We talk a lot about willpower here at Lifehacker — why it’s important, the science behind it and how to boost it. Kelly McGonigal’s career is dedicated to researching these things.
As a psychologist and lecturer at Stanford, her work (and most recent book, The Willpower Instinct) focuses on self-control, motivation, procrastination and how to overcome challenges to create healthier habits. When Kelly’s not in the classroom (or on stage at TED), she’s a founding member of the Yoga Service Council and group fitness instructor. We stole a few minutes of Kelly’s very busy schedule (she did this interview via email on a plane!) to find out her best time-saving tricks, favourite playlists, and most inspiring advice.
Location: Palo Alto, CA, and New York, NY Current gig: Lecturer at Stanford University Graduate School of Business and School of Medicine; Author; Speaker Current mobile device: iPhone 4 Current computer: MacBook Air One word that best describes how you work: “aholic”
What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?
PubMed is my best friend. I consume scientific/medical studies the way most peopel consume air and food. I still prefer PubMed to Google Scholar.
What’s your workspace like?
My #1 rule: no desk. I just can’t think or do good work at a desk, and every desk I’ve had becomes a storage space for piles of scientific papers. When I’m working from home, I’m either sitting cross-legged in a lounge chair with a cat and laptop on my lap, or typing in bed or on my yoga mat. I love lying down to write. Lately, I’ve been on the road more than at home. I’m typing this on a flight from JFK to London (pictured at left).
What’s your best time-saving trick?
I don’t cook, but I give myself permission to spend as much as I need to on healthy food. That’s my main luxury in life! I’ll splurge on a salad bar and then use that time for creative projects and work.
What everyday thing are you better at than anyone else?
Productive procrastination. Often when I should be writing a chapter or preparing a talk, I decide instead to do a deep dive on some random scientific topic, like “What’s the latest animal research on the brain’s default mode network?” I’ve stumbled upon so many cool studies that ended up inspiring articles or launching projects. I may have built my career on web searches I’ve done when I should have been doing something else.
Also, I am better than anyone I know at getting people to sing along in a Zumba class (I teach group fitness and yoga on the side). My secret: pick great music, be a role model of ridiculous enthusiasm, and tell them: “Making noise is good for your core!” If I’ve inspired anyone reading this to sing along during their workout, they should tweet me @kellymcgonigal. It would make my day.
What do you listen to while you work?
Music is my constant companion. If I’m preparing a talk, I like happy dance music, mostly house music DJ sets. If I’m writing or editing, drum and bass or classic jazz, like Coltrane. And when I need to go in to serious writing mode, I have an electronic and jazz holiday music playlist (I kid you not) that puts me into some kind of Pavlovian writing trance. (Best album on that list: OM Record’s Home for the Holidays). I’ve written two books and countless articles using that playlist. Five remixes in a row of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer may be your version of hell, but it’s my version of Ritalin. When I’m feeling writer’s block, I turn on background TV. Having to tune it out helps me focus. I cancelled my cable last year, but now that I’m starting another book, I’m going to have to get it again.
Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?
Introvert. People who don’t know me well and have only seen me on stage or TV are usually surprised by this, but spend any time around me and you’ll find out how much time I need alone to recharge from teaching, speaking, and social events. When I’m on the road, I tend to stay up late in my hotel room, reading and doing yoga, even if I’m sleep deprived or jet lagged. I need that time to balance the intensity of teaching and speaking.
What’s your sleep routine like?
I’m an extreme night owl, and I have my best focus and creativity after midnight, usually around 2-4 AM. This doesn’t work well for real life. The only time I honour my circadian rhythms is when I’m in deep writing mode. For exmple, the last couple of months of working on a book. Then I might write from midnight to 6am, and sleep until noon or 1pm.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without?
My printer, a hole-puncher, legal pads and good pens. I am so low tech it’s ridiculous. I’m a very kinesthetic person, and I need physical objects to interact with. It helps me relate to the ideas. When I’m working on a project, I like to have piles of scientific papers all over the place, so I can pick them up and sort through them. I create a binder for big projects and stuff it with printed-out drafts, articles and notes. I edit drafts by hand. Sometimes I cut up sections so I can physically move them around. When things are only digital, I can’t create in the same way. I manipulate ideas with my hands.
Pictured above: The binder from Kelly’s book The Willpower Instinct.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Feel the fear and do it anyway. It’s a cliché now, but when I first heard that idea 15 years ago, it was new to me and incredibly empowering. I’ve now gotten in the habit of chasing my fears. Overcoming my fear of flying is my best example. Ten years ago I refused to fly — now I’m on planes every week.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Although I’m trained as a scientist, I hold on to a lot of habits from my days as a visual artist. The process of translating science into books or talks is a lot like my favourite former art form, portraits. I just keep trying to see things as they are, look again and again at my subject, investigate it with an attention so focused, I can’t help but fall in love with it. And then I try to recreate what I see in a new medium, making change after change until it captures the essence of the subject. The reason I love what I do is because I get to spend so much time engaged in this creative process.
We’ve asked a handful of heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Every week we’ll feature a new guest and the gadgets, apps, tips and tricks that keep them going. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? Let us know.