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How to Get Unstuck and Get Activated as Election Nears

A proven 4-step approach to get mobilized and reach your goals.

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WOOP the vote
Source: Element5 digital/Unsplash

As the most important election of our lives draws near, do you ever find yourself:

  • Engaged in “slacktivism” when you really want to be engaged in “activism”?
  • Drifting into fantasyland to escape reality (even though this dulls your capacity to act)?
  • So overwhelmed by all you wish to be doing, not knowing where to begin, and in turn, find yourself doing nothing at all?

If so, the science of human motivation may help you understand this behavior and get “unstuck” and “activated” for the election and beyond.

The good news is, this is such a pervasive challenge that researchers have spent decades uncovering quick, evidence-backed solutions. Before I share my favorite step-by-step solution for getting unstuck and getting activated, let’s work to understand why this happens to begin with.

For this piece, I spoke with Gabriele Oettingen, a professor of psychology at New York University and the author of Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation.

Why slacktivism feels so good (even though it keeps us stuck)

Thanks in part to social media, many of us feel passionately politically engaged on a daily basis. But while we may feel like “social justice warriors,” perhaps we’re scrolling, liking, and sharing far more than we are actually taking actions that have a broader impact outside our social circle.

I asked Oettingen if there’s something about human psychology that makes “slacktivism” feel so rewarding — even if it doesn’t align with who we want to be.

She explained that this may have to do with our future fantasies. We may feel strongly about a certain political outcome. We may also feel strongly about our identity as someone striving for this outcome. “We can beautifully fantasize about ourselves being instrumental in bringing about that outcome, as well as the inspired identity of being a politically committed person.”

So as we scroll the political echo chambers on Facebook, we fantasize about being part of this community we admire, and this might even improve our mood and confirm our values.

The problem with fantasy

The problem is that such positive fantasies about the future may hurt our action to fulfill the wished-for future. Oettingen explains, “We discovered in our research, that, in multiple areas of life, the more positively people fantasize about reaching a desired future, the less successful they were.”

Why? “These positive fantasies, as pleasant as they are, give people the impression that they have already attained the desired future. People feel already accomplished, already in the goal box, so then they relax. You can measure this by looking at systolic blood pressure, or by their reports of feeling less energized.” But without that energy, we can’t reach our goals. Without that energy, we’re stuck, not activated.

Getting unstuck from fantasy

“You could say, let's get rid of these positive fantasies and daydreams about the future. Let's think negative. But that is not the way to action either,” Oettingen cautions. “These positive fantasies play an important role. They help us discover where our needs are and in what direction we want to go.” For example, your fantasies about activism may be telling you about your need and desire to have an impact.

Because these positive fantasies help us discover what we really need and where to go, she recommends to ask oneself, "What do I wish for? A wish that is feasible for me, but at the same also a bit challenging. What is it that is dear to my heart?” And when you have found your wish, you identify and vividly imagine the best possible outcome of having achieved your wish. Let your mind go!

But then you must bring in a dose of reality by identifying and imaging the central obstacle in yourself. Ask yourself: "What is it in me that holds me back from tackling my wish and experiencing that outcome? Excuses aside, what is it really in me that stands in the way?" After you have discovered your main inner obstacle, you vividly imagine it. Imagining the central inner obstacle reminds us, "I'm not there yet," and it shows the way of how to overcome the obstacle. Now you get the energy to actively go and surmount the obstacle.

This process of bringing to mind both the wished-for future as well as the central inner obstacle standing in the way of wish fulfillment is called mental contrasting.

Getting unstuck from overwhelm

In the face of political uncertainty, some of us are less stuck in fantasy. Some of us are stuck in overwhelm or anxiety. We dread the possible outcome of the election. We want to do 100 things a day to support the outcome we long for. We fear waking up with regret that we didn’t do enough.

Mental contrasting can help bring us out of this state of overwhelm that has us trying to do too much, but in the end doing nothing.

“Mental contrasting is a strategy to clean up your life in the sense that now you understand where you really want to go and whether it is possible to go there,” shares Oettingen. “If you understand that the obstacle is something which is too costly, doesn't fit into your life at the moment, or is simply not surmountable, then you can adjust your wish, postpone it to a better point in time, or also — with good conscience — let go.”

Think about full-time working parents who now also oversee their children’s at-home school. They may truly wish to phone bank for their candidate every day and imagine that they would feel really relieved if they did so. But then they realize, “Ooh, my obstacle is that I am responsible for my child keeping up in school and being happy.” Then they can adjust their wish to something more doable like, “I wish to vote, and share my voting process with my children so I’m setting them up to be future voters.”

Actively disengaging from a goal is very different from never getting to it due to overwhelm, Oettingen explains. “You can actively and with good conscience go away and save the energy for another wish that is more doable.”

She is quick to point out that some may discover they don’t have a wish in the political realm. And this is okay. This process is deeply personal and can be kept private. Your wish must be something that is true to you.

The four-step solution for getting activated

Now that we uncovered why we get stuck, let’s get into a reliable, speedy process for how to get unstuck ahead of the election (or for any goal that follows).

Oettingen created a tool called WOOP, which stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. It begins with mental contrasting (WOO), then brings in implementation intentions — or if-then planning (P), a strategy developed by Peter Gollwitzer. The entire process takes up to 10 minutes the first time, but then can be done in often less than 5 minutes. However, during this time period, you should be uninterrupted, quiet and slow, and you really need to take these minutes for yourself. There is no room for double-tasking.

WOOP has been used in different life domains. It has helped people do regular exercise and eat more healthily, it fostered weight loss, reduced alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking. It increases achievement and school attendance in school children from disadvantaged backgrounds, increases perspective-taking and negotiation skills, and fosters emotion regulation, among many others.

Here’s an abbreviated version of how it works, using the example of the election. If you’re new to WOOP please visit WOOPmylife.org for the full instructions. You can also use the WOOP app (website and app are without charge). It won’t take long, but it will include the critical nuance that makes WOOP so effective.:

  1. Wish: What do you wish for? In the next 4 weeks (or even 24 hours), what wish do you really want to fulfill for yourself, a wish that you can achieve, but that is also a bit challenging? Example: I want to leverage my power as a citizen by phone banking daily for my candidate.
  2. Outcome: If you achieve this wish, how will you feel? Example: I will feel relieved that I tried, no matter the results.
  3. Obstacle: What obstacle in yourself is holding you back? Example: I’m so exhausted that I could give up. [“Often, just in fully imagining the obstacle, you find you will discover what to do.”]
  4. Plan: IF you encounter that obstacle, THEN what will you do? Example: IF I start to feel exhausted, THEN I will call my friend and ask them to phone bank together.

As you go through the cycle, make sure to move through it slowly and quietly. Practice it, play with it, become a WOOP expert. You can WOOP as many wishes as you have. Use WOOP when you are stressed, but also when you are fine, but life can be a bit better. Use it for any life domain, for voting but for the many other important wishes in life as well.

WOOP will help those of us who need to find a way to move from “stuck” to “unstuck,” as the election nears and beyond. When you’re stuck and spinning your wheels, please remember: Making an impact — in and out of election season — usually begins with changing yourself. Tending to yourself, even if it’s just for 10 minutes, is sometimes the only next right step for getting mobilized.

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