Kelly McGonigal on The Willpower Instinct – Talks at Google (Full Transcript)

Kelly McGonigal

Author and Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal on The Willpower Instinct – Talks at Google Transcript. This event took place on January 26, 2012 at Google headquarters in Mountain View, CA.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Kelly McGonigal on The Willpower Instinct @ Talks at Google


Announcer: I’m delighted to welcome to the Googleplex, Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University and the author of a new book, The Willpower Instinct. So in life, sometimes we struggle with choices and accomplishing goals and we often believe that sheer willpower will get us there. But much of what we believe and know about willpower could actually be wrong, or that’s what Kelly discovered in working with students at Stanford University where she teaches at Stanford University School of Medicine and the Stanford Center for Compassion.

So she created a course called the Science of Willpower at Stanford School of Continuing Studies and it became one of the most popular courses at the school and went on to become a hugely successful blog at Psychology Today and now a book which you can get your hands on at the end of this talk. And Kelly said, if she has her way, it’ll soon be an action figure and an action movie, too.

Kelly McGonigal – Author and Stanford health psychologist


Announcer: So today Kelly is going to talk about how we can accomplish the array of goals that we often struggle to get done. It might be a healthier lifestyle, it might be life of greater productivity or sometimes something as simple as having waited for 6 months, finally, finally, finally clearing out the closet. So please help me welcome Kelly McGonigal.

Kelly McGonigal – Author and Stanford health psychologist

Thank you. Hello. I’ve been giving a lot of talks this last month and a lot about New Year’s resolutions and I have to say this is the first place I’ve talked where there was apparently a healthy code resolution going on. Is that right? Did I see these signs right? So who’s still keeping their healthy code resolution? Anyone? Good, congratulations you’ve got some willpower.

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Why don’t you tell me just to sort of get things rolling, tell me something that has challenged your willpower today? Anyone?

Audience: Getting up on time.

Kelly McGonigal: Getting up on time.

Audience: Washing the dishes.

Kelly McGonigal: Washing the dishes. Okay, so we’ve got two kinds of “I Will-Power” challenges. Something you have to make yourself do even though it’d be a little bit easier to just not do it. Something else? Yeah?

Audience: Doing yoga for back pain.

Kelly McGonigal: Doing yoga for back pain. Well, I’m glad to hear that. Were you at my talk two years ago about yoga for pain? That’s great. Another “I Will” challenge. Something else, yeah?

Audience: [Inaudible]

Kelly McGonigal: Yeah, so an example of “I Won’t” power. There’s all these links you could follow and you could just click and get lost down the link hole and you have to find the ability to resist that temptation. Maybe one or two more? Anything? Back row, any willpower challenges?

Lunch options for today. Have you had your lunch yet? Or you —

Audience: [Inaudible]

Kelly McGonigal: Great, so we make lots of decisions everyday about what to eat and what to do. Okay, well, these are all great examples of willpower challenges and I want to just start with a little definition, my definition of willpower or willpower challenge.

And I define a willpower challenge as something that is basically a competition between two parts of yourself. Neuroscientists are famous for saying that even though we have one brain we actually have two minds and we are completely different people depending on which mind is active or which systems of the brain are more active. So, a willpower challenge is anything where those two versions of yourself have competing goals. So, for example, there may be a part of you that really wants to eat a candy bar for your snack and then there’s a part of you that actually has some longer term goals, you’re thinking health, you’re thinking weight loss, you’re thinking bikini season, whatever, and maybe the banana seems like the better snack.

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And, again, both of these choices you might be drawn to by different parts of your mind or two different versions of yourself and one of the things that has really influenced my work with willpower is thinking about it in terms of what’s going on in the brain. And we’re going to talk about that a little bit today — the fact that you could be the very same person but depending on your mindset, depending on your energy, depending on your stress levels, your brain is going to meet this willpower challenge in a different way and you’re going to end up making, one choice today and one choice tomorrow.

So, as mentioned, this book is based on a class that I teach at Stanford called The Science of Willpower, those are our actual students. I’m not sure what I said that was funny but those are actual Science of Willpower students. And I created this course because I was going around trying to teach people how to be more productive, how to improve their health and everywhere I went people said, “Oh, we know we’re supposed to do that stuff already, we just don’t want to do it.”

And there was this really interesting fundamental gap between what people wanted and what they thought they wanted. That is people we’re very identified, you could say, with this version of the self. People felt like deep down that they were the person who wanted the candy bar and this other person who wanted the banana, “Like, who is that? That’s not really me.” And I realized that people didn’t just need to know what is the right thing to do or the healthy thing to do or tips for stress management and productivity, they needed to feel like this person. And they needed to know how to be that person as the default rather than walking around always feeling like they had to resist this core self that only wants immediate gratification or never wants to do anything difficult. Okay, so that’s how the class came about.

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So, I thought today, since this is a class based on science, that I would share with you five of my favorite experiments from the class and from the book and I chose experiments that I like because they use tiny interventions, really, really small interventions to shape people’s behavior and they have very large outcomes. I think this is the kind of thing many of us are looking for: one small change we can make, whether it’s to change in how we think or change in the way that we’re approaching the willpower challenge that can have huge payoffs down the road making it easier to do what it is we really deep down want even when it’s sometimes difficult, or part of us doesn’t want.

Okay, let’s start with the first experiment. How many of you guys sometimes feel like this guy? I know at least one of you only had 3 hours of sleep last night. So it turns out that when you’re this version of yourself, every willpower challenge is more difficult. And the first intervention that I want to tell you about is actually a sleep intervention. The main intervention was trying to help people sleep more or sleep better. And it was people who had a very serious willpower challenge, these are people who were recovering from an addiction to drugs. And they were in a substance abuse recovery program. And half of the people in the standard care were assigned to take a mindfulness meditation training that was designed to help them improve their sleep or sleep more.

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