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Ali Abdaal on the Principles of Feel-Good Productivity

Posted on 20th December 2023 by Anna Orhanen

In his new book Feel-Good Productivity, the popular YouTuber, podcast host and former NHS doctor Ali Abdaal explores the principles that underpin enjoyable effectiveness – on how if you can make your work feel good, then productivity takes care of itself. In this exclusive piece, he talks about how he got interested in the power of positive psychology in the first place.

‘Merry Christmas, Ali. Try not to kill anyone.’ My consultant breezily hung up the phone, leaving me to handle an entire ward of patients alone. I was a newly qualified junior doctor, and three weeks previously I’d made a rookie error: forgetting to fill out a form to request the holidays off. Now, here I was, managing a hospital ward, on my own, on Christmas Day.

Things had started badly and rapidly got worse. When I arrived at the hospital, I was met by an avalanche of patient histories, diagnostic reports and cryptic scan requests that would’ve made more sense to a seasoned archaeologist than our on-call radiologist. Within minutes, I was confronted by the day’s first emergency: a man in his fifties who had collapsed from a severe cardiac arrest. And then one of the nurses informed me that a patient urgently needed a manual evacuation (if you know, you know). 

I soon found myself starting to panic. Medical school hadn’t prepared me for anything like this. Until then, I’d always thought of myself as quite productive. I’d enjoyed school and had found medical training challenging, but never overwhelming. Not anymore. Since starting as a doctor a few months previously, I’d felt like I was drowning. Even when I worked late into the night, I couldn’t see the number of patients or finish the paperwork that I needed to – and it was making me more and more unhappy. And now this: Christmas Day, alone on a hospital ward, failing to get through my shift.

Everything came to a head when I dropped a tray of medical supplies, sending syringes flying across the linoleum floor. As I forlornly looked down at my damp scrubs, I realised I had to figure things out – or my dream of becoming a surgeon would slip through my fingers.

That night, I hung up my stethoscope, grabbed a mince pie, and opened my laptop. I’d once been so productive, I thought. What had I forgotten? During my first year at medical school, I’d become obsessed with the secrets of productivity, staying up all night digesting everything I could about the secrets of getting more done. All the gurus emphasised the importance of hard slog. A Muhammad Ali quote came up a lot: ‘I hated every minute of training, but I said, “Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.”’ 

Clearly I just needed to pull my finger out. Except when I returned to work the next day resolving to just do more, it made no difference. Even though I stayed on the ward until midnight, I just wasn’t achieving what I needed to (and I still felt terrible). One day, after a particularly gruelling shift, I remembered a favourite phrase of my university tutor, Dr Barclay: ‘If the treatment isn’t working, question the diagnosis.’

From that day onwards, I was on the hunt for an alternative solution: one that didn’t involve working myself into the ground. Soon, I found myself remembering the work of a scientist I had learnt about at medical school: Barbara Fredrickson, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. One of the world’s most influential ‘positive psychologists’, Fredrickson has spent decades making a simple argument: that feeling happy is about so much more than ‘just’ feeling happy. In fact, when we’re happier, we tend to be more creative, focused, attentive – more productive.

That got me thinking. What if the key to achieving more wasn’t just working harder? What if the real key was feeling good? The more scientific papers I read, the more I learnt that I might be onto something. I learnt that when we feel good our energy levels are higher – because our brains release ‘feel-good hormones’ like endorphins and serotonin that allow us to focus more intently. I learnt that when we feel good, our stress levels are lower, and that tends to make us more productive. I even learnt that we tend to get the relationship between happiness and success exactly the wrong way round: finding evidence showing that rather than success being what makes people happy, happiness tends to be what makes people’s successful.

In time, I would start to develop this idea into a toolkit: one that didn’t hinge on exhaustingly hard work, but on working out what made hard work feel better. Within a few months, I had identified a handful of simple methods that I knew improved my wellbeing – and using that improved wellbeing to motivate myself, focus more intently and achieve more of what mattered. I gave this toolkit a name: feel-good productivity.

Feel-good productivity would change my life. When I started to let go of my obsessions with discipline and instead focus on making work feel good, my horrific shifts started to get easier. Soon my mood started to improve too. I remember one appointment with an elderly patient a few months after I discovered feel-good productivity. ‘You know, doctor,’ she said, ‘you’re the first one in here who’s smiled all week.’ 

It was around then that I started to think about writing. I’ve always loved teaching people, and I soon found myself reflecting that if feel-good productivity could transform my situation, it could probably transform other people’s too. In my new book, Feel-Good Productivity, I explain how anyone – whatever their age of experience – can use the tools I’ve developed to achieve more of what matters the most in their own lives.

I can only hope it’s as useful for others as it has been for me. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned by immersing myself in the science of feel-good productivity, it’s that it applies in every sphere. It turns daunting tasks into engaging challenges. It leads to deeper connections with peers. It drives meaningful interactions in what you do, every day.

In other words, feel-good productivity changes everything. By coming to appreciate the the relationship between your mood and your productivity, you won’t transform how much you get done. You’ll transform something even more powerful: how you feel every day.

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