How to emulate Ali Abdaal and live a happier and more productive life

This blog post will go straight to the point. My goal is that you get at least a bit of value out of it. And maybe out of pure luck you will end up saving this article in your Instapaper to add it to your second brain. Wait what .. ? Hold on for a second I will make it all clear.

Ali Abdaal is an entrepreneur renowned YouTuber AND Medic Graduate who has shared hundreds of valuable productivity tips and life advice through hundreds of videos. The fact that you have seen many or none of his videos is irrelevant since I’ll be summarizing hours of valuable content just for you in this blog post.

Let’s jump right in!

There are three types of takeaways I have spotted from watching a vast majority of his videos:

  • 📖 Learning Techniques
  • ✔️ Productivity Tips & Mindset
  • ✨ Philosophy & Life Advice

I won’t be presenting here an exhaustive list of all the tips Ali has preached over his youtube career, but I will stick to the one I found the most useful and which I have applied in my own life as a grad student in economics.

📖 Learning Techniques

Ali Abdaal started his channel by producing informational content to help students succeed in Med School. Fortunately, he generalized his content to evidence-based learning techniques for students in all disciplines but also life- long learners!

  1. Use Active Recall & Space Repetition in your learning!

This is I think the piece of advice Ali has the most given throughout his videos. Basically, scientific studies have shown that you learn truly effectively by engaging with the material rather than passively rereading or highlighting it. Using Active recall then simply means testing yourself one way or another on the material or practicing over and again the speech you are to present the following week. In other words, we often think that to learn we need to put the material into our brains whereas it is completely the other way around; we learn the most by pulling out of our brain the information temporarily encoded. Scientific studies have also shown the existence of a forgetting curve, which means that without repeating at regular intervals the subject, concept or speech we want to memorize, there’s little chance we will remember it in the long term.

Tools shared by Ali which I have personally used with great results are:

  • Use the toggle feature in Notion to create active recall questions (Active Recall)
  • Create a retrospective time table with Notion or Google Sheets (Space Repetition)
how to use the toggle feature of Notion
  • Create a Magic Sheet in google sheets to test yourself
How to use google sheet to facilitate active recall

2. Building a second brain

We are constantly consuming information and are exposed to knowledge more than ever before. However, our brain is a bad storer and can only properly retain information through a long process (as we have just seen). That’s where building a second brain comes in handy. The concept is simple. You want to come up with a way to store all the precious information you have stumbled across on all your devices so that you can later come back to it and start really making use of it! So how can you create one?

Here is the system Ali uses. You can emulate it to enhance your learning capabilities :

  • Instapaper or Pocket — These apps enable you to save any piece of content you have stumbled across on the web so that you can have access to them later in a unique place.
  • Readwise — This app requires a monthly subscription but offers a free month trial ( 2 months if you use Ali's code). It basically syncs all the highlights from articles you’ve read in Instapaper or Pocket as well as all the ones from the books you’ve read with your Kindle into your notetaking app of choice (EverNote, Notion). You then have tonnes of valuable information easily accessible in a single place (a second brain).
  • Create a Record of the book summaries you have made — One of Ali Abdaal’s biggest regrets in life is to not have started summarizing the books he had read earlier. Using the highlights from your book directly synced into your notetaking app by readwise, you can easily summarize in a few bullet points the main lessons taken out from that material.

This video explains in great detail this readwise powered second brain system:

In that one Ali describes his process of book notetaking:

✔️ Productivity Tips & Mindset

“Living a happier healthier and more productive life” also means avoiding being a “waste man”. Besides all the usual productivity tricks (Pomodoro technique, 5 min rule, etc.) Ali Abdaal, throughout his vlogs as well as his knowledge-oriented videos, has shared many valuable Mindset tips.

  • “You are in total control of your time” — Learn to make the things you want to accomplish non-negotiable. An easy way to do so is to use the “daily highlight” technique: each morning simply identify and write down the single task you want to accomplish, no matter what, today (it could be a gym workout, guitar practice or meditation …). If over a large period of time you systematically accomplish your daily highlight, you will be amazed by how far you’ve been.
  • Practice “productive procrastination” — We always have downtimes where we can’t help ourselves deviating from the tasks we have to do, or we simply need a break after a productive Pomodoro session. However, oftentimes we end up unproductively scrolling through Instagram. Those procrastination periods or breaks could be used to accomplish tasks we actually find enjoyable but that we have postponed because of our urgent but less exciting task. So drop your phone and go play 5 or 10 mins of guitar, make a set of push-ups or read the latest economics article you have saved in your Instapaper or Pocket app! You can then come back to your original task having worked towards the accomplishment of other goals.
  • Become an AND person — There’s this kind of eternal debate between the specialization of the expert and the versatility of the generalist, which one should you aim for? Ali Abdaal provides an interesting answer to this dilemma. Reaching the 80% level of expertise in a field is often possible in a couple of years, while the final 20% are characterized by heavy decreasing marginal returns ie: it takes an increasingly disproportionate amount of work and time to really end up at the top edge of a field. This motivates the approach Ali has adopted, which is to become very good (and not a cutting edge expert) at the different things he likes (coding, medicine, entrepreneurship, productivity coach, etc …) to maximize the output he gets from the time he invests in learning (avoiding the ever-decreasing marginal return part of learning). This is what becoming an AND person is, it’s time-efficient and it has underrated benefits in terms of creativity, mind openness, and agility reasoning.

✨ Philosophy & Life Advice

More than simply giving learning techniques and productivity tips, Ali Abdaal provides completely mind-shifting advice that unlocks access to a happier and more productive life. At last, here are some more philosophical perspectives from Ali Abdaal that I found profoundly insightful:

  • Focus on the things within your control — Of course, it is impossible to avoid many of our emotional responses to external events, people … However, cultivating this approach in the process of analyzing our reactions is a great tool to refocus and prevent them from distracting us from our path. Ali in many of his videos explains concretely how this stoic approach improves his happiness. For example, at the very end, he only has the power to create a video for which he feels satisfied, but he has no control over the number of views the video will end up making. Acknowledging it frees the video creation process from a lot of anxiety and headaches.
  • Focus on the process — Setting a goal gives you a direction, a path. At best it helps achieve the first steps in your journey. However, only by following a good process and embracing it will you manage to reach the finishing line. Consistency and perseverance are the biggest drivers of success. We overestimate the role of talent, whereas preparation and learning to love the process are the only things you need to become a high achiever. Let me illustrate this wordy wisdom with a personal example: I’ve often struggled to maintain consistency in my workouts (especially during the lockdown period). I learned to stop focusing on the end goal (muscle growth) and create a process I love. Each time I workout I now listen to my favorite podcast (Tim Ferris Show). I hence look forward to workout as I know that I'll enjoy some fabulous insights. Once finished, I savor the fact of having trained my body and enriched my brain simultaneously. I am then super motivated and following my workout process becomes tremendously more enjoyable.
  • “What matters is to make the game continue to go on” — We have seen how great success isn’t achieved solely by setting the right goals, but by constructing for oneself the right process to which we can stick to. But embracing the process can bring more than success; it ultimately leads you to experience more happiness. In fact, Ali Abdaal underlines in many of his videos how hedonic adaptation leads us goal after goal to experience the same insatiable unsatisfaction. Focusing on making “the game continue to go on” simply means to learn to enjoy the process per se. Hence, you should dedicate attention to preserving it, rather than try to accomplish ephemeral satisfactory goals (for example, hit a certain number of subscribers).

🚀 That’s it for now …

This is it, already! I hope you’ve found some useful pieces of advice, skimming through my first ever blog post. As you have probably noticed I am not a native English speaker. I am actually a French student learning economics in Paris, and this blog is part of my efforts to improve my English writing skills. I’ll be writing once a month about productivity, economics, or life as a grad’ student. Hope you’ll enjoy!

I am a grad' student in Economics trying to keep in check my cognitive biases and my reasoning heuristics.