Gabriele Oettingen Ph.D.

A New Take

The Simple Technique for Achieving Your Goals

Based on 20 years of research, the new science of motivation.

Posted Dec 07, 2015

In my 20 years of research on the science of motivation, I’ve found that the conventional wisdom of “think positively” falls short. In fact, my research has confirmed that dreaming about the future actually makes people less likely to realize their dreams and wishes. A new strategy to visualize our future that emerged from the work I’ve done is called “mental contrasting” which combines focusing on our dreams with visualizing the obstacles that stand in our way. By experiencing our dreams in our minds and facing reality we can address our fears, make concrete plans, and gain energy to take action. In my studies, people who have applied mental contrasting have become significantly more motivated to quit cigarettes, lose weight, get better grades, sustain healthier relationships, and negotiate more effectively in business situations.

As I started to teach mental contrasting, I realized that I needed a better name to capture the key steps. WOOP, which stands for Wish Outcome Obstacle Plan, is an easy to learn four-step procedure:

  • The “W” stands for a wish or concern. Step back and think about one wish in your life that you would like to accomplish.
  • “O” is the outcome. Identify the best thing that can be associated with fulfilling your wish and imagine the relevant events and experience as vividly as possible.
  • The second “O” is the obstacle. Find the most critical, internal obstacle that prevents you from fulfilling the wish and identify what thoughts or behaviors might play a role.
  • The “P” stands for the plan. Name one thought or action that can be taken to overcome your obstacle and think about when and where the obstacle will next occur.

WOOP can be applied to both short- and long-term goals and is scientifically shown to help you become more energized and directed.

WOOP is like any tool-a hammer, a piano, a bicycle-in that people will use it in different ways and to different ends.  In some  situations, people  will  use WOOP to  adjust  their  wishes, whereas in  other  circumstances they  will use it to identify obstacles  that  prove  difficult  to overcome, to disengage  from  pursuits  that are  making them  unhappy, to  pursue   dreams that have  eluded  them  in  the  past,  or  simply  to  understand their wishes   better. No matter how you choose to use WOOP, re­ member that this strategy is fundamentally about connecting to others and to the world at large.  Yes, you  learn  a  lot  about yourself   through the  process of  mental   contrasting, but  that self-knowledge always  exists  in service to the larger  purpose of a connection with  others and the world.

People today are always in motion, running toward and away from wishes and goals-toward and away from connections. WOOP allows you to tap into this constant movement, to join it, to become part of the flow of life, to move in a particular direction. Using WOOP to overcome fears and anxieties allows you to welcome the outside in; you free yourself to connect with others. Even in the  case  of wishes  that  seem  on  the  surface  to only involve you-a fitness or health  wish  for example, such  as sleeping  better, weighing less,  or  eating  better-using WOOP enables you  to engage  more  actively  with  life.  You feel better and you have more energy, so you're more inclined to participate in activities you might have shied away from before.  Even the act of engaging in WOOP tends to get you outside of yourself by prompting you to identify the obstacle, which very often involves someone else.

WOOP is an opportunity to get unstuck and come out of your shell. Even in societies  in which  certain freedoms are guaranteed and  our  choices  of action  are  many, we all don't necessarily have the ability to be free, because we suffer from hang-ups or  sensitivities  that bedevil  us. We tell ourselves we can't do certain things. We fail to look our insecurities in the face, blaming others or circumstances outside of us for our frustrations. We need to work at becoming free. We need to regulate our­ selves so that at each moment we pursue what we actually want to pursue, not necessarily what other people tell us to pursue or what we think they want us to pursue. We also have to regulate ourselves so that we can wisely choose among the thousands of paths open to us. Something as simple as taking a moment to envision a longed-for future and then identifying how we are blocking our own wishes makes all the difference. Cutting through layers  of excuses  and  untested beliefs, sifting  through conflicting priorities, we  launch  ourselves  toward our  feasible dreams and  away from  unfeasible ones. Mobilizing our non-­conscious minds, we  lock  in  to our  attainable desires  and  ensure that we're  moving  ahead  along  our  chosen  paths  with  our full energies.

We are just beginning to rethink positive thinking, evolving the new science of motivation and mobilizing it to improve individuals' lives and address social problems. But what we do know is very clear. To make the most of our lives, we must face up to the role we play in hamstringing our own wishes.  Doing so isn't complicated, but it is profound and life changing. With WOOP and mental contrasting, we motivate and empower our­ selves  to  take  action  when  it will  really  benefit  us  and  those around us.  We  unleash powerful forces  within us  so  that  we can change habits  of thought and  behavior we've  had  for years. It sounds like magic, and it feels like magic,   but the science shows it's real.  Wishing you good  luck  on your  journey of discovery, I'll end  with  two  vital  questions that I hope  you  never stop  asking  yourself: What  is your  dearest wish?  What holds you back from achieving it?