From Dreaming to Doing

research Dec 19, 2019

By Gabriele Oettingen

Many have claimed that good intentions for the New Year are doomed to fail anyway. Indeed, in a carefully done study more than half of the participants reported that after only three months they had failed on their New Year’s resolutions. So, you might say, there’s no need to try, right? Since these resolutions don’t work, I better refrain from making them in the first place.  And another plus: I will not be disappointed when I fail to act on them. 

But, wait. I’ll argue that refraining from New Year’s resolutions is a mistake. You will forfeit your opportunity to have a better 2020. You’ll also miss out on your opportunity to start something new, to encounter a turning point, and to gain valuable insights. 

I will show you a five-minute mental exercise based on my decades-long research in the science of motivation. This exercise will help you to seize the opportunity of making an effective New Year’s resolution and having a better 2020. 

Because it is an imagery exercise, relax for a moment and take a slow pace. These five minutes are just for yourself. The world around you can wait. Are you ready to start this short exercise?

Begin by thinking about a Wish, a heart-felt wish you have for 2020. Look for what you really want to attain this year. Don’t pick something too grand. You won’t become an astronaut by next year; pick something realistic but also challenging. Don’t worry about what others think you should do, or what you feel like you have to do. Instead, think about what you really want to do that is feasible but also challenging. Okay? What is your wish? Frame it in a couple of words and make a mental note of it.

Now, what would be the best thing, the best Outcome if you fulfilled yourself that wish? How would you feel? Happy, relaxed, proud? What would be the best outcome, find it! You might find a series of best outcomes. Pick only one, the best one of all. Once you have identified this best outcome, frame it in a few words, and again make a mental note of it. 

And now imagine this best outcome as vividly as possible, let your mind go! Imagine experiencing it. If you like, close your eyes. Imagine this best outcome, it’s positive facets and details. Really live it in your mind. 

But hey, this isn’t the secret; remember that best-selling book that said if you think positive thoughts, they end up occurring? Though it’s tempting to believe this idea, positive things don’t actually just come to people who dream about them. To reach a wished-for future, you need to mentally confront it with the Obstacles standing in the way of fulfilling it. 

Ask yourself what it is in you that stops you from tackling your wish and moving forward? Be careful. It can’t be something out of your control. You can’t change your boss, your neighbor, or your partner. Blaming them might feel good, but it won’t help to get active. Identify an obstacle in you that stands in the way. What’s the major obstacle in you standing in the way of you fulfilling your wish or dream, of acting on your resolution? Identify the obstacle. It might be an emotion, like resentment, anger, or fear. It might be an irrational belief, like a belief of future failure, or some idea that you are having trouble letting go of. Or it might be a bad habit. Try to dig a little deeper – get rid of any cheap excuses. I don’t have time, I don’t actually care that much, and it won’t work out anyway are all weak excuses. Our true inner obstacles aren’t a comfortable thing to think about. We tend to try to hide these obstacles under a giant pile of excuses. Try to toss aside all those excuses and find the true obstacle in you standing in the way. Dig a little deeper! Did you find it? Frame it in a few words, and again make a note in your mind. 

Alright, now vividly imagine this obstacle. Like a movie in your head, let the scenes play in which the obstacle is occurring. Really live it in the moment. Again, you can close your eyes to get a clearer picture if you like. 

Let’s move forward. What is an effective action you can take or an effective thought you can think that will help you overcome the obstacle that you identified? You might think of a couple of different ways to overcome your obstacle. Pick the one that you think is most effective. And again, take this action and place it in your mind, make a clear note. 

Finally, create an if-then Plan. If – I encounter the obstacle, then I will – the action or thought you identified to overcome the obstacle. Repeat it to yourself: If – now imagine your obstacle, then I will – now imagine the action or thought you identified to overcome your obstacle. Watch yourself running into the obstacle in your head and then say …then I will… and now watch yourself overcoming that obstacle using the method you came up with. You’re the hero in the movie – watch yourself conquering the obstacle. Nice! 

You’ve just completed WOOP. WOOP stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. By mentally contrasting your positive fantasies about a desired future with the obstacles of your current reality, WOOP gives you direction to act, energizes you, and activates automatic processes that work in the background of your everyday life. These automatic processes look out for the obstacle you identified – they are constantly searching for cues saying that the obstacle has arrived. And when the obstacle rears its ugly head, then the plan you made kicks in without your awareness. And wow, the obstacle is overcome with little effort on your part. 

I’ll give you an example. Imagine your wish is to stop drinking, and the best outcome is to be less hungover. So, you fantasize about how great it will be to be less hungover, and generally just feel way better. Then you think about your obstacle. Turns out, you have some trouble regulating yourself – when your friends start drinking you can’t help but join in. Or, you simply need a drink at the end of the night because it helps you relax. Okay, so then you say: If I feel like I need a drink to relax, then I’ll go hang out with my dog, because that relaxes me too. 

After you’ve done WOOP you find yourself at home a day later, stressed about your boss and you want to relax. Ah! Without your awareness you start hanging out with your dog and completely forget about the drink. This is because when you run into the obstacle, your brain now automatically activates the behavior you came up with to overcome the obstacle. That is, you start playing with your dog. Pretty cool? 

WOOP is not just an idea or theory. Twenty-years of research has shown that WOOP can be effectively used across numerous different domains. It has helped people in terms of health. For example, it has benefited people to reduce snacking habits, exercise more, eat more healthy foods, and it has increased physical activity in back pain patients and led stroke patients to reduce their weight. In academics, WOOP has helped students attend classes more often, perform better on exams, submit higher quality assignments, and reduce behavior problems in the classroom. In the interpersonal domain, WOOP has helped people reduce anxiety in relationships, attenuate problems in family and romantic relationships, increase negotiation skills, and find integrative solutions (summaries by Oettingen, 2012, 2014).

And WOOP helps people regulate negative emotions more generally, including regret, anger, and anxiety. Better yet, the effect of WOOP transfers to other domains. When you use WOOP for one future goal, your brain picks it up as a self-regulation strategy. And you start finding yourself achieving more of your other desired futures as well. For instance, if you apply WOOP to the future goal of eating healthier, then you’ll likely find yourself exercising more on top of kicking the McDonalds. 

WOOP can be used for short-term wishes as well as long-term wishes, more trivial wishes as well as life-changing wishes, professional wishes as well as romantic wishes. And, what I find the most useful, it can help you make difficult decisions, and provide clarity and direction to your life. It can be used when you’re down on your luck trying to get back up. Or, when things are going well, and you want to keep it that way. And even when things are going well and you want to further improve.     

You might think WOOP takes a long time given its impact. But actually, it takes only a couple of minutes. You can complete WOOP on your commute, or when taking a break from work, in the morning after getting up or shortly before going to bed. All you need to do is shut-out your surroundings for five minutes, relax, slow down, and go through the four steps of WOOP: Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. 

Try to practice WOOP as often as you can – the more you do it the better the results. Become a WOOP expert. Try to make a habit of using WOOP, maybe at the same time every day, right before going to lunch. Think of WOOP as a tool in your back-pocket that you can take out whenever you need it. You can learn more about WOOP at www.woopmylife.org. There are video and audio-clips that will lead you through WOOP. And there’s a WOOP kit that provides written instructions and examples. There is also an app that will lead you through WOOP which you can download on the app store (IOS and android).

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