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Too much discipline can block creativity, says Abdaal

As in his popular videos, productivity guru Ali Abdaal advises simple steps for better work-life balance in his new book

The book is divided into sections that build up to Abdaal's larger point about reframing how we think about success.
The book is divided into sections that build up to Abdaal's larger point about reframing how we think about success. (iStockphoto)

The most refreshing thing about reading Feel Good Productivity: How To Do More Of What Matters To You by Ali Abdaal is that you can really hear him in your head as you go through the pages. The 29-year-old Briton writes like he speaks in his popular videos on YouTube, where he offers simple, practical tips on how to live a more fulfilling life.

In the crowded self-improvement and self-help space, Abdaal’s content stands out for its ability to synthesise and narrativise wisdom from a variety of sources, including life stories of pop culture icons, knowledge from academic studies and other productivity experts, and warfare strategy.

That Abdaal worked as a doctor in the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK is known to most of his followers. The fact that he burnt out and quit in 2021, too, was a matter of debate among them, with some wondering why the words of a quitter would hold any weight to create meaningful careers. Feel Good Productivity offers answers, bringing all his learnings back to one simple, freeing bottom line: joy. Abdaal says finding joy is crucial not just to live a life of purpose but to also understand the idea of productivity—not just as a way to be efficient and check off as many tasks in the least amount of time, but as being engaged joyfully and meaningfully in all spheres of life.

Front cover of the book.
Front cover of the book.

The book is divided into sections that build up to his larger point about reframing how we think about success. “I was stumbling my way to a revelation: that everything I’d been told about success was wrong…Working harder wasn’t going to bring me happiness. And there was another path to fulfilment: one that wasn’t lined with constant anxiety, sleepless nights and a concerning dependence on caffeine,” he writes—many stressed-out millennials would have nodded along to that line. Here are four lessons to take away from Abdaal’s Feel Good Productivity:

Lean into vicarious mastery

The title of one of the sub-chapters “Power” may, at first, sound corny, but Abdaal talks about finding a sense of ownership as prime self-empowerment. To this end, he says that vicarious mastery involves mindfully seeing others achieve something that they desire to get us started with the belief that we can too. We learn through doing too, Abdaal writes, referring to the work of Canadian-American psychologist Albert Bandura. “The more we do something, the greater our sense of control,” he writes. “We learn…Our confidence grows. And we empower ourselves.”

Also Read: How to get a productivity boost from your to-do list

Ideas of motivation and discipline are dated

While one can respect achievers who swear by pumping themselves up, staying motivated and disciplined all the time is sheer punishment for a lot of right-brained folks.

The “unblock” approach that Abdaal offers includes introspecting and questioning: instead of making yourself have to want something (motivation), or having to push through to achieve it (discipline), he urges people to drill down on any emotional barriers, to figure out “what” we are doing and “why”, and then craft a “how” and “when” to go about it.

This chapter backs interrogative techniques such as Toyota’s Five Whys (a problem-solving method) and the popular productivity hack of time-blocking with daily doable examples.

Rethinking failure

Often, productivity—and joy, for that matter—is hampered by fear. For instance, for job seekers, a bad interview can lead to catastrophising about any future chances. To deal with such triggers, Abdaal advocates “changing the interpretation of a situation so that we feel better emotionally”. Asking oneself if a setback will matter in 10 minutes, in 10 weeks, in 10 years—an idea borrowed from author Suzy Welch—can help in taming monsters that we magnify in the moment.

Also Read: Why keeping tabs on your productivity does not help

Understanding burnout

A general understanding of burnout is either complicated with many categories, or way too simplistic. Too complex an explanation can unintentionally gaslight a person into thinking they are not burnt out, and too simple an understanding can make the phenomenon of burnout seem like an excuse to slack.

Abdaal talks in threes to offer his interpretation: “‘Overexertion burnouts’ point to a problem of volume, ‘depletion burnouts’ relate to a misguided approach to rest, and ‘misalignment burnouts’ happen when you’ve put all your efforts into something that doesn’t bring you joy or meaning, and it has worn you down.”

The last chapter of the book focuses on tackling all three kinds of burnout, so that methods of productivity can actually be sustained.

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