Find the fun: Former doctor Ali Abdaal's prescription for achieving more at work

Feel-good productivity expert with five million YouTube subscribers this week launched an online community to help members double their performance

Ali Abdaal says that when we feel good, we generate energy and boost productivity, leading to a sense of achievement that makes us feel good all over again. Photo: Cornerstone Press
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The day everything changed for Ali Abdaal came with the realisation that simply working harder would not make him any more productive as a newly fledged doctor working in an accident and emergency department.

No matter how much discipline Dr Abdaal applied or how many more hours he worked, it seemed he couldn’t see the required number of patients or finish all the paperwork.

Worse, from a personal perspective at least, was his deteriorating mood, difficulty sleeping, constant fear of malpractice, and almost non-existent job satisfaction – when all he’d ever been sure of before then was wanting to enjoy working in medicine.

But stumbling across research that found people who felt good about their work became energised, less stressed and got more done launched Abdaal into an unexpected new career – as a productivity expert who now has 5.35 million subscribers on YouTube and almost 800,000 followers on Instagram.

“It was always my ambition to be a doctor but I also knew that from a young age I really liked tech,” Abdaal, who funded his World of Warcraft obsession by becoming a freelance web designer from the age of 12, tells The National.

“I liked making websites. I liked the idea of doing something in technology. I also liked teaching.”

Now, all that has culminated in the launch this week of what he calls the Productivity Lab, an online community aimed at enabling members to double their measurable performance while enjoying the journey.

Long, steep learning curve

But his own path to this point has, Abdaal concedes, been long and up a steep learning curve. The first YouTube videos posted in the summer of 2017 were about a topic he had previously been teaching through courses and his 6med website – how to get into medicine, study efficiently and ace the entrance exam.

By his own admission, he had no idea what he was doing and, as with anyone starting out on YouTube, had no subscribers. On the first day there were about five views, on the second day that rose to 15 and, by day three, he had 30.

YouTube is the world’s second biggest search engine. People were searching for how to get into med school, and I was making videos about it,” he says.

Abdaal continued working as a doctor for about two years while increasing the number of videos he posted and branching out into different topics, such as how to become more productive and happier at work.

I started adding jokes and being a bit more light-hearted with the hospital discharge letters

It was a subject he became interested in while studying for a bachelor of surgery in clinical medicine at the University of Cambridge, compelling him to tack on another year to also do a bachelor of arts degree in psychology.

During the first 12 months of his YouTube channel, the budding entrepreneur made no money from the videos. Halfway through year two, the trickle began – £5 a day, then £10, then £15 until Abdaal had amassed £10,000 over six months, and it quickly multiplied from there.

“On average, you are making about £5 for every thousand views. If you do one million views a month, you get £5,000 a month. If you do 10 million views, you get £50,000 a month. And then you’re talking," he says. “Year three, I made about £100,000 from YouTube, and now it’s in the millions.”

Going with the flow

The real money began flowing in after he left medicine for good and went “all in on the creative lifestyle”, which was not so much by conscious choice but somewhat by accident.

“Here in the UK, you do your first two years and then by default you don’t have a job because you then have to apply for another round of residency training. After those two years, most people take a break,” says Abdaal, who was born in Pakistan but now lives in London.

He handed in his notice and planned to work in emergency medicine in Australia, but the country closed its borders due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

So Abdaal spent the various lockdowns making videos instead, and has also now written the recently published Feel-Good Productivity: How to do More of What Matters to You.

The pursuit of happiness

The core message of the book could possibly be boiled down to: success doesn’t lead to happiness. Happiness leads to success.

When we feel good, Abdaal says, we generate energy and boost productivity, leading to a sense of achievement that makes us feel good all over again. It goes back to the lesson he discovered after his worst work day in a hospital: the epiphany that productivity doesn’t come from working harder or being more disciplined but from people enjoying what they do.

I have somehow stumbled into this position of being a productivity expert because I found a way to make it fun

They can manage that, he says, by applying “three energisers” to the tasks being undertaken.

The first is finding a way to make the job more fun through the spirit of play, such as working with music in the background, from a coffee shop, or including others since “everything is more fun when you do it with friends”.

Having a sense of power is also key. “You want to take ownership of the process and the work that you are doing, and try to do it a little bit better," Abdaal says.

Finally, connecting the task at hand to a sense of service tends to boost output positively.

Work can feel draining when people feel they are doing it just for themselves or to make the boss more money. “But if you connect it to the actual impact it’s having on a real-life person, keeping that in mind makes everything feel better,” he says.

When Abdaal began putting these energising principles into practice, his demeanour towards patients became more cheerful and the discharge letters summarising their hospital stays were more entertaining.

“I started adding jokes and being a bit more light-hearted with these letters,” he says. “A poor doctor on the other end reads through dozens of these. So I started writing phrases like: 'It was a delight to look after Mr Johnny Smith and we wish him the best because Chelsea are not doing well in the current season and he’s a supporter.'

“The hospital got an email from one of the GPs saying: ‘This is the best discharge letter I have ever read in my life.’ So that was a compliment on my portfolio, and all because I just started being a bit more fun.”

Finding the fun perhaps comes relatively easy to Abdaal, who used to perform magic semi-professionally and is midway through planning a show that incorporates wizardry, music and a “side of life advice”.

The three energisers are not the total of all that Abdaal espouses when it comes to enjoyable productivity.

There are the three blockers (lack of clarity, fear, inertia), the three sustainers (conserving energy, recharging, aligning actions with values), the GPS method (goal, plan, system), something called DMN (default mode network, a part of the brain that gets busy when people are not focusing on anything in particular), and more.

Despite the years spent reading mountains of research papers and studying the personal creative habits of people including philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Olympians, Abdaal does not consider himself a life coach per se.

He also only begrudgingly acknowledges the label of “influencer”, having garnered a certain amount of fame for dispensing tips, advice and shared wisdom.

Just an 'ordinary' guy

Abdaal says he is actually a fairly ordinary person who procrastinates like everyone else, and most certainly is not a member of The 5AM Club or follower of the Miracle Morning (which each advocates getting up early to devote time to yourself), nor does he immerse himself in ice baths or take saunas to get more done.

“I have somehow stumbled into this position of being a productivity expert, but most of it has been because any time I am doing something I have found a way to make it fun,” he says.

“So if a random, normal guy making videos on the internet can do that, I think anyone can make their job a little bit more enjoyable.”

Feel-good Productivity: How to Do More of What Matters to You, by Ali Abdaal (Cornerstone Press, £22) is available now.

Updated: April 07, 2024, 4:45 AM