What are your biggest wishes for today? For the next month? For the rest of your life? Maybe you have goals around improving your fitness, closening your relationships, or taking on a new challenge in life. Maybe it’s something simpler like wanting to feel calmer or have more time for yourself. Whatever it is, we all have hopes and dreams about how we’d like our days and lives to be, but just how do we make them a reality?
WOOP is the fun idea you’ve never heard of that aims to realize your goals, change your habits, and fulfill your wishes, based on 20 years’ worth of science and studies.
It’s an idea developed by New York psychology professor Gabriele Oettingen who has spent decades exploring our attitudes towards the future.
What she discovered was that positive thinking, the way we’re often encouraged to think about what’s ahead, doesn’t really work. Writing in the New York Times she said: “Many people think that the key to success is to cultivate and doggedly maintain an optimistic outlook […] But the truth is that positive thinking often hinders us.”
She discovered this in a study where she asked a group of women to start a program of weight loss. For some of the women, she asked them to imagine that they had already successfully completed the program. Others asked to imagine situations in which they were tempted to cheat on their diets. A year later, she discovered the women who had imagined themselves most positively had lost less weight than the women who imagined cheating.
The reason for this, she says, is that positive thinking “fools” our mind into thinking that we’ve already achieved our goal, which drains us of the energy to then achieve it for real.
What Gabriele suggests instead then is a strategy called “mental contrasting” which involves positive thinking mixed with realism, where as well as positively imagining the future you also imagine the obstacles that stand in your way to achieving that.
This technique is what Gabriele now calls WOOP, a strategy practiced around the world by people who want to achieve their goals. Designed to be used by anyone for any size of wish, over the years Gabriele has seen people lose weight, cut down alcohol, strengthen relationships, overcome past disappointments and take better care of themselves all by practicing WOOP.
And best of all, studies suggest that by tackling your goals in this way and getting rid of unhelpful habits, you could feel more fulfilled, improve relationships, reduce stress, and just generally feel happier.
Here’s how to give it a try…
How to WOOP
WOOP stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, and Plan, and you work through each of those in sequence.
But before you start that, you need to first find five minutes of uninterrupted calm when you can get into the right frame of mind. So turn your phone off, find somewhere where you won’t be disturbed, and shut out any other distractions.
Now think about one wish. It can be a wish for today, for the rest of the week or something much longer term. Ask yourself what you really want. It should be something that is achievable but a little challenging.
Summarize that wish in 3-6 words and hold that thought at the front of your mind.
Imagine what it would be like to have achieved that wish? How would it feel? What would it look like? What would be the very best outcome of this? Try to create as vivid a picture as you can and use all your senses.
Now it’s time to shift gear. Think about the obstacles within you that might stop you from fulfilling your wish. This could be a feeling, an irrational belief, or a bad habit that’s likely to stop you from getting the thing you want. Imagine that obstacle clearly and what that obstacle looks and feels like in reality.
Think about one thing you could do to overcome that obstacle. If it’s a feeling or a belief that’s holding you back, what one thought could you think to yourself to overcome that? For example, if your wish is to be more creative but your obstacle is that you’ve always believed you’re not good at making things — perhaps from something someone said to you in school days — the way you could overcome that thought is to think “creativity is in all of us, I have every right to make what I want.”
Alternatively, if your obstacle is a bad habit or behavior, what one action could you take to overcome that? For example, if your wish is to be fitter but your obstacle is a bad habit of snacking, you could overcome it by changing your behavior to eat healthier snacks.
Whatever your wish and obstacle, it’s now time to put that all into an if, then plan where you say: If [state your obstacle], then I will [state your action]. For example, if I am tempted to snack, I will snack on something healthy. Repeat this plan to yourself several times and try to keep it to the forefront of your mind.
While you should only focus on one wish at once, which is the most pressing for you at that time, you can try WOOP with any kind of wish at any point and it’s great to get into the habit of doing a WOOP regularly.
This article originally appeared on our sister site, Yours.