in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: January 9, 2024

Podcast #954: The Feel-Good Method of Productivity

When we think about getting more done, we tend to think about working harder, exerting more willpower, and buckling down; we tend to think of doing things that are unpleasant, but that we deem worth it, for the productivity boost they offer.

But what if the key to greater productivity ran the other way round, and the easier and more enjoyable you made your work, the more of it you’d get done?

That’s the premise of Ali Abdaal’s new book Feel-Good Productivity. In addition to being a new author, Ali is a doctor, a YouTuber, and the world’s most followed productivity expert. Today on the show, Ali unpacks the three prongs of his feel-good approach to productivity: energerize, unblock, and sustain. We talk about how to inject your work with more play, flip the confidence switch, find joy in increasing your power, harness relational energy, and use the 10-10-10 rule for overcoming hesitation in taking action. We also discuss why smart goals aren’t always effective and what’s a better alternative, why you might want to put a five-minute hourglass on your desk, the three types of burnout and how to overcome each, and much more.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. When we think about getting more done, we tend to think about working harder, exerting more willpower and buckling down. We tend to think of doing things that are unpleasant, but that we deem worth it for the productivity boost they offer. But what if the key to greater productivity ran the other way round and the easier and more enjoyable you made your work, the more of it you get done. That’s the premise of Ali Abdaal’s new book, Feel Good Productivity. In addition to being a new author, Ali is a doctor, a YouTuber, and the world’s most followed productivity expert. Today on the show, Ali impacts the three prongs of his feel-good approach to productivity; energize, unblock, and sustain. We talk about how to inject your work with more play, flip the confidence switch, find joy in increasing your power, harness relational energy, and use the 10-10-10 rule for overcoming hesitation in taking action. We also discussed why smart goals aren’t always effective and what’s a better alternative, why you might want to put a five minute hourglass on your desk, the three types of burnout and how to overcome each and much more. After the show’s over, check at our show notes at

All right. Ali Abdaal, welcome to the show.

Ali Abdaal: Thank you so much for having me. This feels like a full circle moment ’cause I’ve been literally following your blog for over 10 years and listening to various episode episodes of the podcast as well. So it’s super cool that I can be here with you today.

Brett McKay: Well, thanks for the longtime support and reading us. We really appreciate that. So you’ve got a new book out called, Feel Good Productivity and we’re gonna talk about that today. But you have an interesting background because you started off your career as a medical doctor, but now you’re a productivity expert and a YouTuber. How did that happen? Because I think it’ll tell us a lot about your approach to productivity.

Ali Abdaal: Yeah, so around the time that I discovered the Art of Manliness blog [laughter] was when I got into medical school. So I was at Cambridge University in the UK, which is, been pretty good medical school and it was pretty hard and pretty overwhelming. And in my first year, I was drowning. I always got through school by being smart naturally and didn’t really have to work too hard. But as soon as I got into medical school, suddenly it was like being hit in the face with a baseball bat repeatedly with the amount of work there was. And for the first year, what I tried to do was kind of grip my teeth and grind through it and stuff. And I remember after a while just sort of feeling pretty depressed and pretty burned out from it. And I’d heard that university’s supposed to be the best time of your life, so what the hell was I doing?

Just working so hard and not really getting any results. And then, it was weird ’cause in my second year, we had one lecture in psychology that completely changed my life and that was a lecture about effective study techniques. And I was… My mind was blown. I was like, “Oh my God, why have I never heard this before?” Suddenly I realized that all of the crap that I’d been doing and just working harder was totally ineffective. And if I had just had the right strategies, these like handful of things that make studying for exams way more fun and more effective, I would’ve been way better. And so from that point on for the next five years of med school, I applied all these strategies and stuff and that meant I was able to get decent grades while also having loads of spare time on the side, purely because I’d found a productivity method for medical school.

And that was when I launched a business. That was when I started my YouTube channel and people kept asking me for study tips and kept asking me how I was so productive. And so what started off as medical student with a bit of a small business on the side, morphed into a bigger business, morphed into a YouTube channel. And now here we are, like 10 years on from medical school where my YouTube channels is I think hitting 5 million subscribers today. And people’s have asked me to write a book about productivity, which is kind of weird.

Brett McKay: Well, I think it’s really interesting ’cause I think a lot of people have experienced what you experienced. They get a new job or they’re in university and they think, “I got to get more done, I got to get more productive.” And like you, they typically focus on ways to cram more in to their day by employing organizational hacks or they try to figure out how can I will myself and create motivation so I can do the thing even though I don’t wanna do the thing and I’m tired. But your approach is called feel good productivity. What do you mean by feel good productivity?

Ali Abdaal: Yeah, so feel good productivity is, it’s a pretty, pretty simple underlying message, which is that when we find a way to make our work feel good, we just automatically become productive. We become more productive, we become more creative, we become less stressed and we have more energy to give to our work. But also to give to the other important areas of our life. And I think this is something that is really, really underrated. No one talks about this, everyone these days is talking about how you’ve got to be disciplined, you’ve got to grind, you’ve got to grit, you’ve got to hustle, you’ve got to wake up at 5:00 AM and go for the run even when you don’t feel like it. And sure, discipline does have its place, but I think relying on discipline and hard work as a long-term strategy is a recipe for complete burnout and is actually not the way that the most productive people are. Generally if we think of when we’re in flow states, when we’re doing our best work, it’s not when we’re struggling with it or it’s not when we’re grinding with it, it’s when we have found our way into that flow state where the thing that we’re doing feels weirdly enjoyable. And so that’s the whole philosophy and the whole book is basically a bunch of, it’s like a practical how to guide on how to actually make your work feel more good.

Brett McKay: No, I’m really a big believer in that too. ’cause like you, early on when I was in law school and early on when I started my business, I was really big on discipline and self-discipline and grit. And I, like you said, I think there’s a place for that. And I’m glad I went through that stage in my development as a man. But as I’ve gotten older, I realized that stuff can only get you so far, at a certain point you have to figure out how you can actually enjoy the process. And there’s some great quotes as I’ve been thinking about this idea and we’ve written about this on the site before… You come across these quotes of other thinkers who’ve figured this out too, is that you have to figure out how to feel good about what you do. If you want to get more done. There’s a quote from a guy named Richard J. Foster wrote a book called, The Celebration of Discipline. He said, “I’m inclined to think that the joy is the motor, the thing that keeps everything else going. Without joyous celebration to infuse the disciplines, we will sooner or later abandon them. Joy produces energy, joy makes us strong.” And as we’ll hear in a bit like that’s what you talk about. It’s all about finding joy in what you do.

Ali Abdaal: Oh man, what a great quote. I wish I had put that in the book, [laughter] but that’s the first time I’m hearing it, I’m like, “Oh my God, that’s literally the thesis of the book.”

Brett McKay: Yeah. Okay, so let’s talk about how we can infuse more joy into our work so that instead of feeling like a slog, it’s light, it’s easy and we want to do more of it. You break down, there’s like three different ways we can do this. You… First, want to energize yourself, you wanna unblock and then sustain. So let’s dig into this energize aspect. And this is all about generating those feel good emotions that’ll help drive your productivity. And one way to do that is to inject a sense of play into your work. And you write about how seriousness can be a real downer on our productivity. Why is that?

Ali Abdaal: Yeah, so I think the first thing to say is that like, the way we inject joy into our work is firstly by just thinking about it. I think when we generally think like how do I be more productive, the first thought that comes to mind is not how do I make this more fun, but that really should be the first thought that comes to my mind. [laughter] How would I actually make this thing more fun? And play is one of the most underrated productivity strategies out there. And there are so many successful people like Nobel Prize winners and entrepreneurs and athletes, like the quote you said, who have landed on the conclusion that, “Wait a minute, if you find a way to approach your work in the spirit of play, you’re gonna automatically be more productive and more creative, but you’ll also have way more fun along the way.”

And one of my favorite quotes about this is from the philosopher Alan Watts. And he wasn’t talking about it in the context of productivity, just in the context of life. And what he said is that we should all be a little bit less serious and a little bit more sincere. And I love that framing like, we’ve all played board games or games with people who take it too seriously. That’s not very fun. Like there are too many of stickler for the rules and they’re kind of draining to be around ’cause they’re just taking it too seriously. But we also don’t wanna play with people who are completely uncaring either because that’s just kind of boring playing with someone who just… Who doesn’t really give a shit. We wanna play with someone who’s playing sincerely because they’re giving it their all, they’re fully engaged, but they recognize that it’s just a game at the end of the day and they’re approaching it with a certain lightness and ease.

And you know, one of the phrases from Zen Buddhism is, that Alan Watts talks about is the angels fly because they take themselves lightly. And I think we all have this tendency to put so much seriousness into our work to think it’s so terribly important that we really struggle to approach it with lightness. And I really found this when I was working as a doctor and in my medical student days when I’d be assisting in in surgery, in life-saving operations, there’d be a mother and a baby bleeding out, there’d be like open heart surgery. It’s like the full gamut of suffering where these are, it’s literally life and death on the line. But even in these circumstances, the best surgeons that I worked with, the ones who were the most respected, who’ve got the best results, were the ones who at the same time as dealing with this life-threatening emergency, they approached it with a sense of lightness, a sense of sincerity rather than seriousness.

They would’ve background music, they would crack jokes every now and then. They would create an environment that made everyone in the room; the medical students, the nurses, the physician assistants, like everyone in the room felt comfortable in that environment. And that meant they felt comfortable to raise issues if issues arose. Whereas the environments that the less good surgeons create, where it’s very serious, now, everyone is drained of energy, people don’t like it, it’s a very high pressure environment and people don’t feel like they can bring up concerns, which is what leads to terrible things happening. Like people having the wrong leg amputated because people didn’t feel like they could tell the surgeon, “Hey man, I think you’re operating on the wrong leg.” So that’s to say that even when life and death is on the line, which it probably isn’t for most of work, we can always approach it with a little bit more likeness and a little bit more sincerity rather than seriousness.

Brett McKay: You know that quote, “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.” That’s GK Chesterton, he said that. And then he had this great, an extended quote after that kind of goes what we were saying, he was saying, “One settles down… ” And he put that into quotation marks, “Into a sort of selfish seriousness. But one has to rise to a gay self forgetfulness, a man falls into a brown study, he reaches up to a blue sky. Seriousness is not a virtue.” So he was talking about you got to be light to take things lightly. And I like that…

Ali Abdaal: You’re so good at picking up these quotes. I’ve never come across that one either. My goodness, [laughter] I should do more research for these books. [laughter]

Brett McKay: But I love that idea of be sincere, not serious. ’cause it allows you if you have serious work, like if you’re a doctor who’s doing really life or death stuff or if you’re, I don’t know, you’re a police officer or I mean something like that. Like I like that idea of being sincere, not taking it too seriously. I really like that approach. So what have you found… What are some tactics you have found in order to inject a bit more playfulness, a bit more lightness, a bit more sincerity into your work?

Ali Abdaal: Yeah, so the first one is fairly simple and anyone can do this right now. The thing that I found moved the needle for me quite a lot was, I would stick a post-it note onto my computer monitor and that post-it note would read, “What would this look like if it were fun?” And it’s sort of a variant of, Tim Ferriss likes to ask the question, “What would this look like if it were easy?” Which I think is a great question as well. But I’ve sort of rephrased that to what would this look like if it were fun? And usually whenever we’re in the midst of something that feels a bit draining, that feels a bit stressful, if we just pause and ask ourself that simple question, “what would this look like if it were fun?” Answers will come to mind.

It’s like maybe I could put on some background music, maybe I could stretch my legs a little bit more. Maybe I could, I don’t know, go to sit on the sofa instead of at my desk. Maybe I could go to the local coffee shop. There are lots of ways that we can come up with to make whatever we’re doing just that little bit more fun. But again, it just tends not to be the thing we think about because no one ever tells us to, that the secret to productivity is enjoyment and play. And so we just don’t think about it. And so I try to add these little reminders like post-it notes and at one point, I even had an alarm on my phone where the title of the alarm was, “Find the Fun,” which is a quote from Mary Poppins in every job to be done, there is an element of fun, find the fun and snap, the job’s a game. So I would had had this like find the fun reminder on my like alarm on my phone that would go off a few times a day. Just as a little reminder that in every single thing that we do, we can always find the fun in it.

Brett McKay: And also another tactic, lower the stakes in whatever you’re doing. I think a lot of times people get really serious about what they do ’cause they think, “Oh my gosh, if I don’t get this right, my life’s over.” I remember being in law school and thinking, “Oh, if I don’t get an A on this exam, I’m gonna end up, not being able to get a job.” But that’s not the case.

Ali Abdaal: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. It’s when… I was doing the research for the book, there were some really cool studies they did on rats. Rats normally like play with each other and you can measure how often they’re playing by how much they’re like biting each other’s neck and all that fun stuff. And then they would put rats under stress by either putting them in a little like enclosed mesh type thing or by injecting them with adrenaline and cortisol, which are stress hormones. And they would look at the effect this had on their play behavior. And unsurprisingly, whenever the rats were stressed or when they were injected with these stress hormones, the play behavior massively fell and it took a while to come back to normal and all that kind of stuff. And I think this is a really cool illustration of what we all know to be true, which is that when the stakes are high and when we’re stressed, it’s very difficult to play.

Like when Roger Federer is defending his title at Wimbledon, he’s probably not playing because that’s the stakes are too high. And I think the problem is that a lot of us approach our work as if we are Roger Federer defending our Wimbledon championship title, even though the stakes are really not that high. And even though there’s really no need to approach it with such seriousness. So lowering the bar, lowering the stakes, making it feel like less of a big deal is often one of the ways that we can make anything feel a little bit more playful.

Okay, so inject some play to energize ourselves another way we can energize ourselves, get those feel good emotions going so we can get that motor going is increase our sense of power.


Brett McKay: What do you mean by power? ’cause that can be a loaded word for some people.

Ali Abdaal: Yeah, I think power is a bit of a loaded word ’cause it conjures up images of dictators and all that kinda stuff and having power over other people. But this isn’t about having power over others, it’s about feeling power within yourself or feeling empowered. Probably should have been called empowered. But like 3 Ps; Play, Power, People, it’s a bit more alliterative. And we know from the research that when we feel empowered, it drives intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation as your listeners might know, is the form of motivation where we are doing the thing for the sake of doing the thing rather than for some sort of external reward that we’re gonna get out of it. So power is essentially two things. It’s taking responsibility and it’s improving or leveling up as I like to call it. So taking responsibility. I think a lot of us have this weird notion that we kind of think of our energy levels as if it’s a battery.

And throughout the day the more things we do, the more that battery gets depleted. And so often if people are like feeling drained at their work, they’ll do the wrong thing, which is to disengage even more. They’ll take less responsibility, they’ll be more passive in their work. But as anyone who’s had that experience knows, it’s like there is nothing more draining than being passive in your approach to work. If you’re just sitting there passively waiting for the time to go and looking at the clock, that’s gonna drain your energy more than anything else. But if you can find a way to approach it with a sense of power by taking responsibility and ownership for the things that are under your control, then that engagement generates energy and makes it feel good. Even though like it’s counter intuitive ’cause it takes energy, it takes an input of energy to really take ownership of something, but it generates a lot more energy out of it.

And so one example of this was, when I was working as a doctor, I was fairly junior and so I didn’t have any control over what I was doing specifically. ’cause I had to do what I was told. I had to write the discharge letters or type up the notes or whatever the thing was. But I had a lot of control over how I did it. And there were some days where I’d approach it being like, “I’m just gonna do the basics, I’m just gonna follow instructions.” And those were the days where I had zero energy at the end of the day. But there were other days where I decided, “You know what, I’m gonna take responsibility. I’m gonna try and go a little bit above and beyond. I’m gonna be the one to follow up the patient’s blood results. I’m gonna find a slightly better way to do the notes. I’m gonna format the template for the notes so that it’s a bit easier to read.” Little things like that were ways in which I took control over the things that I had control over. And in those days, I’d feel super energized, I’d feel great, I’d feel joyful at work and I’d get home feeling way more energized than I did at the start. So that’s like the power of taking responsibility over the things that you can control.

Brett McKay: Right. So exercise your agency. There’s actually a great quote from Nietzsche about joy and power. Yeah. He says, “Joy is the feeling of power increasing.” I love that quote.

Ali Abdaal: Yeah.

Brett McKay: I think that’s what it is. Whenever you feel like you have, you’re able to get things done in your life, you feel like you can do more. And so I love the idea, you see a lot of self-development authors talk about this, start small, exercise your agency in that circle of influence, that’s Stephen Covey there, even if it’s really small, as you do that you will see that your capacity to get things done in the world might be bigger than you think. And then you can start increasing slowly that circle of influence and doing more and more.

Ali Abdaal: Yeah, that’s so true. Like one of the big things that I talk about in the book is the idea of leveling up. Like we love hearing stories and seeing stories of people who are leveling up, whether it’s Anakin Skywalker starting off as a kid and tattooing and suddenly sort of, he’s improving and he’s leveling up and his power is growing and then he becomes the most powerful Jedi in the galaxy or whatever the thing is. Like we love those sorts of stories where the hero starts off small and they don’t know very much, but they improve over time. And so similarly, if we can find a way to apply that to ourselves, like the single best thing I ever did to make working out feel good was to start tracking my numbers on an app. And so every time I work out, I feel like I’m improving. ‘Cause progressive overload, which is something you’ve written and talked about a lot, when I see the numbers going up, that feels really good. It feels powerful. Similarly, when I was writing the book, tracking my word count every day, help me feel this sense of progress and feeling a sense of progress is another huge thing that makes us feel more power and therefore makes us feel more joy and energy in whatever we’re doing.

Brett McKay: Okay. So own your work, take ownership, track your progress. ‘Cause that’ll help you see that you’re actually are getting better. And then you also talk about, sometimes you got to flip on the confidence switch. What do you mean by that?

Ali Abdaal: Yeah. So I think, you know, the third big component of power is, is this feeling of, you know, the psychologists call it self efficacy, but you can basically call it confidence, the feeling that you can in fact do the thing that is being asked of you or do the thing that you have to do. And the thing with confidence is that, one way of looking at confidence is that you’ve got to practice something a lot of times to become confident at the thing. And that’s certainly one way to approach it. But another way to approach it, which I came across when I used to work as a close up magician at parties at university. And that was really terrifying. It’s like, I’d be dressed up in my tuxedo with my card tricks in my pockets and stuff.

And I’d have to literally walk up to groups of university students at a party and interrupt their conversation and say, “Hey, I’m the magician. Do you want to see a magic trick?” That’s really freaking scary. And one of my mentors in magic taught me this idea of the confidence switch, where he basically said, “There is no difference between real confidence and fake confidence. And so if you are not feeling confident in any moment, just imagine turning a switch and imagine as if you are confident, imagine playing the part of someone who is confident.”

And there’s something weird about that. You know, it’s like when you do that and you just act as if you are someone who is confident, that generally comes across to other people as if you are confident. And now you get over that hurdle and you go up to the group and you do the magic trick and they laugh and you hopefully get the trick right and don’t make a fool of yourself. But I found that when I would do that trick, it would get me out of my head. It would get me into this mode of being like an actor almost. And that would, again, it would feel powerful. It would feel good. And that’s what allowed me to get in the reps of approaching these groups, where previously I was absolutely paralyzed by the thought of interrupting people’s conversation.

Brett McKay: Well, you talk about this in the book and there’s been psychological research done about this, the alter ego effect, creating an alter ego for yourself. Where basically it’s like Bruce Wayne and Batman. You have to have a Batman version of yourself that you can put on and allow… It gives you that confidence to do what you need to do.

Ali Abdaal: Yeah, absolutely. There’s a really cool, like a clever study that they called the Batman effect because it was about exactly this. They got a group of kids and they split them up into a few different groups. And the kids had to do some kind of task. And one of the groups, they asked to imagine as if they were their favorite movie character or cartoon character like Batman or Dora the Explorer. And then the other groups, they were asked to imagine different things and stuff. And they found that the group who imagined themselves as Batman or Dora or whatever their character was, they performed better on the task, they felt better about it and they were more confident.

And so the researchers called this the Batman effect. It’s what happens when you step into the alter ego of someone else and it could be fictional, it could be real. So Kobe Bryant used to have his black mamba, alter ego. Adele used to have an alter ego called Sasha Carter. Beyonce used to have one called Sasha Fierce. There’s been a bunch of people through time who have realized that actually stepping into an alter ego helps you get out of your head, helps you lose some of the fear that you have around whatever the thing you’re struggling with is. And I use this in my life now because I’m wearing fake glasses at the moment because I’ve had laser eye surgery. I don’t actually need to wear glasses, but I wear them because they help me imagine myself as young Professor X from the X-Men series. I kind of think of myself as a, you know, like a young university professor just sharing insights. And it’s not about me then, it’s about serving my students and putting on my fake glasses is a bit of a prop that helps me step into that alter ego.

Brett McKay: Okay, I love that. So increase your power, exercise your agency, own what you have control over, increase your skills. We heard you talk about that and then flip that confidence switch. Just pretend like you have that confidence. That can help you get the ball rolling. Another thing you talk about that energizes us is people. What role do other people play in us feeling good so we can get things done?

Ali Abdaal: Yeah, so we’re all social creatures, right? And we’ve all had that feeling of, there are some people that you hang out with who… You’re hanging out with them. And afterwards you feel super drained, but then we all also have other people in our lives where you hang out with them and then you leave the interaction feeling more energized. And psychologists call this relational energy. And they’ve actually studied it in organizations and they’ve created these energy maps where they go around and they ask everyone to rate like who is an energizer and who’s a drainer. And they create these maps and to see like who are the key people in the organization who are the ones who are energizing everyone else. And they look at the data and they find that actually these energizers, these people, they are more productive, they’re more creative. They are liked more by their peers. They get paid more, they get promotions quicker. Everyone wants to work with them. Everyone loves them because they bring the energy. And so the thing to take away from that is A, we should all aim to become energizers ourselves.

So one thing that you might wanna ask yourself if you’re listening to this is, to what extent am I an energizer to the people around me. Do I respond when they say something in an energizing way? Because if you do, then you’re probably giving them energy. But if you don’t, you’re probably draining their energy and that is gonna be a bad recipe for your professional development and for your life. But I think the other thing we can take away from that is just the power of surrounding ourselves with people who lift us up. And so that’s why right now I’m sitting in a WeWork. I like going to co-working bases because there’s something about being around other people that gives me a lot of energy.

Whereas for me, just sitting in my room or sitting in a hotel room or whatever in the office by myself feels kind of draining and kind of depressing. So I do whatever I can to get myself around other people. And during the pandemic, that was actually through Zoom co-working sessions. There’s this like writers group that meets four times a day and you’d get together with a couple of hundred writers around the world. It’s completely free. It’s called London Writers’ Salon. And anyone can join. And that was how I made progress in the book during the pandemic because it felt weirdly energizing being even just on Zoom with other people doing the same thing.

Brett McKay: Well, related to this idea of being part of a group to help energize yourself, you had this idea called the Comrade Mindset. What do you mean by the Comrade Mindset?

Ali Abdaal: Yeah. So the Comrade Mindset is sort of distinct from the competitor mindset. I think there’s sort of two ways to approach thinking about like colleagues. And we definitely had this in medical school. There were some people who approached medical school as if they were competing against other people. They approached it as if it was a zero sum game. There was a guy I knew who would take out multiple copies of the same book from the library so that other students couldn’t get their hands on it. That’s a very competitor mindset. And that is a really draining way to live because no one has fun over the long term if they feel as if they’re competing with a lot of people. It takes a lot of energy and a lot of stress to do that. Whereas the alternative is the Comrade Mindset. It’s imagining as if you’re working with everyone. Everyone is part of your team. This is how relationships thrive. You imagine yourselves as teammates, striving together for the common good.

The Comrade Mindset is you imagine you and your colleagues as teammates rather than competitors. And so you try your best to help them out. You share resources. When I was in medical school, I discovered the power of this, and I made a shared Google Drive where we would all put our own essays so that we would all benefit from everyone else’s notes as well. I know some students, they form a little group and when they’re in a lecture, they create a shared Google Doc, so they take lecture notes all together. And if someone’s struggling with something, they’ll put a little question mark and someone else will fill it in. That’s all thinking as if you’re a comrade with these other people. And A, it makes work much more energizing and much more enjoyable, but B, it also creates the sorts of relationships, the positive-some relationships that just benefit the rest of your life as well.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.

And now back to the show. Okay, so that’s energized. So we got to inject some more play, increase our sense of power, and surround ourselves with people that energize us. Let’s move to this unblock idea. And this is all about unblocking the things that keep us from doing what we wanna do. In your experience and your research, what are the biggest causes of us not wanting to get things done?

Ali Abdaal: Yeah, so procrastination, this feeling of distraction, this feeling of not wanting to get things done. Broadly, I think it boils down to three things. And those three things are; uncertainty, fear, and inertia. And if we can tackle those three things; uncertainty, fear, and inertia, that really moves the needle in terms of helping us get things done. The first one that often comes up is uncertainty. Like we’ve all heard people say, hey, you know, this year I’m gonna get fit or I’m gonna get healthy. But what does get fit or get healthy even mean? Like it’s very, very unclear. And when something is uncertain, when something is unclear, there is a lot of cognitive like brain power that we’re having to put in to even figure out what we’re trying to do in the first place.

It’s like if I’m trying to go to the gym without a plan. It’s hard enough to get myself to the gym. Let alone if I go there without a plan, now I spend ages just on my phone trying to figure out, “Okay, what am I actually gonna do?” And then it’s like I get demotivated and then I don’t wanna work out. Whereas if I just have a bit of clarity, if I understand when am I going to the gym and what specifically am I gonna do when I get there, that makes it much more likely that I’ll actually hit the gym and do the work. I think the same thing applies to our work, if you know you have to work on this PowerPoint presentation or the sales pitch or this landing page or whatever thing might be. And you know exactly what you have to do and when you’re gonna do it, that solves a lot of problems.

But I think there’s a lot of people have this, if your boss tells you to do something that you don’t quite understand exactly what they want or why they want it, that is a recipe for procrastination and for not getting the thing done.

Brett McKay: Now I’ve seen this idea of uncertainty stopping, I’ve seen it in my own life, but also seen the lives of people who read Art of Manliness. So over the years, we put all this content on how to do things, like how to get more fit, how to start whatever. And we often get emails from people who’s like, “Okay, this is great, I wanna do that, but I don’t know how to get started. Like what do I do?” And so that’s one of the reasons why we created The Strenuous Life, which is this online platform that we created. And we created, basically we created man scouts. There’s 50 different badges based around 50 different skills we’ve written about on Art of Manliness. But basically the goal of these badges is, okay, let’s say you wanna get into camping, right?

Well, here’s the requirements, just do these things. And the things, they’re not… You’re not gonna become an expert by doing these things, but the goal of them is like, “Okay, just get started.” You don’t know what to do. Here’s what to do. And hopefully by getting started, you’ll kind of create a flywheel of action. And so you’ll just keep doing it and maybe start digging deeper on your own. But yeah, just telling people like, here’s basic things to do. It’s amazing how much that can do to help people get going with them… With their goals.

Ali Abdaal: Yeah, absolutely. This is something that, so I’ve… For the last few years, I’ve been coaching people and teaching a course on how to grow on YouTube. ‘Cause people kept on asking me that. So I made a course about it. And it’s… We’ve had several thousand students so far and the single biggest thing that holds people back is this fear of getting started. And there’s sort of two things that come into that. There is fear and there’s also inertia. So the fear component is, “I am afraid of what other people will think of me. I’m afraid of judgment. I’m afraid of rejection. I’m afraid I won’t be good enough.” And so that’s like a huge emotional hurdle that everyone has to overcome whenever getting started with something. But then there’s the inertia component as well of just actually getting started and doing the thing.

And I love what you said about the camping stuff. Like people overthink this stuff so much. Often all it takes is to just get started. And once you get started and you lower the stakes, you can increase your standards over time, but trying to be perfect from day one is just a recipe for continuing to procrastinate and just never do the thing that you actually wanna do.

Brett McKay: We’re going back to this idea of trying to reduce uncertainty. So one of the common self-help, self-improvement tips out there, if you’re feeling uncertain about what you want to do or how to accomplish it, you’re supposed to create smart goals. I think we all know what smart goals are at this point, but you actually say smart goals, not as… Not that effective. You actually encourage what are called nice goals. What are nice goals?

Ali Abdaal: Yeah. Smart goals are good if you are already succeeding at something. But a lot of the time when we’re struggling to do something, it’s because we’re a beginner in that particular thing. So setting a very specific, measurable, ambitious type goal tends to demotivate us rather than motivate us. After reading a bunch of research papers about this, I found this acronym NICE, N-I-C-E, which is Near-term, Input-based, Controllable and Energizing. So near-term it’s not like what I wanna do in a year, it’s what I want to do this week.

Input-based is what are the inputs? So if you’re being a YouTuber, for example, it’s like, I am just gonna make one video a week. That’s an input that I can control. Or I’m just gonna write a thousand words. Or I’m just gonna write for 20 minutes. Rather than I’m gonna hit 100 subscribers, or I’m gonna get this amount of revenue, which leads to point number three is, you want them to be things that are controllable. Generally inputs are in your control and you want them to be realistic and easy. So when I first started my YouTube channel, I was not thinking, let me set a smart goal of hitting a million subscribers in two years. I was thinking, “I just wanna make one video a week. If I make one video a week, I’ll be happy.” And then the E is energizing. So we’ve talked about the three energizers, but we wanna find a way to make the process enjoyable so that we’re more likely to stick to it.

And then once you become good at actually building the habit of, let’s say, going to the gym or making YouTube videos, at that point, setting smart goals becomes helpful when you’re like, “All right, I’m going to increase my deadlift by 20 pounds in the next like two weeks or whatever the thing might be.” But that is really unhelpful for a beginner because it tends to overwhelm them.

Brett McKay: No, I love that idea of NICE goals. I know a lot of people it’s the new year. So a common goal that people are gonna have is lose weight. And some people might have like a lot of weight to lose and they’re saying, “I wanna lose 70 pounds.” And they might create a smart goal around that. But as you say, that can be overwhelming. So I really like this NICE idea. So near term goal you could create is like this month I’m going to exercise, I don’t know, you say like five days a week. So that’s near term, input-based so you’re just focusing on, “Okay, I’m going to train for 30 minutes a day.”

Ali Abdaal: Yeah.

Brett McKay: You have control over that. And then the other part is you have to find… Do something you enjoy doing. We had this one behavioral scientist on the show, Michelle Segar. She’s written a lot about this, about exercise. The key to exercise and being consistent with it is just finding something you like doing. So if the thing you like to do is ultimate frisbee, then like play ultimate frisbee. You don’t have to do CrossFit because you see some fitness influencer doing that. Like if you don’t like CrossFit, you’re not gonna stick with CrossFit.

Ali Abdaal: Yeah. Yeah, I completely agree. When I give this advice to people, one critique I sometimes hear is, yeah, when it comes to work, it’s like, yeah, but I can’t just quit my job and do what I find fun. [0:33:17.1] ____ Well, okay, sure. But there’s plenty of things you can do to find the fun in what you’re currently doing. And if you’ve tried all those things and it’s still absolutely miserable, then maybe you should just quit your job. But first, try the different things that can make work feel more energizing and enjoyable.

Brett McKay: This idea of reducing fear, you have a cool tactic called the 10-10-10 rule. What is that and how can it reduce fear?

Ali Abdaal: Yeah, so this is a pretty easy one. It’s like a lot of the time, fear is about the fear of what other people will think of us. So as people might know, the brain is a survival machine. It’s designed to detect threats. It’s got this negativity bias, which is why it’s so much easier to find problems than it is to find things that you’re grateful for, because the brain is literally designed to find the problems so that we can overcome them and like not die. And so we’re very attuned to our social status in the social hierarchy. Because back in the caveman days, the theory goes, if your social status got reduced, if you got ostracized from the group, you would then be out on your own and you’d get mauled by a lion or a tiger or something and then you would die.

And so part of survival is to be very aware of what other people are thinking about us. The problem is we’re no longer living in caveman times, thankfully. And if someone else disapproves of us or doesn’t like us for whatever reason or judges us negatively for something we’ve done, it’s not actually gonna kill us. It’s not actually gonna impact our survival, but our brain thinks it’s gonna impact our survival. And that is a big part of the fear that stops a lot of us from putting ourselves out there or writing a book… Post or making a YouTube video or doing a presentation or whatever the thing might be.

So the 10-10-10 rule is like a little thing I like to tell myself which is, “Will this matter in 10 minutes? Will this matter in 10 weeks? Will this matter in 10 years?” And some things it’s like, if I make a fool of myself in a presentation, maybe 10 minutes from now I will still be a bit embarrassed. But 10 weeks later, will anyone remember? 10 years later, will I even remember? Probably not. So I find that as a nice little hack whenever I find myself worried about what other people will think or fearful in some way.

Brett McKay: So you talked about the block of inertia. What are some tactics you’ve used to overcome inertia? So we talked about one is just lowering the stakes, having a specific easy thing you can do can go a long way. What are some other things you’ve found?

Ali Abdaal: Yeah. So lowering the friction is a big one. It’s like James Clear talks about this in Atomic Habits. If you wanna make more of a habit of playing the guitar, then put it next to your desk. Put it next to your couch. Put it next to wherever you happen to be. So that is very easy for you to just pick up the guitar and start playing. So that’s lowering the friction to it. The other one, and I think this is where discipline and willpower comes in. Once you’ve got clarity, once you’ve combated uncertainty, and once you’ve addressed some of the fears that are holding you back, at some point you do just have to do the thing. This is where applying a dose of discipline or a dose of willpower is really helpful.

And my favorite strategy for doing this is called the five minute rule. And so back when I used to have a desk before I went traveling around the world, which is what I’m doing right now, I used to have a five minute hourglass on my desk at all times. And whenever I would find myself not wanting to get something done or procrastinating, I would tell myself, “I’m just gonna do this thing for five minutes.” I would turn the hourglass over ’cause it was a five minute hourglass. Then I would say, “I’m just gonna do it for as long as it takes the time to run out.” And usually, as with Newton’s Law of Inertia, once you get started with something it’s a lot easier to keep going. So just doing the thing for five minutes is really good.

Another practical thing anyone can apply is if you’re ever struggling with procrastination, put on the song Bohemian Rhapsody because that’s exactly five minutes long on Spotify. And so you can just tell yourself that for the duration of this song, I’m just gonna do the thing. And at the end of it, if you don’t want to continue with it, that’s totally fine. But you might find more often than not, that actually you’ve just gotten rid of procrastination and you’ve just now started doing the thing. And now that you’ve started, it’s a lot easier to keep going.

Brett McKay: Going back to this idea of friction to overcome inertia. There’s a sociologist by the name of Kurt Lewin, he wrote stuff back in the ’30s, but he had this idea that behavior change happens within what he calls a life field, a life bubble. And in this life field, there are two things acting on whether that behavior change is gonna happen. There’s driving forces. So it’s like the motivation that’s causing you to actually engage in the behavior change. And then there’s restraining forces. So things are preventing you from engaging that behavior change. So it could be your social environment, emotions you’re experiencing, you’re sad, you’re hungry, whatever. But one of the big insights from Lewin’s research and his thought is that oftentimes when we think about behavior change, we think about increasing the driving forces in our lives. Like, how can I get more motivated? How can I increase my willpower?

Daniel Kahneman was have heavily influenced by Kurt Lewin and he said a better question to ask is you gotta focus on the restraining forces. And so instead of asking, “How can I make myself do this thing right, how can I increase the driving forces?” It’s better to ask, “Why am I not doing this thing already?” And so asking that question will help you figure out what are those restraining forces in your life? And then you can focus on that and that might be the thing. If you just take that thing, that restraining force out, that might be the key that unlocks everything.

So let’s talk about… We’ve talked about unblock. What about this idea of sustain, I mean this is all about how to keep the good things going that we’ve started in our life. And one thing that can throw a wrench into us keeping going these good things is burnout. And I think when we talk about burnout, we typically talk about it as this one monolithic thing. But you argue that there’s actually three different types of burnout. So what are those three kinds of burnout?

Ali Abdaal: Yeah, so again, just from doing a bunch of reading into the research behind burnout, me and my team sort of realized that there’s these three different types that you can target in different ways. And so the first one we call, overexertion burnout. Then we’ve got depletion burnout, and then there’s misalignment burnout. So overexertion burnout is what it sounds like. It’s where you are overexerting yourself. You are just simply trying to do too much stuff. And so the solution to that is to, as Oliver Burkeman tries to say in Four Thousand Weeks, which is a really good book, a just try and say no to more things. Try and do fewer things because the more shit you have on your plate, the more stuff you have to do, obviously the easier it’ll be to feel overwhelmed and burnt out. And a lot of us are living life doing a lot of the urgent things, but very few of the important things because the urgent things are very rarely important and the important things are very rarely urgent. But if we spend all our time just focusing on the urgent and putting out fires, we actually don’t get much meaningful stuff done. But also it really feels like we’re overexerting ourselves. We’re not taking enough breaks. And that’s really a recipe for burnout.

Brett McKay: What’s another type of burnout?

Ali Abdaal: Yeah, so burnout type number two would be depletion burnout. And so this is where you’ve been working for a more extended period of time and you’ve just run out of energy and you haven’t had a chance to recharge that energy. And so the trick here is to find ways to replenish your energy in ways that actually do that. And one thing I like to encourage people to do is think about what are the things that you do when you find yourself feeling drained or feeling tired? Probably like scrolling social media or like watching Netflix or like lying on the couch, just browsing your phone or whatever. But then if you ask yourself, “What are the things that actually replenish my energy?” It’s generally a pretty different list. Usually the things that replenish our energy are going out for a walk, going into nature, doing creative activities of any sort, doing something that increases our power, feeling like we’re making progress in something that’s unrelated to work. All these things replenish our energy, but it feels somewhat counterintuitive because you have to put in some energy to get to that replenishing effect. And often what we do is we just end up defaulting to whatever the easiest thing is, which is Netflix or social media and stuff. And so really the whole thing about combating depletion burnout is to recognize when you need to recharge your energy and doing appropriate things to recharge that.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And you have an acronym to figure out what constitutes a recharging activity and it’s CALM. So the C is for being competent at the activity. The A is for having autonomy. The L is that you feel liberated and M is for mellow. So what’s an example of a CALM activity?

Ali Abdaal: Yeah. So CALM activity would be something like, I dunno, painting. So the C would be competent. So if I feel like when I’m painting, I’m getting better at the art of painting slowly over time, that’s gonna recharge my energy. That feels really good. Ties into that stuff around power that we talked about that drives intrinsic motivation. A for autonomy, no one is telling me what to paint. I’m not working on a commission, that would make it not recharging, but I’m just painting whatever I feel like. Liberty or liberation, the painting has to be different from what I do for work. So like musicians who are professional musicians tend not to find music relaxing anymore because they’ve made it their work. They tend to find creative hobbies like painting, which are very different from what their work is. So they feel liberated from it.

And then M for mellow, the stakes can’t be too high. It can’t be something like you’ve got a deadline for a competition, an art competition. And so you’re painting to meet the deadline. That’s not really a mellow state to be, a mellow state to be is more like, “I’m just painting for fun, I’m painting because I enjoy it, I’m painting ’cause I want to do it.” And so thinking about activities from this CALM framework, some people find helpful as a way of figuring out, will this thing really recharge me or is it just something that I’m doing past the time.

Brett McKay: So one thing you have to worry about with, let’s say you find a CALM activity that checks all these boxes, there’s always a temptation to start sharing this stuff on social media and it turns your CALM hobby into a job where you no longer like it. So you gotta be careful with that.

Ali Abdaal: Yeah.

Brett McKay: Because I get the impulse ’cause you wanna share like it brings you joy. You wanna share this with others, but I’ve seen that happen with people where they fall into the trap of, “Oh my gosh, this has a following. I can make money on this.” And it’s no longer a source of joy, it actually becomes a stressor.

Ali Abdaal: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s similar to this idea of trying to monetize your passions. Sure it’s all well and good trying to monetize your passions, but if [laughter], if you start relying on that money that they bring in or start to attach in any way to it, it will stop becoming a passion. And back when my YouTube channel was a side hustle, I actually enjoyed making videos a lot more than I did when it became my full-time job. Even though being a YouTuber, it seems like living the dream, everything starts to feel like work eventually. And so you just have to start finding much more creative ways of finding fulfillment and enjoyment in it. Whereas if it’s a hobby and you’re not reliant on the money from it or you’re not making money at all or not sharing it at all, then it’s a lot more likely to be recharging for you.

Brett McKay: Then another thing with this idea of recharging, sometimes you just gotta do nothing and you recount this story when you were in medical school. You’re on one of those grueling tours in the hospital and the hospital is packed and you just decided, “I’m not gonna take a break. I’m gonna work through this, I’m gonna show my grit, I’m gonna show how dedicated I am.” But then you actually had a senior doctor pull you aside and say, “Dude, why aren’t you taking your break?” Then you were like, “Well, there’s so much to do there’s so much I need to get done.” And the doctor basically told you, “You can’t afford not to take a break. You need to take a break.” [chuckle]

Ali Abdaal: Yeah, yeah. I think that’s really cool. It’s like within emergency departments, which is literally… Again, you’re dealing with life and death, but even so, and especially, so every four hours you have to take a half an hour break. It’s like legally mandated to the point that like every senior doctor has to be looking out for who’s not taking a break, who’s taking a break. ‘Cause when you don’t take breaks, you’re more likely to make a mistake. Bad things are more likely to happen. You’re not gonna be on your best form, you’re not gonna be good vibes around the patient at the very least. And so in those breaks, sure you can try and go for a walk, do something relaxing or whatever, but actually sometimes what it takes is to just sit on the couch and just do nothing and just try and relax for that half an hour maybe with a cup of tea. And that is sometimes what we need to relax. I think again, there’s a risk of over optimizing relaxation where it’s like, “Oh, I’m only gonna do this thing because it’s technically recharging my energy.” It’s like, okay, that’s fine. But there is absolutely time to just do nothing at all. And doing nothing at all is sometimes exactly what we need.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about this third type of burnout. Misalignment burnout. How can we counter that?

Ali Abdaal: Yeah, so this is I think an underrated type of burnout. ‘Cause it… People tend not to think about it. People tend to think about burnout as like, “Oh, I don’t have any energy.” But actually if we’re doing something consistently that is not aligned with where we actually want to go, then that will really start to drain our energy after a while. And we’ll start to get one of the key symptoms of burnout, which is this sense of meaninglessness, purposelessness, this sense of, “Oh, I’ve got this job, I’m doing this thing, but like I don’t really know why I’m doing it. Like what’s the point?” And I’ve had that kind of feeling with my business and my YouTube channel at various times over the last seven years. And I’ve in doing the research with this book, I recognize that, “Oh wait, this is actually a symptom of burnout.” This is one of the classic symptoms of burnout in particular in men. There’s a bit of a gender split here. Like women tend to experience more like the emotional exhaustion, sort of my energy is depleted type of burnout. Whereas for men, a lot of the times burnout manifests as this feeling of purposelessness or meaninglessness when it comes to your work.

And so what we do about this is that and I think this kind of gets a bit heavy, which is why I put it at the end into the book rather than at the start, is that it’s really useful to try at least to figure out vaguely where you want to be going in life. Like what would you like your life to amount to? Because if you’ve got a north star, if you’ve got this destination that you’re slowly working towards, then you can make sure that whatever you’re doing is aligned with that destination.

But I think a lot of people either don’t think about this or they do think about this and the stuff they’re doing is just not aligned with that at all. And so in the book, I talk about a couple of strategies that I found super helpful for this. One of them is… Again, kind of heavy, but it’s just the idea of imagining what would you want written about you when you’re dead, what would you want your obituary to say? And so I wrote mine out a few months ago ’cause I like doing this exercise every year or so. And something like that where you just fast forward to the end of your life and you’re thinking, “Hmm, what would I want people to say about me? What would I want my friends and family to say about me? What kind of person would I like to be?”

And then what sort of achievements would I like to have had? What sort of impact would would I have liked to have on the world? That is one very good way of breaking through the limitations of the here and now of like just being short term focused and just really thinking big, thinking about the long term. And if we can do that a couple of times, then we can generally find that, “Oh, okay, that’s kind of the direction I wanna head with my life. Cool. Let me make sure what I’m doing is aligned with that.”

Brett McKay: David Brooks, he, in one of his books, he talks about the difference between eulogy virtues and resume virtues. And he talks about, most of the time men really focus on the resume virtues. So this is like the skills, the attributes you need to advance your career and make more money. But he said really the thing that gives us meaning is focusing on those eulogy virtues. Like what are the things you want people to say about you at your eulogy? And it’s probably not, “Oh, he’s able to crank out 34% more productivity and increase profit margins by 2%.” No, you want people to say, “Oh, he was such a great guy, he was a great dad, great husband, a great friend. He gave back to the community, he always made your day,” whatever. I mean, that’s the stuff that’s really gonna bring you the most joy and satisfaction.

Ali Abdaal: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve started reading that book is, I think it’s the The Road To Character.

Brett McKay: Road To Character, right? Yeah. That’s it.

Ali Abdaal: Yeah, yeah. That’s really good.

Brett McKay: And you also talk about in this alignment idea or overcoming misalignment burnout is you gotta focus on the long term, but then also don’t neglect the midterm and then also the short term, you can create different meaning goals for you on different levels to guide you to that long-term, meaning.

Ali Abdaal: Yeah. One of my favorite exercises to do, and I do this every few months, is the Wheel of Life, which is like this coaching exercise where you basically split up your life into a bunch of different sections and you just rate on a scale of zero to 10, how satisfied do you feel in that area of your life or how aligned do you feel with where you’re actually trying to go in that area of your life? So in health, it might be physical, mental, spiritual, in work it might be kind of career, money and growth and you can do relationships, which is romance, family and friends. And anyone listening to this, if you just Google Wheel of Life, you’ll find a bunch of different examples and you can just rate yourself on these things and ask yourself how aligned do I feel in each of these different areas of my life?

And generally, most of the find that we are misaligned or not satisfied in one or more areas. And that means that we can figure out, “Okay, cool, that’s an area I’m not aligned in. What is something I could do that would take me one step closer to where I actually want to be in that particular area?” And then sometimes what I like to do, and I do this again, I do this every year is what follows from that is you can figure out what are your goals for the year based on that or what are your goals for the next three months. So the new year is coming up and so the way I think about this is in terms of a 12-month celebration, 12 months from now, what would I like to be celebrating in this particular area?

So for me, I did this exercise a couple months ago. I rated my physical health pretty low because that was traveling and not making time to work out and stuff. And so my goal for 2024 is I wanna get into the best shape of my life. And I know to do that, I need to hit the gym three or four times a week, need to get my protein, progressive overload, all that fun stuff. I’ve got a fitness coach. But that is a goal that I was able to set because I recognized, “Hang on, this physical health area of my life is out of alignment and that’s a problem. So let’s just do something to solve that particular problem.”

Brett McKay: So I love this conversation because I think the overarching theme is just how can you make the stuff you do more enjoyable? Because if you can do that, you’ll be more likely to do those things. So Ali, where can people go to learn more about the book in your work?

Ali Abdaal: Yeah. Well firstly, thank you so much for having me. This has been wonderful. If you guys wanna hear more about the book, you can check out That’s the website that has all the links and it’s also available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, everywhere you normally get books.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Ali Abdaal, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Ali Abdaal: Thank you so much, man.

Brett McKay: My guest is Ali Abdaal. He’s the author of the book, Feel Good Productivity. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, Also, check out our show notes at We find links to resources, we delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AoM Podcast. Make sure to check out our website at where you find our podcast archives. And while you’re there, make sure to sign up for our newsletter. We got a weekly edition and a daily edition. They’re both free and they’re both the best way to keep on top of what we’re putting out there on Art of Manliness. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Spotify. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. And until next time, it’s Brett McKay reminding you to not just listen to AoM Podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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