasks we “have to” do, we can start thinking of them as tasks we “choose to” or “get to” do. For example, Abdaal was once asked to put an IV line into a patient near the end of a long shift. Initially, he grumbled, thinking of how he’d have to work late and defer his evening plans. But he soon reframed it as an opportunity to help a pregnant lady and her unborn child. This was what he wanted to do — being able to help people was exactly what he’d gone through all those years of medical training for.


Some people are energisers, in that they fill those around them with energy. Others are energy vampires, who leave you feeling drained after each interaction. (Interestingly, a 2003 study focusing on large firms found a remarkable level of agreement over who the energisers and vampires in an organisation were.)

Below, I outline Abdaal’s advice about asking for help, communicating good news, and being candid. In addition, he suggests several tips to feel more energised from people:

  • Comrade Mindset. When we adopt a competitor mindset, we just think about “My success”. It’s a zero-sum mentality. When we adopt a comrade mindset, we think about “Our success”. Even if we’re doing the exact same thing, we feel motivated to work harder and longer, so we don’t let down our teammates.
  • Synchronicity. When we work in synchrony with others, we want to help them and become more productive ourselves. For example, Abdaal regularly attends a virtual Writers’ Hour. Even though it’s just a Zoom session with everyone working on their independent projects, Abdaal finds these sessions incredibly energising.
  • Random acts of kindness. Helping others causes our brains to release feel-good hormones like oxytocin. These create a natural high, filling us with positive energy that can last for hours or even days. Even the smallest acts can help, especially when others are stressed. For example, ask if someone wants a cup of tea next time you take a tea break. Invite someone who’s looking a bit burnt out to lunch. Let someone who’s looking frazzled cut in front of you in the supermarket.
Ask for help

Asking someone for help makes them more likely to think better of us.

Example: the Benjamin Franklin effect

In 1737, Benjamin Franklin was running for re-election in Pennsylvania. However, a rival legislator had been saying a lot of unfavourable things about him publicly.

Franklin explains in his autobiography that the turning point was when he asked to borrow a book from his opponent. To his surprise, the man immediately agreed. When Franklin returned the book, he put in a note expressing his thanks.

This interaction had a profound impact on the two men’s relationship. The next time they met in the House, the man struck up a conversation with him. Eventually they became great friends.

Unfortunately, most of us are really bad at asking for help because we don’t want to “bother” people. Not only is this less efficient, it means we lose out on connections we could’ve grown. Abdaal suggests several tips to get better at asking for help:

  • Understand that people want to help you more than you think. Most tend to underestimate the likelihood of a request being granted by up to 50%.
  • Ask for help in person. A 2017 study showed that in-person requests were about 34 times more effective as e-mail requests.
  • Don’t turn the request into a transaction. For example, don’t say, “If you help me, I’ll do something else for you”.
  • Use positive reasons. Instead of using negative phrases (e.g. “I feel really bad for asking you…”), emphasise the positive reasons why you’re going to that specific person for advice. They’ll be more likely to help if they think you genuinely value their opinion.
Overcommunicate good news

Sharing good news increases positive emotions and well-being for the sharer. The recipient can respond in one of four ways:

  • Active-constructive. This is the cheerleader response, like “Wow, that’s great! You worked so hard for that!”. Active-constructive responses strengthen relationships and increase the sharer’s happiness.
  • Passive-constructive. It’s still a positive response, but more understated — e.g. smiling and saying “That’s good”.
  • Active-destructive. This type of response undermines the sharer’s news.
  • Passive-destructive. Basically ignoring the sharer’s good news.

A 2006 study of 79 dating couples found that the strongest predictor of whether couples would stay together depended on how they reacted to each other’s good news.

Be candid instead of honest

In Radical Candor, Kim Scott explains that being candid is about directly challenging the issue at hand, while genuinely caring about the person you’re speaking to. Don’t make it personal or say whatever pops into your head.

Honesty, on the other hand, implies that you know the truth (which you don’t). Just share your view of the objective facts (e.g. “I noticed you cut her off several times in that meeting”) without adding your judgement of the facts (e.g. “You were very rude in that meeting.”). [See also Difficult Conversations.] You may also offer suggestions for what they could do next time. Focusing on solutions may make it less likely the other person feels attacked.

We’re much more likely to underestimate how much communication we need than to overestimate it. People approach things with different levels of context or understanding. So even when you think you’ve communicated plenty, you almost certainly haven’t.

Overcoming procrastination (Unblock)

The three energisers by themselves are not enough, as everyone wants to procrastinate sometimes. Two commonly suggested solutions to procrastination are to increase motivation (i.e. want to do the thing more) or discipline (do the thing even if you don’t feel motivated).

But these methods are often just band-aids, covering up the real reason you’re procrastinating. They may even make you feel worse about yourself in the process.

[T]o tell the chronic procrastinator to just do it would be like saying to a clinically depressed person, cheer up.
— Joseph Ferrari, psychology professor, as quoted by Ali Abdaal in Feel-Good Productivity

Instead, Abdaal argues we that procrastination is normally caused by negative feelings such as uncertainty, fear and inertia. We should therefore focus on understanding why we’re procrastinating in the first place, and addressing that cause directly.


The first blocker is uncertainty. Sometimes we procrastinate because we don’t know what we’re supposed to be doing — the technical name for this is ‘uncertainty paralysis’. Uncertainty can be hard to notice because it’s so common.

People naturally differ in their tolerance of uncertainty. Those with a low tolerance feel more anxious — they’ll overestimate what’s at stake, become hypervigilant, and stop recognising safety cues. Their solution to avoid the “danger” is by putting it off entirely.

To overcome uncertainty, Abdaal suggests getting clear on three things:

  • Why are you doing this task? Focus on the high-level “Why”.
  • What should you do in practice? And what are the obstacles you are likely to face?
  • When will you do the task?

Focus on the high-level “why”, and the end-state you are pursuing. It’s easy to lose sight of the high-level “why” and get bogged down in details once we’ve started a project. We can waste months or even years pursuing tasks that feel pressing in the moment, but are ultimately irrelevant to our larger “why”.

Ask “why” 5 times to drill down to your ultimate purpose. [This is similar to the difference between ultimate and proximate causes.] For example, when deciding whether to start a new project, ask “why” 5 times to see if it links back to your ultimate purpose. If not, don’t do it.


Recent research is finding that SMART goals can have unintended consequences such as tunnel-vision and loss of intrinsic motivation. Abdaal suggests setting NICE goals instead, at least for the day-to-day. NICE goals are:

  • Near-term. Focus on the steps you need to take each day or over the next week, to avoid feeling overwhelmed.
  • Input-based. Focus on the process over the outcome.
  • Controllable. Make sure the achievement of the goal is within your control and doesn’t rely too heavily on external factors having to come together.
  • Energising. Think about whether you can integrate the energisers (Play, Power and People) into your goals.

Once you’ve set a NICE goal, conduct a pre-mortem. Imagine it’s a week from now, and you didn’t start the task you intended to. Identify the most likely obstacles that got in your way. Next, work out how to mitigate those risks. Could you ask someone for help? Are there other actions you can take now to increase the chances of success?


After sorting through the “why” and the “what”, you need to work out “when” to do your tasks. You can do this through time-blocking — basically just putting the things you value (not just meetings, but also deep work, exercise, and general admin) into your calendar.

Abdaal suggests an incremental approach to help you get started:

  • Level 1: Block out specific tasks. Schedule time for those tasks on your to-do list you’ve been avoiding. Treat that block like you would any other appointment. This is basically an implementation intention.
  • Level 2: Block out most of your day. Turn your to-do list into a schedule by blocking out most of the day. Remember to allow for breaks.
  • Level 3: Block out your ideal week. This is like Level 2, but for a whole week. The idea is to get a balance between all the aspects of your life that you value. Even if you never stick to the whole week plan, it’s okay. The plan just provides a structure to help you out.

Time-blocking may be one of the most underrated tools. People often balk at the idea of structuring their day so much, but Abdaal argues the structure gives you more freedom, not less. It’s a bit like budgeting — allocating your income to different categories gives you greater financial freedom; allocating 24 hours each day to different activities gives you more time freedom.

[Deep Work goes into time-blocking in more detail. See also my own experience with time-blocking.]


Challenges that threaten our sense of safety trigger our amygdala. It may not necessarily be a physical threat — for example, Abdaal put off starting a YouTube channel for 7 years because he was afraid of failure, judgement, etc.

Though we may know rationally that avoiding the problem doesn’t solve it, we procrastinate to remove the immediate threat. Overcoming procrastination caused by fear therefore requires us to understand and reduce our fears.

Understand your fears

Putting fears and feelings into words, also known as ‘affective labelling’, goes a long way to reducing them. But this isn’t always easy. We’re very good at coming up with “rational” reasons why we aren’t taking action, instead of admitting that we’re afraid, especially if our core vulnerabilities and insecurities are at play.

Abdaal suggests asking yourself a few questions the next time you’re procrastinating:

  • What am I afraid of?
  • Where does this fear come from — ‘me’ or ‘them’? Does it come from my own insecurities or abilities? Or am I afraid of how other people might react?
  • If a fictional character in my position was procrastinating due to fear, what might be the fear that they have?

Labels can become self-fulfilling prophecies. People who have been labelled “criminals” are much more likely to engage in criminal behaviour again.

So look at the labels you give yourself. If you label yourself a procrastinator, you’re likely to keep procrastinating. You can instead try on a positive label. For example, Abdaal calls himself a ‘life-long learner’, which highlights his ability to learn and grow. Though it may sound like a tiny change, it makes a difference.

Reduce your fears

Gain some perspective using the 10-10-10 rule. When you catch yourself worrying about some failure, ask yourself if it will matter in 10 minutes; 10 weeks or 10 years. The failures we’re worried about now usually won’t define us.

If you’re afraid of what other people might think of you, know that we tend to overestimate how much others notice and judge our actions. This is called the ‘spotlight effect’ — we go through life imagining a big spotlight on everything we do. But in reality, most people are far too busy worrying about themselves and not paying much, if any, attention to you.

[See also the “Boost your confidence” section above.]


The law of inertia is the idea that an object at rest stays at rest, and an objection in motion stays in motion, unless acted on by an external force. It applies just as much to productivity as it does to physics.

Abdaal uses the analogy of cycling uphill to get over a little hump. It takes a burst of energy to get over it but, once you do, it’s much easier to keep going because you’ll be cycling downhill.

Reduce friction for productive tasks

Friction makes it harder for us to get started on a task. Adjust your environment so that the thing you want to do becomes the most obvious, default choice. For example, instead of hiding his guitar away in the corner, Abdaal put it in the middle of the living room so that he’d pick it up more often, even if it’s just for a short break.

Add friction to unwanted distractions

Some suggestions:

  • Uninstall social media apps from your phone. You can still use them, but only using the web interface.
  • Log out of apps. You’ll have to deliberately log back in when you next use it.
  • Slow down apps. Some tools artificially increase the loading time of certain apps, forcing you to take consider if you really want to use it. This can stop you accessing certain websites out of mere habit.
Take a small step

Dr Tim Pychyl, a researcher who specialises in procrastination, has found that the most effective way to overcome procrastination is to simply ask, “What’s the next action step?” For example, to do a workout, the next action step is to change into the right clothes. To write a book, the next action step is to open your writing software. This takes your focus off the bigger, scarier goal and moving it to a small, achievable step.

This can also help you overcome a lack of confidence. Confidence is the gap between our perception of ability and our perception of standards. For long term goals, you don’t actually need to be that confident to get started. For example, Abdaal experienced lots of self-doubt writing this book, but he’d remind himself that the first draft didn’t need to be a masterpiece.

A similar version of taking a small step is the “5-minute rule”. Whenever you feel like you can’t be arsed doing something, tell yourself you’ll do it for just 5 minutes. Most of the time, you’ll realise the task isn’t that terrible and end up working more than 5 minutes. But to make sure the 5-minute rule remains effective, you have to let yourself stop after 5 minutes some of the time — Abdaal suggests doing this 20% of the time so you don’t end up lying to yourself.

Keep yourself accountable

While getting started can be tricky, sometimes procrastination sets in a bit later, after the initial motivational burst.

Tracking your progress may help. A 2016 meta-analysis of 138 studies found that tracking progress in some way dramatically increases a person’s chance of achieving their goals. Tracking progress allows you to look back and identify areas that may need adjusting. Tracking also gives you tangible evidence that you’re making progress, which is motivating. You can celebrate when you reach milestones.

Another option to keep motivated is to find an accountability buddy. Accountability buddies tap into our sense of duty. Humans are social creatures, and we don’t like letting other people down. Your accountability buddy can be a friend or a stranger with the same goals. There’s even a Reddit to help you find one. The best buddies balance discipline and challenge with patience and support. They must stick to what you’ve agreed to and give you a push or constructive feedback when you need it. But at the same time, they need to be encouraging and shouldn’t rush you.

Once you’ve found a buddy, agree on what kind of accountability you want. How are you going to hold each other accountable? How much contact do you expect — daily, weekly, monthly?

But don’t beat yourself up

Self-flagellation is counterproductive. Many people “fail with abandon” by giving up altogether as soon as they hit a snafu — e.g. “I lost my language learning streak, might as well stop learning”.

Abdaal suggests two methods of reframing:

  • Find the Win. Find something to celebrate, even if it’s small and unrelated to your work. For example, if you slept in and missed a workout session, you can celebrate the fact you got an extra hour of sleep so are better rested.
  • Correct course. When you get distracted, you’re just temporarily veering off-course. Don’t respond by giving up and changing your destination altogether. If you correct your course, you can get back to your original destination. Just begin again.


Burnout doesn’t just happen to people working too many hours in stressful jobs. It can also occur when your work stops feeling meaningful or manageable.

There are three different causes or types of burnout, which people often mix up:

  • Overexertion. This is the overworked type — you’re simply trying to pack too much into each day.
  • Depletion. You haven’t given yourself enough breaks to recharge. Not just the little breaks throughout the day, but the deeper, longer breaks we all need on occasion.
  • Misalignment. When you put your efforts into things that don’t bring you joy or meaning, it gradually wears you down.

The good news is, all three of these can be fixed if we Conserve, Recharge and Align.

Overexertion (Conserve)

Don’t overcommit

We often overexert ourselves because of overcommitments. It’s easy to say yes to things in the present without considering how those commitments might wear us down in the long term.

To overcome this temptation to overcommit, Abdaal suggests:

  • Energy investment portfolio. The basic idea is you write down all the things you want to do at some point, but focus on just a few “active investments” at a time. Abdaal himself sticks to around 5. This stops you from thinking you can do everything. [This is like Oliver Burkeman’s suggestion to keep two to-do lists.]
  • Hell yeah or no. Derek Sivers has a test for deciding whether or not to take on a new project or commitment. If it’s not a “hell yeah”, it should be a “no”. “Hell yeahs” are naturally rare, so you’ll start finding yourself rejecting 95% of commitments.
  • Think of opportunity costs. Remember that everything you say “yes” to means saying “no” to something else.
  • Imagine it was tomorrow. It’s easy to agree to a commitment 6 weeks in the future, when our calendar is probably looking blank. But ask yourself if you’d say yes to a commitment if it was happening tomorrow. If not, you should probably reject it.
Take breaks

Breaks are essential to productivity. In emergency medicine, doctors have to take a break every four hours. Even if it’s incredibly chaotic and overflowing with patients. You’re no use to anyone when you’re exhausted, and you may even make things worse as exhaustion makes you more likely to make a mistake.

Example: LeBron the walker

LeBron James is one of the fastest sprinters in NBA history. But when he doesn’t need to sprint, he walks lackadaisically around the court. His average speed per game is one of the slowest in the NBA — merely 3.85 miles per hour. In a regular game, he spent almost 75% of the time on court walking.

Many people think this has played a part in LeBron’s unusually long career. While most NBA players last an average of 4.5 years at their prime, LeBron’s been playing for 19 years.

You probably need longer breaks than you think. A study by the Draugiem Group found that the most productive workers weren’t the ones chained at their desks, nor even the ones that gave themselves a 5-minute break every hour. Actually, the most productive workers had a work-to-break ratio of around 52 minutes to 17 minutes. [I suspect there’s at least some causation in the other direction, though. The most productive workers may feel more able to take long breaks, because they’re already on top of their work. Less-productive workers who are already struggling to get on top of their workload may understandably feel more reluctant to take long breaks.]

While scheduled breaks can be good, there is also merit in having unexpected breaks or distractions. Not all distractions are created equal. Some, like admin emails or Twitter notifications, just get in the way of achieving what we want to do. But other distractions can actually be energising, filling us with positive energy. For example, at university Abdaal welcomed distractions from friends, even if they pulled him away from his work.

Depletion (Recharge)

Depletion occurs when we don’t give ourselves enough time or space to rejuvenate. We can either spend our time off work on activities that drain our energy (e.g. doom-scrolling, binge-watching TV, or emails) or on ones that recharge us.

Do creative activities — but protect them

Research has shown that creative activities are particularly good at getting us to relax, because they have a CALM-ing effect:

  • Competence. Creative activities can increase our sense of competence as we improve at our craft.
  • Autonomy. We feel a sense of ownership and control over what we’re doing, which can be energising.
  • Liberty. When we focus fully on our creative activities, it allows us to disengage fully from our work.
  • Mellow. Creative activities should be relaxed and low-stakes.

Make sure your hobbies remain energising and stress-free by setting clear boundaries.
Do your hobby in a dedicated room or space, put your phone away when you do it, or carve out specific times for it.

Resist the urge to turn your hobby into “work”. Going public with your hobby or trying to monetise it is risky, as you could start seeing it as a side hustle rather than as true recreation.

Nature and walks

Plenty of research shows that nature has remarkable healing effects. This is why modern hospitals frequently feature green spaces and gardens. Even nature photos or sound recordings have been shown to have significant positive effects. One study found that a 40-second micro-break spent looking at a green roof increased students’ focus and led them to make fewer errors than if they looked at a concrete roof for the same period. [So is it just that the colour green is more relaxing rather than nature per se? There are, after all, natural environments that are grey and bleak.]

Walks can be incredibly energising. Many organisations, including the World Health Organization and American Heart Foundation, recommend 10,000 steps per day, but don’t worry if you can’t get this much. Even a 10-minute walk can help recharge you.

Mindless recharging

There’s something to be said for mindless recharging, at least in small doses. While CALM activities are great, they take up mental energy.

It’s good to take time out occasionally to “do nothing”. You could schedule this time in or just zone out while doing physical chores like washing the dishes without listening to anything. While this might feel unproductive, it gives your brain the space to activate an area called the default mode network (DMN). The DMN is involved in recalling memories and daydreaming, and can help you discover a new perspective. [A Mind for Numbers talks more about the diffuse modes of thinking.]

Sometimes you feel so drained that the best thing to do is to give yourself permission to write off the whole day and stop trying to achieve anything. Play video games and order in take-out, guilt-free. This may give you the space you need to do more of what matters to you in the long run. [I’m glad Abdaal included this. So many self-improvement books moralise over the “right” way to take a break and vilify TV and video games. I agree with Abdaal that these forms of relaxation are perfectly fine in moderation.]

Misalignment (Align)

Misalignment burnout occurs when our goals don’t match our sense of self. We may value freedom, but stay in a controlling job. We may value friendship, but neglect the friends we do have. Our behaviour in these cases is driven by external forces, rather than by a deeper alignment between our actions and our values.

To prevent misalignment burnout, we first have to clarify our values by thinking long-term. Then we have to make those values more concrete by finding ways to align them with our near-term behaviour.

Clarify your long-term values

Abdaal puts forward several exercises to help with this:

  • Ideal eulogy. Think ahead to the ideal eulogy you’d want people to read at your funeral. What would it say?
  • Odyssey plan. Write down in detail what your life would look like 5 years from now, under three different paths: current, alternative path and radical path. The radical path should be a completely different path, where money and social constraints were irrelevant. This exercise should open your mind up to new possibilities.
  • Wheel of Life. Draw a wheel with 3 spokes each for Health (Body, Mind, Soul), Work (Mission, Money, Growth) and Relationships (Family, Romance, Friends). (You can come up with other options, but this is a starting point.) Rate how aligned you feel in each area of your life and colour in the segment accordingly. This exercise inspired Abdaal to post his first YouTube videos, and at least two of his classmates to quit medicine.
Align your values with near-term behaviour

Our long-term values may feel too abstract, so we may struggle to translate that into our actual behaviour.

To make your values more concrete, try these experiments:

  • 12-month celebration. Imagine that 12 months from now, you’re celebrating how much progress you’ve made in the areas of life most important to you (maybe from the Wheel of Life exercise). Write down what you’d want to tell your best friend about your progress in each area. Then, think about what the first action steps would be to make that progress happen.
  • Daily alignment quests. Abdaal opens up his 12-month celebration each day and chooses one value in each of the three areas (Health, Work, Relationships) to work on. For example, your relationship quest could be to call someone important to you. Your health quest could be going for a walk.

You can also experiment more generally. For each area where you feel particularly misaligned :

  • Develop a hypothesis on what would increase alignment. For example, reducing working hours or switching degrees.
  • Test it, but in a small way. Instead of quitting your job entirely, negotiate a part-time arrangement for several months. Instead of switching degrees, enrol in one different course first.
  • Record your results. Keep a journal or log, and note any insights or challenges along the way.

My Review of Feel-Good Productivity

I’ve followed Ali Abdaal on YouTube for some time. He seems like a nice guy and I find his laidback style appealing. Many of my book summaries, including Atomic Habits, Storyworthy, and Steal Like an Artist, even came from his recommendations.

Overall, I found Feel-Good Productivity to just be “okay”. It’s a short and easy read, clocking in at just 304 pages (including occasional diagrams and illustrations).

There is some good stuff here. I believe in the book’s general message, which was similar to that in The Power of Full Engagement (though I preferred TPOFE). Abdaal refers to quite a few studies without being dry, including some I’d never heard of or which contradicted the commonly-accepted wisdom (e.g. unintended consequences of SMART goals). He also injects some pop culture references (e.g. Star Wars, Hunger Games, The Office) and plenty of anecdotes from his own life, which makes the book more relatable. For people who have never heard of these ideas, it’s probably a good, light-hearted intro.

However, I can’t help feeling that the book is very “shallow”. Some bits of advice conflict with other bits (e.g. don’t “fail with abandon” vs sometimes it’s okay to write off a day; lower the stakes vs find an accountability partner). Even though I think these conflicts can usually be reconciled — the world is not black and white — Abdaal didn’t really make much attempt to do so.

The book is also not very original. Abdaal didn’t seem to go out and do any original research. While I wasn’t expecting any scientific studies (I know Abdaal is not a researcher), it doesn’t seem like he interviewed other high performers to find out how they incorporate Feel-Good Productivity into their lives, or drew on experience gained from coaching others either (contrast with, say, Tiny Habits). My impression is that Abdaal mostly wrote this book by sitting down at his desk and figuring out what worked for him, then adding a bunch of stories and studies to bulk it up into a book. So there’s not much unique insight.

That can be okay. Atomic Habits was another book of this ilk, and was wildly successful, so clearly there’s demand for books like this. If you’re new to the whole productivity scene, it could be a good place to start. But if you’ve already read a few books in this genre, I believe you can safely skip Feel-Good Productivity without missing much.

Have you read Feel-Good Productivity? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Buy Feel-Good Productivity at: Amazon | Kobo <– These are affiliate links, which means I may earn a small commission if you make a purchase. I’d be grateful if you considered supporting the site in this way! 🙂

If you enjoyed this summary of Feel-Good Productivity, you may also like:

7 thoughts on “Book Summary: Feel-Good Productivity by Ali Abdaal

  1. Thanks. Oddly enough I came across a youtube video of his the other day, having not seen any before. It was quite good, and he mentioned his upcoming book.

    In terms of green nature being calming, I’ve heard an evolutionary pyschology argument for why people find both green and bubbling water sounds calming: in other environments you are more likely to have to move on because the lack of green/lack of water source means the environment is likely to be harsher. As a result, people who felt anxious with a lack of green/lack of water sounds were more likely to survive (as they moved to safer environments).

    It’s a compelling idea, but then there are lots of societies who seem to survive with not much green around historically (although I guess they always thought more was better).

    1. Yeah, I don’t always know what to make of evolutionary psychology theories because it seems like you can come up with one to explain almost anything. But the idea that we like green and blue environments were historically more hospitable environments sounds plausible.

  2. Thank you for your summaries, it’s pleasure to read them.

    Have you read Adam Grant’s Hidden Potential?

    Curious if it’s in the same category as this book?

  3. I’ve finished the book, and I thought finishing it did make me FEEL GOOD. My experience was mostly good vibes, haha. So I wanted to check out what other people think and what they’ve gathered from the book. And I completely agree with your review! The contents are well delivered and organized, but it is far from ground-breaking and does not live up to the hype at all. However, I’d recommend it to someone who has just embarked on a ‘Productivity’ journey as well. Thanks again for posting!

  4. I read the book, and your summary is actually very good, it helps me remind important things about the book, I will send it to my kindle.


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