What's the Best Way to Reach Your 2020 Goals?

Research shows that visualization alone doesn't work without this key strategy

Posted Jan 01, 2019

James Mann from Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons
New Year's Fireworks
Source: James Mann from Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons

Each year as we set our New Year’s resolutions, new possibilities dance through our heads. We’d like to become more fit, lose weight, learn a new language, go back to school, write a book, or begin that special project we’ve been dreaming about—but all too often our momentum drops as something keeps getting in the way.

A lot of books out there tell us to visualize our goals. Positive visualization is powerful, but not enough. In fact, visualization may even sabotage you.

Despite the claims of many self-help books, New York University social psychologist Gabriele Oettingen has found that visualizing our goals is actually counterproductive (Oettingen, 2014) because it fools our brains into believing we've already achieved the success we seek. The result: we feel happy and more relaxed.

But this response sabotages us because in order to achieve our goals, we need to be energized, not relaxed. Positive visualization does just the opposite. In fact, in one experiment, Oettingen and her colleagues found that women who visualized reaching their goals for only six minutes experienced a significant drop in energy.( Kappes, & Oettingen, 2011).

​​Building on over 20 years of motivation research, Oettingen has developed Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions, a powerful strategy known as Wish-Outcome-Obstacle-Plan or WOOP, which  combines visualization with proven techniques of mental contrasting and "if-then" planning to help us achieve our goals (Oettingen, 2014; Oettingen, & Gollwitzer, 2010).

​Using WOOP works because it focuses our attention on what we want, then increases our energy, motivation and positive momentum by asking us first to visualize our goal, then to discover an inner obstacle and develop an action plan to overcome it.

Here's how you can use WOOP to achieve your New Year’s resolutions, focusing on one important goal at a time.

1. W/Wish

​In WOOP, the 'W' is a wish in your personal or professional life. For example, you might wish to become more fit this year by exercising regularly. You consider your choices—taking a class, working out at the gym, running or walking--and decide to go for a brisk 30-minute walk three times a week.

2. O/Outcome

​Now think of the first 'O' in WOOP—the outcome, how you'll feel going for that brisk walk in your neighborhood or a nearby park. Take a deep breath and close your eyes. Let your emotions and imagination take you to your goal as vividly as possible. Feel yourself breathe in the cool fresh air, see the sunlight flickering through the trees, and feel the gentle breeze on your skin. Feel your legs moving in a confident stride, your arms swinging, heart beating, and your body feeling vibrantly, joyously alive. .

3. O/Obstacle

Now when you are ready, focus on the second 'O' in WOOP: the obstacle—going beyond any external obstacle to something internal. What inside of you has been holding you back?

This obstacle could be a behavior, an old belief, a habit or emotion. It could be something you've been trying to hide, perhaps an old pattern from childhood:

  • a feeling of being "less than" or “not good enough,”
  • feeling anxious when you begin a new project,
  • being easily distracted,
  • harboring a fear of failure that keeps you from trying, or
  • feeling overly responsible, afraid of reaching out to meet your own needs, letting demands from work, friends, and family distract you from your personal goals.

Take a deep breath and really tune in to this inner obstacle. What is it and what feelings do you experience?

4. P/Plan

​Then move on to the 'P' in WOOP, your Plan.  Think of an action you can take or something you can tell yourself to overcome the obstacle. Then make an if-then plan: if [the obstacle] occurs, then I will [take my chosen action].

Some examples:

  • If your obstacle is feeling inferior, anxious, or fearful, then think of a past success and tell yourself, "I CAN do this."
  • If your obstacle is getting distracted by phone calls or text messages when heading for your workout, then let the calls go to voice mail, or turn off the phone.
  • If your obstacle is feeling overly responsible and caving in to others’ demands, then tell yourself you'll deal with this issue after your workout.

​Now it's your turn. Think of an if-then plan that connects your own inner obstacle with your chosen action.

Using WOOP is more effective than relying on willpower alone. According to Gabriele. Oettingen, WOOP sets up an automatic "nonconscious" reaction to move us toward our goals (Oettingen, 2014).

You can also use WOOP each morning to focus on your top goal for the day:

  • ​First identify the 'W,' what you wish to accomplish that day.
  • Next visualize the 'O,' the outcome—how you'll feel when you accomplish this.
  • Then think of an 'O,' an internal obstacle that could block your progress.
  • Finally, come up with a 'P,' an action plan to overcome the obstacle, putting it into an if-then statement.

You can even download a free smartphone app to take you through these four steps at

Using WOOP on a regular basis can keep you more motivated to move forward. You'll feel more focused and energized, developing the powerful momentum you need to achieve your goals this year.


Kappes, H. B. & Oettingen, G. (2011). Positive fantasies about idealized futures sap energy. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 719-729.

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

Oettingen, G., & Gollwitzer, P.M. (2010). Strategies of setting and implementing goals: Mental contrasting and implementation intentions. In: J.E. Maddux & J.P. Tangney (Eds.), Social psychological foundations of clinical psychology (pp.114-135). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

WOOP My Life. A three-minute video to help you apply WOOP to your life can be found at You can also an android or iPhone app.

Photo: New Year’s Fireworks. James Mann from Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada Wikimedia Commons.