Use This Problem-Solving Strategy to Achieve Any Goal

Mental contrasting as a tool for behavior change.

Posted Oct 27, 2017

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Source: Pam Brophy [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The key to successful goal pursuit depends on solving two sequential tasks: goal setting and goal implementation. The first step involves converting desirable wishes into strong goal commitment aiding subsequent goal striving and achievement.

However, setting a desirable goal does not guarantee that one actually commits to and strives for the realization of the goal. One has to be motivated and committed to reach the goal. The two key questions are: How do you arrive at a strong commitment to attain your desirable goal? How would you deal with potential distractions? The mental contrasting approach can help to answer these questions.

Mental contrasting is a problem-solving strategy for achieving goals. The strategy implies vividly imagining a desired future or health goal (e.g., overcoming a bad habit, giving a good presentation), anticipating obstacles for realizing this future and making plans on how to overcome the obstacles to reach the desired goal (Oettigen, 2014).

Mentally contrasting a positive future with the present reality motivates behavior change. The imagination of a desired future (e.g., losing 10 pounds) motivates the person to cope with obstacles (e.g., lack of motivation to exercise, or temptation to indulge) in order to attain goals.

Mental contrasting is different from fantasizing, such as indulging in thoughts about the positive future that seduces a person to mentally enjoy the future in the moment (e.g., how nice it would be to lose 10 pounds). Unfortunately, dreamers get nowhere in life without becoming doers. Positive fantasies hold people from achieving their goal. Indulging in the desired future ignores possible obstacles and therefore conceals the necessity to act.

On the other hand, merely dwelling on present reality does not give direction of where to go. By imagining the future and then imagining obstacles of reality, one recognizes that measures need to be taken to overcome the status quo to achieve the desired future.

In The Power of Negative Thinking (2013), Bobby Knight, the basketball coach, writes that having the will to win is not enough, what matters is having the will to prepare to win. That includes preparation and the elimination of mistakes.

The mental contrasting strategy has four steps: wish, outcome, obstacle, and plan (It’s called WOOP).

First, find your wish, and deliberate in detail about your desired goal. The more specific the goal, the better able people are to reach it.

Second, vividly imagine the best thing you associate with having achieved that outcome, such as a smaller waistline, or a new job.

Third, ask yourself what is holding you back from achieving your wish?

Finally, formulate an “if-then” plan for what you’ll do when that obstacle arises. “When the waiter is taking my order in my favorite restaurant tomorrow, I will order a salad.” “If I find myself checking Twitter, I’ll get up from my desk immediately.” Forming if-then plan automates goal striving by strategically linking critical situations (e.g., encountering a temptation) to goal-directed responses (e.g., coping with temptations).

Recent intervention studies (Oettingen, 2014) have shown that mental contrasting can be easily used by people of all ages and backgrounds to change their behaviors, such as engaging in more physical activity and eating fewer calories. For example, in a study on smoking cessation, mental contrasting of a negative future (e.g., lung disease) with the positive reality that needs to be preserved (e.g., healthy breathing) motivated participants to avoid cigarette consumption.

In sum, mental contrasting helps to achieve your wishes. This technique integrates one’s fantasies with a clear sense of reality. And then develops a plan that will help you avoid or address the anticipated hurdles.


Knight Bob (2013)  The Power of Negative Thinking. New Harvest

Oettingen, G. (2014). Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation. New York, NY: Penguin Random House.