Feel-Good Productivity: How to Do More of What Matters to You
“Although the ideas in this book aren’t new, they bear repeating if readers are ever going to discard the no-pain-no-gain, just-do-it thinking that permeates our culture.”
In Feel-Good Productivity, UK-based author, physician, and entrepreneur Ali Abdaal shows us that the key to successfully completing tasks we perceive as tedious, boring or just plain onerous is to connect with our positive feelings about them. Frustrated and disappointed in himself as a professional struggling with poor task management skills, he transformed himself through research and trial-and-error to become “the world’s most followed productivity expert” with 4.5 million subscribers and over 93 million total views on his YouTube channel.
How many of us couldn’t use a leg up on how to get things done in any realm of life: work, eating, exercise, family time, hobbies, and getting the most out of our limited time on the planet? This is especially true of people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which, oddly, Abdaal does not discuss in the book when it’s precisely this group of people who would most benefit from reading it. It seems a major and unfortunate omission.
Like most of us, Abdaal was taught that only self-discipline and self-control would help him get the job—any job—done. But try as he might, he admits, “I couldn’t hustle my way to becoming a good doctor.” So, he began researching how to enhance his well-being to motivate himself around beginning and sustaining tasks. He provides numerous case examples, describes his own failures and successes, explains research and brain theory in plain language, and fills the book with humor so we can learn to laugh at our foibles as he laughs at his.
Whereas cultural and familial teachings insist we ignore how we feel about a task and simply get on with it, Abdaal explains that “when we feel good about our work, we become more productive, more creative, and less stressed.” He cites scientific evidence supporting transformative strategies that aim to broaden awareness and build cognitive and social resources in order to achieve our goals. He maintains that “feeling good boosts our creativity—and our productivity, increases curiosity and open-mindedness, and is integral to our cognitive functioning and our social relationships and our overall wellbeing.” Positive emotions produce feel-good hormones such as endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin which boost energy, reduce stress, and enrich our lives.
The book is organized into three parts: 1) Energizing ourselves through valuing and enjoying play, gaining confidence and belief in self-power, and engaging with people who boost mood and self-esteem; 2) Avoiding procrastination through gaining clarity, finding courage, and taking one step forward; and 3) Sustaining ourselves by conserving energy, preventing burnout, recharging ourselves, and ensuring activities align with our values.
Although the ideas in this book aren’t new, they bear repeating if readers are ever going to discard the no-pain-no-gain, just-do-it thinking that permeates our culture. One approach is to make mundane tasks fun through adding music, making a game out of a chore, challenging ourselves with small data points, working in a more creative manner, and letting our minds drift to more pleasurable and interesting thoughts while doing mindless endeavors.
Working in tandem has its benefits to make tasks more enjoyable and productive as it doubles our strengths, generates new ideas, and encourages both giving and asking for help—all of which promote success. Another key strategy is lowering the stakes of learning, that is, engaging in activity as a beginner rather than focusing on achievement and success. Reframing failure is highly useful because it shifts us away from an all/nothing mentality and teaches us that upon reflection mistakes often lead to learning.
Because procrastination is a huge impediment to getting things done (and feeling good about oneself), the book spends a lot of time exploring its causes and solutions, which are far from what most people have been taught: to try harder because we lack sufficient motivation. Abdaal provides overwhelming research that intrinsic or internal motivation works better to move us along than does extrinsic or external motivation. Forget “should, have to and need to” and focus on internal values that make us wish to engage in an activity. Asking ourselves why we desire to do (and continue doing) something taps into our values and aspirations and diminishes rebelling against all that we’re “supposed” to do.
Abdaal maintains that fear, not “lack of talent or inspiration” holds us back and that “courage holds the key” to moving forward. He advises identifying fears and soft spots and exploring where they come from regarding failure/success, being judged, making mistakes, always doing our best, and pleasing others. He tells us to stop “spotlighting” or thinking everyone cares what or how well we’re doing, to tell ourselves “no one cares,” and ask if something will matter in 10 minutes, 10 weeks, or 10 years. Other evidence-based keys to motivation are cutting back guilt and increasing self-compassion when we don’t do—or do as well—as we’d hoped and when we crave mindlessness.
Burnout is a topic Abdaal covers thoroughly. He warns us not to: overextend ourselves, particularly in order to please others; practice saying no as often as yes; choose times to take breaks and enjoy distractions, then resume what we were doing; and value time-out as much as time-in because our minds and bodies need to switch off to sustain energy. After all, says Abdaal, “Life isn’t about maintaining focus all the time. It’s about allowing space for little moments of serendipity and joy.” Paradoxically, sneaking breaks often drains us of energy whereas planned downtime heightens and expands it.
Most of all, Abdaal says to make sure our short- and long-term goals are aligned with our values, because daily decisions often pull us away from our deepest desires. And he advises us to avoid viewing all the advice in this book as “must do,” and instead recommends we do what works for us and ignore what doesn’t. Abdaal ends the book with encouragement: “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.”