The Willpower Instinct

” **** out of four.” – USA Today Book Review

The Willpower Instinct is a new kind of self-help book. Using science to explain the why and strategies for the how, McGonigal has created a must-read for anyone who wants to change how they live in both small and big ways.” – Book Page

“A fun and readable survey of the field, bringing willpower wisdom out of the labs.” – TIME magazine

The Willpower Instinct combines the braininess of a Malcolm Gladwell bestseller with the actual helpfulness of an Idiots’ Guide to not being lazy.

If you are trying to lose weight, train for an athletic event, become more successful at work, rid yourself of toxic habits…heck, if you’re HUMAN, you need to read this book.” – Library Thing

Buy the Book (Hardcover and E-Book):

Download the Audible Audio edition of The Willpower Instinct

Articles/Book Excerpts

Bad Habits? My Future Self Will Deal With That. New York Times February 24 2012. The problem, said Kelly McGonigal, author of the “The Willpower Instinct” (Avery, 2011) and a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, is that there is a disconnect between how we think of ourselves now and how we think of ourselves in the future.

Lent and the Science of Self-Denial. February 23 2012. “Both exercise and meditation lead to greater neuron density in the prefrontal cortex,” says Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist at Stanford University and author of the new book The Willpower Instinct. It’s in that region that executive skills such as impulse control and judgment live — making it a very good place to be adding neuronal connections.

Revive Your New Year’s Resolutions. Parade Magazine February 19 2012. Willpower is not the brute strength to resist temptation, but “the ability to do what you really want to do when part of you ­really doesn’t want to do it,” says Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University and the author of The Willpower Instinct. “It’s remembering what you really want, your bigger goals, in the face of your immediate desires.” And it’s a skill you can strengthen.

You Say You Made a Resolution New York Times January 8 2012. While there were no self-announcing resolution-makers in the crowd the other night, there was — by coincidence — a Stanford University psychologist, Kelly McGonigal, celebrating the publication of “The Willpower Instinct,” her scientific study on the nature of self-control.

Control Freak Out Elle Magazine December 2011. The basic problem, McGonigal ­argues, is getting your goals tangled up with vice and virtue. Moral ­licensing “convinces us that self-­sabotaging behavior—whether breaking your diet, blowing your budget, or sneaking a smoke—is a ‘treat,’ ” ­McGonigal writes. “It’s an incredibly powerful trick of the mind.” Indeed, the treat seems more like a trick when the credit-card bill comes or the extra pounds pack on.

How Willpower Works Boston Globe November 2011. While we all give in to sinful urges on occasion, berating or shaming ourselves into getting back on course may actually be counterproductive, said McGonigal, leading to more slip-ups down the road. “If we want to have more willpower, we have to learn to be a friend and mentor to ourselves,’’ said McGonigal, “rather than equating self-control with self-criticism.’’

Make Over My New Year’s Resolutions O! The Oprah Magazine January 2011. To help reader Jennifer Wastrom make 2011 the year of living…resolutely, O brought in Kelly McGonigal, PhD, a psychology lecturer at Stanford University, whose courses, such as the Science of Willpower, cover tactics for personal change. She identified the shortcomings of Wastrom’s previous goals and introduced her to the finer points of successful resolution-making.

All About Willpower: Why It’s Not Enough to Say No Stanford Magazine October 2011. Early in Kelly McGonigal’s eight-week  course on the science of willpower, a middle-aged woman sitting in the large auditorium raised her hand and questioned whether the willpower challenges the instructor had been discussing were all that widespread. “We all get up in the morning and generally do what needs to be done. It doesn’t seem like all that many of us have a problem with willpower,” she said. To which McGonigal responded, in what sounded like playful indignation, “You are wrong!”

Supersize Your Self-Control Fitness September 2011. We all know a friend who seems immune to the siren song of cocktails, cupcakes, and canapes. Wouldn’t you like to know her secret? Shh…She’s found a new muscle to flex: her willpower. That’s right. Researchers have found that you can chisel your self-control just as you do your quads or biceps.

6 Ways to Boost Willpower U.S. News and World Report April 27 2010. Unfortunately, bad habits are really hard to break. That’s why 90 percent of us fail to keep our New Year’s Resolutions. So what can we do to increase our willpower? Actually, quite a lot, say psychologists.

Out From Under: Escaping the Burdens of Debt Stress Experience Life March 2009. The worry, distraction and shame associated with debt can take an emotional and physical toll on our health. Here’s a look at the confounding factors that make debt such an oppressive source of stress, and some tips [from Kelly McGonigal’s Science of Willpower course] on how you can break free.


Book talk at Capitola Book Cafe, 1/11/2012. Dr. McGonigal describes five strategies for keeping your New Year’s resolutions to get healthy, break a bad habit, or build a new one. Based on her course “The Science of Willpower” and upcoming book The Willpower Instinct.


Leave a Comment

  1. On the today show this morning you mentioned classes. Noticed your classes are all in the
    Stanford area. Are there any events/siminars in the San Francisco Bay Area?
    Does the Science of Will Power Class count as CE for nurses?
    We really enjoyed you on the Today Show and I would like to learn more but I live
    in Vallejo, CA.

    • Many professionals have gotten CE credit for my continuing studies classes, but I think they have to submit an approval to their professional organization; unfortunately, Stanford doesn’t have that automatically set up.

  2. What a great talk! I’ll be ordering a copy of your book. I also hope to incorporate many of your strategies into my advice to students studying for the bar exam. Does your book have more strategies like those mentioned in your talk?

    (FYI – I discovered an old article you wrote for Yoga Journal that eventually led me to this site. The long tail of the internet.)

    • I will be doing a a 6-week webinar called “Choose to Change” through Sounds True starting in September — look for the details on this site (or Facebook/Twitter) soon!

      • Can’t wait for this webinar. Will keep an eye out for it. Love your book. Been teaching these principles for many years and am so grateful for the economists like yourself who can secularize it and make it more accessible. Love your sister’s Ted talk. Will get her book as well.

  3. Kelly I loved the video! And I definitely will check out the book as will-power is something I must continuously work on. Funny, I’ve worked with Jane on The Lost Ring, but only now, while researching meditation, yoga, and chakras for a new urban-fiction novel I’m writing that I’ve ended up on your site. Best,

  4. Kelly, I just read the Willpower Instinct. Bravo! You achieved the perfect balance between science and practice. I look forward to incorporating some ideas from your book into my undergraduate and graduate leadership and organizational behavior courses. If you’re ever in Memphis, please let me know. I’d love to have you speak to one or more of my classes. Robert Renn, Ph.D., University of Memphis, Fogelman College of Business and Economics

  5. I listened to this book downloaded from I’m amazed at the relief I felt after understanding my past shortcomings. I made the connection between allowing myself to be human and fail instead of beating myself up over not doing what I know I should be doing. This helped to end the cycle of failure and disgust, and brought light and understanding where before there was guilt and shame. I’ve been given the strategies to make the changes to do the things I really want to do; strategies that will really make me happy and not just feel good briefly.

  6. Kelly, I recently read your “Will Power Instinct” book. Thank you for producing such quality research. A couple additional points for your comment:
    a) One of the reasons presented for wanting immediate rewards (from the delayed-gratification experiment between chimps and students) was that evolution does not heed much consideration toward future rewards. However, if such were the case, why is that the chimps (supposedly lower on the evolution chain) could find it in them to delay gratification?
    b) One additional stumbling block I have found toward self-control is that over time repeated indulgence can start to feel normal through continued rationalization or by a cultivated indifference.

    Besides these, I found the book very insightful. The treatise on Moral Licensing was enlightening. the end-of-chapter synopsis were amazingly thorough and helpful. For me, the “A tomorrow just like today” exercise had great appeal. The details of the distinction between brain interpretations of reward seeking versus actual joy were experiences were eye opening and transforming.

    Thank you again.

  7. Hi, I am almost finished listening to your audiobook and wow, what a series of revelations — thank you!

    However there is a male-dominated pass-time which seems to defy some of the rules laid out in the book (namely, masturbation). I say defy because unlike other traps such as fatty foods or shopping, it does climax to a true feeling of bliss.

    It can be a real time and energy waster, especially for legions of men who can now work from home and access loads of free stimulating materials online.

    But the effects can be even worse ; I have read elsewhere that the excessive stimuli received from the videos can backfire during the real act as the brain, which is lacking these graphic images, turns ‘the power’ down…

    Is that something your students have commented on? I’d be curious about which techniques work best to try to curb this a bit.

    • In general, the same basic principles of mindfulness, distress tolerance, focused distraction, and values-driven action help. It’s not the willpower challenge my students tend to volunteer publicly, but I know many are struggling with this in some form.

  8. Really a good study of the behavior of Human brain with respect to will power I think you have covered most part of scenarios where people shy away from their goals. This Book with one good Goal setting book will make a awesome pair. I would be grateful If you can write a book on goal setting and various process. I know pretty much good amount of Goal setting books but those looks to be out dated.

  9. Kelly, I watched your talk to Google employees on You Tube and thought it was fantastic! I recommeded that all my undergraduate management students watch it to help them build the willpower to study! And of course I recommended that they buy your book. Thanks.
    Robert Renn, Ph.D., University of Memphis

  10. Kelly, just heard your fabulous talk and am about to purchase your book – it sounds really fascinating. I do have one question (which may be addressed in your book and if so apologies) – is will power something which is in limited supply or is it replenished the more that it’s used? So for example if you have had a day full of temptations that you have had to say no to, will that make it more difficult for you to resist temptation by the evening or will it actually make it more likely that you would resist?

    Many thanks


    • Both. I try to get at the paradox in the book, and how to avoid willpower depletion/exhaustion. But think of it like physical exercise. If you do it with awareness and intention, it can make you stronger. The strength develops over time, even if you feel temporarily weaker. But I think this only works when you have this mindset, and feel like you are consciously choosing to “use” your willpower. If you feel like you are being drained by everything you “have” to do (or not do), that lack of autonomy is even more stressful than exercising self-control.


  11. […] but found myself beyond the point where I might fall back to sleep. So, at the recommendation of The Willpower Instinct, I meditated for 5 minutes first thing. Willpower practice; not a bad idea. After making breakfast, […]

  12. Fantastic, fascinating TED talk on stress by Dr. McGonigal and how you should change your view and approach to it for your own health benefit. Outstanding presentation. Come visit my MBA alma mater, Kellogg, and enlighten that audience!

  13. […] over the past few weeks I’ve read a book on shame* and a book on willpower.  I highly recommend them.  Between the two, I feel like I have a lot more of the tools I need to […]

  14. […] to turn me into something I never thought I could be: a willpower machine! I’m talking about Kelly McGonigal’s The Willpower Instinct, which I’ve mentioned here before. Presently I’m just reading it through for the first […]

  15. […] Angela Duckworth, a researcher and Ph. D. in Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, identified grit (defined by her as “the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward…goals.”) as the highest predictor of success in everyone from soldiers, to professional athletes, to middle-school math students. Furthermore, Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, identified daily meditation as a key tool for improving grit in her excellent book The Willpower Instinct. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s