WOOP: a simple technique to achieve your goals and build new habits

In my Coursera course “The Science of Well-being by Yale”, I came across a very interesting technique called WOOP. I started using it right away for daily and weekly goals, and I decided to write about it for two reasons: it is really simple and it worked for me.

What WOOP is

We’ve all heard clichés such as Think positive!, Avoid negative thoughts!, Visualize your goal!. The problem with these mantras is that they are oversimplifications. Their only objective is to generate interminable motivation, which is not nearly enough to achieve a goal or build a new habit. Research shows that positive thinking does not always work, negative thinking is necessary for success, and goal visualization can easily backfire.

WOOP is a technique, or a self-regulation tool, according to its creator, Gabriele Oettingen, Professor of Psychology. It stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle and Plan. WOOP works because it utilizes Mental Contrasting, which balances the positive and negative perspectives of a potential reality. Yes, you need motivation, but you also need a plan.

How WOOP works

WOOP works in four steps. According to Oettingen, five minutes should be enough. The only thing you need is a quiet place where you can close your eyes and focus. First, decide the timeframe you will focus on. Is it today, next week, next month? To make this easy to digest, I have added an example at the end.

Wish – What do I really want?

Answer the question in 3-4 words. In the same way you set SMART goals in a corporate environment, make your goal specific and quantifiable. For example, if your goal is to meditate, clarify how often and for how long.

Outcome – What would be the best outcome?

Now that you know what you want, experience what the positive outcome would look like. Allow yourself to overflow with motivation. It is also possible that your actual wish turns out to be something different or something that is not feasible at this point. In this case, start over and define your new goal.

Obstacle – What is it that can stop me?

The aim is not to be negative, but realistic. Dig deep to find what could prevent you from achieving your goal. When you across some obstacle, experience it vividly as you experienced the outcome. Important note: do not swap the O’s. You can discover the obstacle only if you throw the ball into the future and think of the outcome first. According to Oettingen’s research, when you think of the obstacle before the outcome, WOOP stops working.

Plan – What can I do to overcome this obstacle?

In this last step, you create Implementation Intentions, also called If/Then. These are self-regulatory strategies, which link a situation you anticipate with an action plan. Here you program your brain to recognize a condition and react in a specific way, e.g. If this happens, then do that. It is really that simple.

How to use WOOP: Using meditation as an example

What do I really want? I want to meditate every day for 10 minutes.
What would be the best outcome? I will be mindful enough to manage my thoughts and feelings better, and I will have less stress.
What is it that can stop me? Whenever I tried, it felt difficult because I had too many distracting thoughts.
What can I do to overcome this obstacle? If I get too many distracting thoughts, then I will keep reminding myself that it is normal, and I will calmly return to my breath.

OK, it sounds good, but does it really work?

Yes. The dedicated WOOP website lists many scientific papers that can attest to that. From helping people be healthier to improving their social behavior to improving academic performance, WOOP has a wide range of application. It is simple, quick, and yes, it comes with an app as well. If you try WOOP, or you have tried it already, share your experience in the comments.

And if you actually consider meditation, here are 8 things to know before starting meditation.

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