I’m frequently asked questions about how to get started meditating, what is the best meditation for beginners, what is the best meditation for reducing stress (or training willpower, or cultivating self-compassion, or developing focus, etc.). Below is my favorite meditation for all these intentions.

You can listen to (or download) a version of these instructions and a 15-min guided practice here.

Mindfulness of Breathing

The intention of this practice is to turn your attention to the breath, notice when the mind wanders, and bring your attention back to the breath.

This meditation cultivates self-awareness, mindfulness, and the ability to make conscious choices about what you are doing. It also is good practice in not following every impulse or habit.

There are a few different ways to focus on the breath; choose the one that feels right to you.

The first involves labeling the breath. As you inhale, say in your own mind inhale, say in your own mind “Inhale.” As you exhale, say in your own mind “Exhale.”

The second approach is to focus your attention on the sensations of your breath. For example, you might notice the flow of the breath in and out of your nostrils. Or you could focus on feeling your belly expand when you breathe in, and release when your breath out. Let yourself notice whatever sensations of breathing are present.

The last approach is to count your breathing cycles. Each time you exhale, that counts as one cycle. So with your next exhalation, you would mentally count “one.” With the second exhalation, “two.” With the third exhalation, “three.” Continue counting until you reach 10; then begin again at 1. If your mind wanders and you lose count, simply begin again at one.

When you practice, you can use any of the techniques, but it’s good to find one you like and stick with it.

Your mind will inevitably wander. That’s not a problem; it’s part of the process. When you notice your mind wandering, let it point you back to the breath. Each time you notice the mind daydreaming, or planning, or worrying, or whatever the mind does – that is an opportunity to cultivate awareness, and bring your focus back to the present moment experience of breathing in and breathing out.

Have an attitude of compassion toward mental distractions. These are simply habits of the mind that contribute to our daily stress. When you find your mind wandering, gently but resolutely guide your focus back to the breath as an act of self-compassion — without self-judgment or preoccupation with the content of the distractions.

How to Practice:

Begin by practicing for 5 min, 1-3x day; build up to 15-20 min at a time, 1-2x day.

Meditate in a comfortable, upright position. You can sit in a chair, or on the floor with a pillow, cushion, or stacked blanket under your hips or. Sit with your back comfortably straight. If you are sitting in a chair, place your feet flat on the floor.

If sitting is painful, you can practice in any position that allows you to feel physically supported while also staying alert and awake.

Your eyes can be closed or open. If you leave them open, drop your gaze, and let the eyes rest, without wandering or focusing on anything specific.

As you practice, keep the body as still as possible. Make a commitment to holding the posture you have chosen, without fidgeting or moving around. This is an important part of training the mind to make conscious choices. See if you can feel the impulse to move before you mindlessly follow it; when you feel the urge, pause, and see if you can calmly observe the impulse without acting on it. Most of the time, the impulse will recede on its own.

Always end a session by appreciating and acknowledging your own practice. The success of focus meditation is your own willingness to sit, attend to the breath, notice when the mind wanders, and bring it back to the breath. Some days it may be easier to focus than others, but trust that as long as you are coming back, again and again, to the breath, you are cultivating self-awareness, mindfulness, and the ability to make conscious choices.

For the first time ever, I taught one of my 6-week courses live online this year. The videos from this course, along with all supportive class materials (e.g. guided practice MP3s, worksheets/homework exercises), are available for you to guide yourself through the course at your own pace. See below for all the course details, and register for the program at Sounds True for $49 ( 6 hrs of Continuing Education credit available for psychologists, social workers, and other healthcare professionals for an additional fee of $24).


Do you feel stuck in old habits that no longer serve you? Have you been struggling to make a change that you know will bring greater health and happiness into your life? In Choose to Change, Dr. Kelly McGonigal presents a six-week online video course on the process of intentional change that blends lecture, experiential exercises and guided meditations, Q&A with participants, and more.

What You Will Receive:
  • Six hours of recorded live video sessions, yours to download and keep
  • 6 Guided meditations (MP3s) with Dr. Kelly McGonigal, yours to download and keep
  • Archived online forum to connect with conversations/Q&A between participants and the author
  • Weekly recommended exercises to support your training

Drawing from her popular courses at Stanford University, Dr. McGonigal will present six weekly live video sessions designed to help you reach your specific goal. Whether it’s changing a habit, cultivating a particular strength, creating health, or transforming a stressful pattern in your life, you’ll be supported in choosing a personal focus and implementing the strategies for making that change.

Each live session will blend lecture, experiential exercises and guided meditations, and Q&A with the author. In addition, you’ll receive “real-world” homework assignments and self-reflection practices. And through the online forum, you can further discuss your experiences with fellow course participants along with Dr. McGonigal.

Mindful Awareness and Self-Compassion for Change

For so many of us, even the idea of change can be overwhelming. We fear that true change is impossible; we give up too easily in the face of obstacles; we focus on the wrong things and try to “control the uncontrollable”; or we might even think that we can’t be happy until we accomplish the change we most want.

In Choose to Change, you will discover how to create a new and healthy relationship to change, through a compassionate, mindful approach seen throughout the world’s wisdom traditions—and being verified today in the emerging fields of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. Learn more about:

  • Cultivating a transformational vision for your life
  • How to mindfully engage with your new choices
  • Identifying your core values and making specific commitments
  • How to move from self-criticism to self-compassion
  • The dance of change and acceptance
  • How to direct the ongoing flow of change

The Unfolding Process of Personal Transformation

From behaviors to beliefs big and small, everyone has something they’d like to change about themselves. Choose to Change brings you clinically supported methods—what Dr. McGonigal calls her favorite “science-help” strategies—for training the mind away from default states and negativity that no longer serve us, and establishing behaviors and attitudes aligned with our highest values and aspirations. Join her in this empowering program for reflecting inner change in the outer world and embracing the unfolding process of personal transformation.

Register for the program at Sounds True for $49 ( 6 hrs of Continuing Education credit available for psychologists, social workers, and other healthcare professionals for an additional fee of $24).

About two years ago, some participants in my Science of Willpower course started to name “technology addiction” as their main willpower challenge. It’s only accelerated since then, as we’ve fallen more fully in love with our devices.

Last week I stopped by the Toronto studios of the CBC to give advice about how to gain more willpower over the siren songs of your cellphone, email, Facebook, or whatever tech-drug leaves you never satisfied but always seeking your next fix.

Watch the video below. You can also listen to the full radio interview I did with Spark host Nora Young here. Or check out two articles on this topic from the New York Times, which includes my comments as well as other experts and leaders in the tech world: The Workplace Benefits of Being Out of Touch and Silicon Valley Worries About Addiction to Devices.

Kelly McGonigal on Spark from Ryan Couldrey on Vimeo.

In this 1-hour webisode of the tv show “Dr. Kiki’s Science Hour“, Dr. Kirsten Sanford and Dr. Kelly McGonigal discuss the science of self-control, why and how to become a “willpower scientist” in your own life, and what the latest research says about parenting strategies, behavior change, and motivation.

Watch via the link below, or download the audio or video for your ipod/phone/computer.


It was a blast to be on The Today Show! Check out the interview discussing my new book The Willpower Instinct,  and my Stanford Continuing Studies class “The Science of Willpower.”

Click to watch: The Today Show Willpower Tips

Interview by Matt Lauer. Original broadcast: 1/3/2012.

Whatever your New Year’s Resolution, there’s a science-help book for you.  You’ll get great advice mixed in with the funniest, most fascinating stories and studies science can provide. I put together my favorite science-help books for every possible New Year’s Resolution.

Check out the slide show on the Huffington Post’s Books Section.

[Excerpted Below]

The self-help shelves are full of guides on weight loss, health, happiness, and self-improvement. But sometimes the most life-changing ideas and advice are found in the science section.

As a health psychologist, it’s my job to help people make difficult changes. I learned early on that it was easier to change people’s attitudes and behaviors with a fascinating new finding than with platitudes or pleading. The right study doesn’t just convince you that you should do something. It gives you a whole new way to understand yourself and the world around you.

For example, when I show my Stanford students videos of an addicted rat willing to be electrocuted for its next fix, they report back that remembering this image gives them the willpower to resist temptation. Pictures of how the brain responds to bargains helps shopaholics understand their need to buy; studies showing the importance of self-compassion for weight loss convinced dieters to stop calling themselves fat, lazy, and hopeless.

And in my experience, it’s these “A-ha!” insights that give us the inspiration and motivation to make a change for good. That’s why I wrote The Willpower Instinct – to give people enough A-ha moments to tackle any challenge.

Want to know my favorite picks for science help to be happier, get fit, save money, have better sex, lose weight, break bad habits, be kinder to yourself, and more? Check out the slide show on the Huffington Post’s Books Section.

Bookstore browsing image by Martin Cathrae, licensed under Creative Commons.

Earlier this summer I had fun contributing to a special episode of “Strange Animal,” a weekly radio show on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that is a bit like National Public Radio’s fantastic “Radio Lab” show.

The show asks the question: “Why do we lack willpower?” and talks to three psychologists: myself, procrastination researcher Tim Pychyl, and David Walsh, author of No: Why Kids-of All Ages-Need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It. Then the host gamely tries out our theories and advice.

You can listen to it here or download it for free on itunes.