Ali Abdaal's Productivity Principles Masterclass — My Notes
13 min read

Ali Abdaal's Productivity Principles Masterclass — My Notes

Ali Abdaal's Productivity Principles Masterclass — My Notes

I have been having an Ali Abdaal YouTube binge in recent weeks. His videos have been incredibly useful. I’ve taken a ton of easily implementable tips relating to learning and productivity.

I went ahead and decided to check out some of his courses on Skillshare. I took the following notes when watching his masterclass The Principles of Productivity.

I originally wrote these for myself, but one of the things Ali recommends is taking notes on books and courses you love and publishing them as content. So that will be a part of my work from here on out.

I found the ideas in this masterclass really on point and practical. I hope you do too.

The Productivity Equation

Productivity used to mean “amount of production.” But these days we don’t think of it like that. Now we think that productivity is about how much work we can get done in a set amount of time.

Simply put, the more output we can create, and the less time it takes tells us how productive we are.

Productivity = Output / Time

But there are some important ways to elaborate on this.

There is no point being productive, if you are not being productive with the right thing.

So to improve on the equation:

Productivity = “Useful” Output / Time

But the most important, and final part of the equation is the addition of “f” or “fun.”

When you find something fun, you don’t actually need much discipline or willpower.

So the full productivity equation is:

Productivity = “Useful” Output / Time x Fun

The Pilot, The Plane, and The Engineer

This analogy can help us think about how we should allocate our resources better when it comes to productivity.

The pilot sets the course for the plane, and figure out what direction it’s going in.

The plane has to follow the course, not deviate and land safely.

The engineer does three things:

  1. Makes sure plane is efficient
  2. Makes sure there is enough fuel
  3. Keep the system organised

10-15% of our time should be piloting our life, about 80% of our time should be spent being the plane, and 5-10% being the engineer.

A large part of being productive is knowing which of these you need to engage in now, and which you need to generally improve in.

Reflection question:
Which do I struggle with most of all? The pilot, the plane, or the engineer? In what specific ways?

The Three Myths of Productivity

Myth #1: I don’t have enough time

“Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.”
— William Penn

Our time is within our control. Every time we are doing something, we have chosen to do this, and that’s why we’re not doing something else.

If you don’t go to the gym, for example, you are choosing to not make the time.

One of the best things you can do to increase our productivity, is to eliminate the phrase “I don’t have enough time” to our language. Replace this phrase with, “I’m actively choosing not to make the time.”

You can track all of your time in a day, as an experiment to see just how much time you spent on what.

You can also use Screen Time on your phone to see how much time you spend on things in the week.

Think of time as kind of like a muscle. The more you train your “time muscle,” the more you can squeeze into your time.

Reflection question:
What am I avoiding with the phrase, “I don’t have enough time”?

Myth #2: I need to have motivation

What is motivation?

You have a thought, “I should study.”

Later on you have the action of “studying.”

The goal is to get from the thought to the action without much strain.

We put motivation between the thought and the action.

Thought + Motivation = Action

Motivation is essentially the feeling of wanting to do the action now.

Most of us rely on the feeling of motivation to do things, but this is a bad idea because feelings are transient and somewhat unreliable.

Instead of motivation, we should have discipline.

Discipline + Thought + Motivation = Action

Discipline allows us to go straight from the thought to the action. This is what separates us from a 2-year old.

This is also where the fun factor comes in. You don’t need motivation to watch Netflix.

Usually we need motivation when things are short term painful and long term useful.

Often, the things we need motivation for don’t have an immediate feedback loop.

We put in work, but don’t see immediate results.

Remember that success and motivation create a positive feedback loop.

Success leads to motivation, which leads to success, and more motivation.
Ali Abdaal's diagram from class

How to Increase Your Motivation

  1. Make the action more fun. Example: listening to awesome music when you’re studying, or make going to the gym a game of some kind where you track your results and try and beat your best score.
  2. Make the consequences of inaction more painful. An easy way of doing this is to put money on the line. You can also make a public commitment.
  3. Making the outcome more salient. You want the outcome to be clearer in your mind. Journalling and thinking through the benefits can help here.
Reflection question:
What is a goal I want to achieve? How can I make the process more pleasurable? Can I make the outcomes more tangible and desirable?

Myth #3: I can multitask

There is evidence that shows when we switch from one task to another, there is lots of what’s called “attention residue.”

Which means you fragment your attention if you keep task switching.

You will be far more productive if you just focus on one thing at a time, and try to avoid task switching.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi on flow:

“An optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform at our best.”

We are aiming at this with productivity. We want to enjoy what we do as well as being good at it.

How to Get into Flow State

1) The stretch zone

This zone happens when are voluntarily engaged in a task using up all of our attention that is just difficult enough to be interesting, but not so difficult that it becomes frustrating.

We want to be in this state as much as possible. With studying, we want to find this balance between it being difficult and interesting, but not so tough you feel like it’s impossible.

The Stretch Zone Question for Studying:

If the exam were tomorrow, what topic would I least like to come up?

We don’t want to waste time going to the start of the book. We go straight into the topic we’d least like to come up. This will provide that stretch zone for us.

You can do this with any skill or task.

2) No distractions

We want to avoid distractions that might pull us out of the flow state.

Put you phone on airplane mode, and turn notifications off on everything.

Flow requires our full attention.

If we get distracted, we are allowing ourselves to get distracted. There is no excuse. All you have to do is throw your phone across the room, and you’re free from distractions.

If you actually wanted to be productive and not be distracted, you could avoid distracting things. By leaving your phone near your computer, you are essentially inviting distractions.

Distracting notifications don’t make us happier. Flow state makes us happier.

Reflection question:
What is one or more situations when I was in my “flow state”? What circumstances and mindsets led to that, and can I manufacture those conditions for other stuff I need/want to do?

The Three Laws of Productivity

Law #1: Parkinson’s Law

Parkinson’s law can be summarised as:

Work expands to fill the time that we allocate to it.

This law was popularised by Cyril Parkinson who noticed this law at play while investigating the productivity of the civil service.

If we only have tomorrow to do something, we get it done. If we have three months, we’ll only begin working on it the night before.

Having too much time to do something is a recipe for procrastination and disaster.

In Peter Thiel’s book Zero to One, he asks his readers to imagine their 10-year plan, then try to imagine what it would look like if you were to try and do that in 6 months.

Even if that’s not possible, the thought experiment is still very useful. This is Parkinson’s law in action.

Artificial Deadlines

One way we can use Parkinson’s law to our advantage would be to set artificial deadlines for things that have no actual deadlines.

For studying, you could ask yourself the question:

If I had to learn everything about [big topic] by the end of today, what do I need to focus on?

If you are struggling with artificial deadlines (because you know they’re artificial), then you can always put money on the line by giving it to a friend and telling them your intention.

If you don’t want to do this, and you still can’t use artificial deadlines, the question begs itself…. “Do you even want to do this task?”

Reflection question:
Make a list of 3-4 long term tasks you want to do. What would you do if you only had half as long to do them? What about if you had to do them in the next 24 hours?

Law #2: Pareto Principle

80% of the results come from 20% of the effort.

This principle shows up in so many areas in life. So a small percentage of people earth a huge percentage of the wealth. A small percentage of movies account for a huge percentage of total gross revenue. A small number of musicians account for a large amount of record sales, etc.

Applying to Exams

We know that 80% of the marks, will come from really understanding the core 20% of the content.

To go from 80%-90% in a very difficult medical exam, would be so hard because after a certain point with effort you start getting diminishing returns.

Creative Work

In the example of creating a good YouTube video or blog article, there are an infinite amount of things that we could be doing, but if we can plan effectively we can put our efforts into the most important areas that will wield most of the results.

We know that in a YouTube video, adding more and more fancy effects will yield diminishing returns. We want the appearance and sound to be good, and the content to be engaging and useful. If we spent 50 hours perfecting every video, we would end up not getting many videos made, and the quality difference wouldn’t be substantial enough to justify the time difference.

Value Equation: Utility x Probability of Impact

Reflection question:
What 20% of my work is driving 80% of my useful output? And what’s taking up 80% of my time but not contributing much to my outcomes?

Law #3: Newton’s First Law of Motion

This is a law of physics, but it applies very well to productivity.

The law states:

An object is at rest or travelling at a constant velocity unless it’s acted on by an external, imbalanced force.

This means:

If something is still, it will stay still be default. But if something is moving, it will continue to move at a constant velocity by default. Only an external, imbalanced force can change this.

This is the idea of “momentum.” When you already have momentum, it is so much easier to keep going than if you aren’t moving at all and you have to start.

Action Steps to Apply Newton's Law

The 2-minute rule:

This comes from David Allen. If something is going to take less than 2 minutes to do, you should just do it right now rather than putting it on our to-do list. This prevents things from piling up.

The 5-minute rule:

If we are struggling to get started with any task, all we have to do is just 5 minutes of this task. That’s all we need to aim to do, and if we do only 5 minutes that’s fine. It will be a step toward momentum. But we may also do more if we feel inclined.

Don’t think about it and take a few steps forward:

If you don’t want to go for a run, don’t think about it, just put your running shoes on and get ready for a run. If you have to film a YouTube video, don’t think ahead, just start setting things up. Physically put your body through the initial steps of a task without thinking too much about the task itself. This will allow you build some momentum.

Keystone habits:

These habits are the prerequisites to bigger habits. When you come home from work you have two choices, change into your gym clothes or just sit on the couch. Often which one of these you do will determine whether you go to the gym or not. If you need to study for exams, the keystone habit might be cleaning your desk.

The idea of keystone habits came from James Clear’s book Atomic Habits.

The Three Powers of Productivity

Power #1: The Power of Habits (Consistency)

Habits are small fundamental units of productivity.

There is no point having a fancy productivity app if we don’t have the corresponding habits to use the app appropriately.

Compound Interest

If you can improve 1% every day for a year, you will be 37X better by the end of the year.

compound interest diagram from atomic habits

You must see the power of exponential gains through small consistent habits.

Habits Beat Discipline

When you have a strong habit, like brushing your teeth, you don’t have to motivate yourself every day to do that, and therefore you don’t need discipline.

The Power of Social Contracts

Ali Abdaal, has written a consistent weekly newsletter for 105 weeks. At the start it was a lot of effort. But he committed to doing this once a weekly publicly, and he has built the success cycle in his head so much, that it just isn’t an option for him anymore to not do it.

Newton’s law: It’s hard to get started, but when it’s a habit you don’t need as much effort anymore.

Unproductive Habits

You might have these small reflexes like checking your phone when you come home from work, or taking your phone to bed.

A simple change like leaving your phone across the room from you when you go to bed, could be truly life changing. You no longer check you phone, you go to sleep better, and you don’t wake up with phone in hand.

Identity Change is Most Important

For the purpose of productivity, you want to have the identity of being a productive person. When you see yourself as a productive person, then suddenly non-productive behaviours seem really wrong to you.

If you are a gym-goer, and you can’t train. Things feel wrong.

Likewise, if you see yourself as someone who is “bad at learning.” This will become a self-fulfilling prophecy and you won’t learn very well.

Identity and habits work together in unison.

Stop reinforcing identities through a perverse badge of honour. You tell yourself these weird stories that reinforce negative behaviours.

Power #2: The Power of Productive Downtime

Every single day we have tons of downtime that we don’t do anything with

How Ali Uses Productive Downtime

Ali works from 8am in the morning till 6PM in the evening. And sometimes he finishes at 9PM, and that also includes an hour travelling each direction.

Yet Ali, still manages to turn out multiple YouTube videos a week, a newsletter, run multiple businesses, produce a podcast, etc.

In his work, he sometimes has 30 minutes here and there where he is waiting for things. Most people in this situation would simply scroll Instagram on their iPhone. Ali uses this time to chip away on important tasks.

One night, Ali had 3 hours between 9PM and midnight where he didn’t have much work to do, and because he set himself an artificial deadline (Parkinson’s law), he got his iPad out and did a lot of work on his Skillshare class.

If we are a student, we can do flashcards when we’re on the toilet or commuting or waiting.

The Daily Highlight

This is taken from the book, “Making Time.” At the start of each day you ask yourself the following question:

What is the one thing I want to focus on?

The To-Do List

When you wake up in the morning it can be very useful to think up a list of all the things you want to do, so that when you are in your productive downtime phases, you can get those things done.

Ali uses a pen and paper, but you can use a to-do list too. Whatever works.

Relaxing Downtime

You need to find out what you really want to do for your “relaxation” time and how long you want to do it. Is 1 hour of listening to a fantasy book enough? Do you really need 3 hours of TV? Figure out what you actually need. It might be less than you think.

Reflection question:
What are some chunks of the day in which I find myself wasting time in ways I’d rather not? What useful small things could I do with that time instead?

Power #3: The Power of Productive Procrastination

Productive procrastination is a form of procrastination that is still in some ways productive and fun.

Some examples:

  • If a YouTuber procrastinates from editing his film by watching YouTube, he can still learn a lot that in the big picture will help his business.
  • If a person who is procrastinating from studying for an exam instead looks at other skills like web development, those skills might be very useful in the longterm.
  • Reading random articles and then highlighting and saving certain parts using Readwise, for example, for later use could help you a lot with the project of lifelong learning.

You can learn so many useful things through the power of procrastination.

Reflection question:
What items on my bucket/task list can I procrastinate my way to progress on? How so?

The Fun Factor

If you’re not enjoying the thing you’ve signed up to do, you are actively screwing yourself over.

A huge part of Ali’s life philosophy is figuring out how he can make things more fun.

If something is not very fun, you have to figure out how to make things more fun at every opportunity. If it’s not fun, you’re just screwing yourself.

When it comes to studying, it’s tempting to think of ourselves as a victim and doubt our reasons for doing it. But if you’ve signed up to something… you’re going to do it anyway so why not enjoy it.

Here are some ways to increase enjoyment:

  • Work with friends, or be around friends when you do your studying. You might be a little less unproductive, but you’ll have more fun.
  • Mindset shift: “Have to vs. get to.” Seth Godin has a post where he suggests the reframe of turning things you don’t want to do and feel like you “have to” into “I get to do this thing.”
  • Design the environment, so you can get a nice cup of coffee or clear your desk or play nice music. Small changes will make a big difference.

The Role of Happiness

You think that by doing more things and getting success, you’ll be happier. But in truth, when you are happier you become more successful because you enjoy the things you’re doing more.

Biggest Takeaway

Choose to enjoy the things that you’re doing every chance you have. Always be on the look out to make everything slightly more pleasant or fun.

Reflection question:
What do I have to do in my days that I’m currently not enjoying? If I had to how would I make this stuff more fun?