WOOP: A System to Achieve Your Goals Backed by Science
With the new year comes a certain type of renewed energy and positive thoughts. Suddenly, we feel motivated to pursue all the goals that we missed in the previous year. We come up with new year resolutions to improve our lives. And we’ve tried this before, but we vow to ourselves that this year will be different. We will exercise more, eat healthier, spend less, and stay on top of things. This year, we will be the best versions of ourselves. Yet after a few months, most of us fail to keep up with our resolutions. Research has shown that one of the reasons holding you back could be the mere act of fantasizing about these positive outcomes. The upside? That same research suggests a system for overcoming these obstacles that researchers have dubbed “WOOP”. I’ve used this system in both coaching sessions and my personal life. Let me show you how it can help you achieve your goals.
Indulging in Positive Thinking
We are often encouraged to stay positive about our goals. We believe that just imagining ourselves being the best versions of ourselves will motivate us to get there. Yet in her book, Rethinking Positive Thinking, Dr. Gabriele Oettingen says that her research has revealed the opposite to be true. It turns out, positive fantasies, wishes, and dreams did not always translate into motivation to act.
In one of her studies, she found that the more positive thoughts women had about weight loss, the less weight they ultimately lost. After a year, the women who had strong positive fantasies about losing weight lost 24 pounds less than those who were not as positive that they would succeed. In another study, she found that the more positively university graduates fantasized about an easy transition into work life, the fewer job offers they received and the less money they ultimately earned. Yet these positive students also reported sending out fewer applications than their less positive peers. Why is that?
According to some of Dr. Oettingen’s experiments, positive thinking can trigger a relaxation response. Merely thinking about these positive fantasies tricks our subconscious into thinking that we have achieved our goals. She found that the blood pressure of participants in one of her studies dropped after having positive fantasies about their wishes. This action can slow us down and prevent us from working toward our goals, which is the opposite of the intended effect.
So, positive thinking by itself does not work, and in fact, can actually hurt your progress. Research has shown over and over again that the more positive we are about our goals, the less likely we are to achieve them. But one of the reasons we indulge in these positive fantasies is the fact that we feel good about ourselves. Can we have these positive thoughts and still achieve our goals? It turns out there is a way to do exactly this.
Mental contrasting is a tool to counteract the negative effects of positive fantasies. In mental contrasting, you first indulge in positive fantasies about accomplishing one of your goals and then think about the things that are holding you back from realizing these goals. These obstacles are not meant to paint a negative picture of your current state, but rather to create a realistic view of where you are in the present. By performing this exercise, you tie your future fantasies with your present reality and explicitly acknowledge the gap between those. This process will also reveal to you that to attain that desired future, you must take action to close this gap.
An additional advantage of mental contrasting is that it helps to engage you more strongly towards achievable goals but disengage you from unrealistic goals. For example, an overweight person who has never run in the past might disengage from running a marathon in three months as they realize that their obstacles are too large to overcome. This realization will help them break down their goals into more achievable chunks, such as losing twenty pounds over six months. When this happens, we become more engaged with our goals and are more likely to make progress towards achieving them.
So, how do we use mental contrasting to achieve our goals?
WOOP: The System to Achieve Your Goals
After many years of research, Dr. Oettingen, together with her collaborators, developed a system that she calls WOOP. It stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, and Plan. In the scientific literature, this process is known as mental contrasting with implementation intentions, or MCII (but I think WOOP sounds more fun). If you’re interested, there are many scientific publications associated with this system. WOOP is what psychologists call “content neutral,” which means that it can be applied to any goal or wish you want short or long, big or small, professional or personal.
This system involves both positive thinking and considering our reality. It requires us to have some imaginative and introspective thoughts. I would suggest that you find a quiet place and really think through the steps of this exercise. The first time you try this, it could take between 10-20 minutes. As you get better, you can follow these steps in a couple of minutes. For all these steps, you can either write them down or make mental notes, it’s up to you. Here’s how it works:
W – Wish
First, think of a wish, goal, desire, or concern you may have. This could be a wish related to your personal or professional life. It should be challenging, but achievable. It could be long term or short term. Whatever it is, make sure that it is important to you.
O – Outcome
Imagine the best possible outcome after you achieve your wish. What is the best thing that could happen if I achieve my wish? This could be an emotion or a positive consequence. It’s okay to indulge in these positive fantasies. Let your mind run free and think of vivid images rather than rational or effortful thoughts. Focus on this positive outcome.
O – Obstacle
Now comes the mental contrasting part. Ask yourself, “What is it in me that is holding me back from fulfilling my wish and preventing me from experiencing that outcome?” Think of an inner obstacle as opposed to an external obstacle in your path. These obstacles could be a behavior, an emotion, a thought, a bad habit, an assumption, or anything else that you can think of. For this step, think of the most critical and internal obstacle. For example, if your obstacle is “I don’t have time to do it,” think about whether there are any other underlying obstacles. What else is taking up your time? What is making this wish lower priority compared to other things in your life? You may find that either this wish is not as important as you thought, or that there is a deeper obstacle that you can tackle. Once you have identified it, vividly imagine that obstacle and let yourself experience the feelings involved.
P – Plan
Think of a plan. What can you do to overcome your obstacle? Think of an explicit thought or action you can take whenever your obstacle occurs next. When you’re ready, form an if-then plan: If (obstacle x) occurs, then I will (perform behavior y).
Now, Dr. Oettingen cautions against using other forms of this “if-then” structure. One of the keys to success for this system to work is mental contrasting. For example, imagine that someone is trying to drink more tea instead of coffee. The statement “If I wake up then I will make tea,” follows that if-then structure, but is not necessarily a result from WOOP. The main thing to remember here is that you want to execute your plan after experiencing a given obstacle. If the wish is to drink less coffee, maybe the outcome is to avoid the caffeine crash at 11:00 am and be less cranky around your co-workers. The obstacle is that you have strong cravings for a cup of coffee first thing in the morning. So, the appropriate plan that uses mental contrasting would be: “If I find myself craving coffee in the morning, then I will make tea instead”. This may seem like a subtle distinction, but properly framing these if-then statements are important for WOOP to be effective.
To help you get a feel for the process, here are a few made-up examples of what WOOP might look like in practice. Notice that the obstacles are internal, and the plans follow the appropriate if-then structure. I have also written with different tones and levels of detail to provide you with some examples of how you might keep a written version of WOOP.
- Wish: Drink less coffee in the morning
- Outcome: Avoiding the caffeine crash at 11:00 am. Feeling better throughout the day. Being less cranky around my co-workers when I haven’t had coffee.
- Obstacle: Strong cravings for coffee when I wake up
- Plan: If I find myself craving coffee in the morning, then I will make tea instead.
- Wish: Exercise more
- Outcome: I will feel healthier and will not get winded when I take the stairs at work. I will feel accomplished after fulfilling this wish that I’ve had for so long. I will finally fit into the pair of jeans that I bought last year thinking that I would lose some weight. I will look good on all of my Instagram pictures and will be ready to go to the beach next Summer.
- Obstacle: I’m nervous about what others are thinking of me at the gym and I often leave before my workout is done.
- Plan: When I get nervous about what other people are thinking of me at the gym, I will tell myself that they are just as busy as I am getting in shape to look good for Instagram and are not paying attention to me.
- Wish: Finish my dissertation
- Outcome: Feeling relieved and accomplished. I’ll finally get to wear the graduation robes that make you look like a wizard. I’ll be able to call myself a doctor. My family will be proud of me.
I don’t have enough time to write it. I procrastinate too much(Close, but upon further introspection, I came up with something else). I am scared that it will not be good enough.
- Plan: If I am scared that my dissertation will not be good enough, then I will remind myself of the successful papers/presentations/posters/abstracts that I’ve created and will continue writing.
- Wish: Improving my relationship with a friend.
- Outcome: We get along better. Have more fun when we go out. Feel more supported by them.
- Obstacle: Instead of listening to them, I’m always trying to solve their problems even when they didn’t ask for help. Sometimes they just want to vent and I don’t let them.
- Plan: If I find myself wanting to solve my friend’s problems, then I will remind myself that they are creative and resourceful, and can solve their own problems.
Forming a WOOPing Habit
In one of the experiments described in Dr. Oettingen’s book, she showed that a single one-hour session of WOOP helped people exercise more for a few months. But to achieve sustained benefits from this system requires you to create a WOOP routine. There are a few ways in which this routine could be implemented.
For example, you could do WOOP every day by thinking of a wish you have for that particular day (with a bit of practice, it only takes a few minutes!). For longer-term wishes, you could write down your thoughts from your WOOP session and then revisit those as your schedule allows. When you do this, allow yourself to visualize the outcomes and obstacles as you did the first time. If it helps, there’s an app available for Android and iOS that can guide you through your WOOP sessions.
I hope this If you start using WOOP in your life to achieve your goals, let me know how it goes by leaving a comment below or reaching out on Twitter.
- Rethinking Positive Thinking by Gabriele Oettingen
- Dr. Gabriele Oettingen’s Research Page
- NPR’s Hidden Brain: WOOP, There It Is! 4 Steps To Achieve Your Goals