Use WOOP to Overcome Obstacles ep. 27

cover art for episode 27 using woop to overcome obstacles

Thank you for joining me for this episode of Changes BIG and small. This is Damianne, your host as we explore what makes change exhilarating. This podcast presents a mix of interviews and research to help you make changes in your own life. For a few weeks, I’m changing the format. I’ve been sharing some ideas and challenges with you to help motivate you during this coronavirus crisis.

From next week, I will be doing a series where I interview some people to find out how their life has changed in this time. I’d like to interview you to find out your perspective on this time and your hopes for the future. If you’re interested in being part of this project, please fill out the Be A Guest contact form at https://changesbigandsmall.com.

What holds you back from making changes to realize your dreams? We have more freedom than ever before. Too much choice can actually be demotivating. Researchers in different fields have come up with different approaches to change behavior.

Changing Bahavior

Industrial and organizational psychologists support the use of SMART goals. Dr. Carol Dweck’s work on mindset also looks at how it affects behavior. You may also be familiar with cognitive behavior therapy. Today, I’d like to share a simple method with you, that is scalable and can be used anywhere. You can even use it if you’re having trouble dreaming at the moment. Whether your timeline is 24 hours, days, weeks, or longer, WOOP is a 4 step process to help you get things done. It helps you find ways to stay motivated and energized.

Positive Thinking

You might have heard of positive thinking or mind over matter as being the magic formula to help you accomplish your dreams. Dr. Oettingen, the creator of WOOP, disputes that. She finds that positive fantasies are useful in limited cases:

  • Inspire you to keep going when you want to give up
  • Short term pleasure
  • Consider your different options for future actions
  • A temporary approach that can help with depression while you work on getting long-term help
  • A means of exploration, to discover what you want and don’t want

Challenge: Figure out what you want

If you’re not sure what you want, it can help to journal daily to explore your options and see how they feel as you think about them and visualize them.

Last week, I talked about mental contrasting which is a self-regulation tool. It’s useful with unjustified and debilitating fears. Doing it in an area where you’re strong can leach into an area where you’re weak. Today, I’m going to build on that.

Fortunately, Dr. Oettingen’s husband was doing research in human behavior as well. Dr. Peter Gollwitzer’s research showed that when people set an implementation intention (deciding how they will accomplish a wish), that helped them be more committed. Not only that, they were able to use the momentum of realizing one wish to work on fulfilling other wishes. It works at an unconscious level as mental contrasting does.

What is WOOP

WOOP combines mental contrasting with setting an implementation intention. WOOP sounds victorious. It stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. I am sometimes tempted to switch the O’s but it’s very important to do them in the right order.

Wish – Choose a time frame and decide on the wish you’d like to focus on achieving in that time frame. Choose something that you can accomplish with adequate energy.

Outcome – What would your life be like if you achieved that wish? What would change? Visualize the best case scenarios in as much detail as possible.

Obstacle – What’s something internal to you that could stand in the way of you achieving your wish? Think about your main obstacle and imagine it fully. This could be a belief, attitude or behavior. The goal is to find out how you’re standing in your own way.

Plan – the plan step follows a specific If, then format. The basic format is “If (obstacle), then I will (action or thought)”. It helps you anticipate the challenges that will come up and specify how you will overcome them. This step is perfect for preventing obstacles or overcoming those that come up and leveraging opportunities.

In order to be successful, WOOP depends on conscious beliefs people have that they can reasonably expect to attain their wishes. But by automating cognition, emotion, and behavior, WOOP helps people capitalize better on the positive attitudes and high expectations of success they may have around wishes like eating better or exercising more.

Gabriele Oettingen, Rethinking Positive Thinking

Main Uses of WOOP

WOOP can help you make a change and can also help cope with a situation that you have no control over and cannot change. In that case, the wish may be to develop a better coping mechanism, for example.

WOOP can help you gain clarity to see whether or not a wish is feasible and what you might be giving up by pursuing that wish. It also helps you see what you might want to pursue instead (for example the obstacle might end up being a stronger wish or a need). The key is to answer the questions fully and honestly.

Using WOOP

WOOP honors where you are and where you want to go. You might find it useful to start with a more emotional, short term wish, say with a time frame of 24 hours. All you need to do it is a few minutes to be able to focus. You don’t need to be alone, but you do need to have the time to work through the four steps. For each step, you can do the exercise mentally, but it’s a good idea to write it down especially the first few times. There is a free app that you can use to help you go through the steps and track your wish. While you should imagine the scenario fully, you can use 3-6 words to summarize your points for each of the 4 steps.

Writing your answers will help you develop the WOOP habit and also track your wishes so you can evaluate your progress over time. If it doesn’t work for you the first time, make some adjustments and try again. And when evaluating progress, remember to consider your life as a whole.

WOOP Challenge

Apply WOOP for something that you want to achieve in the next week or less. To get started, ask yourself two main questions:

  • What is your dearest wish (right now)?
  • What holds you back from achieving it?

Additional Resources

Find additional resources for WOOP including the WOOP kit at https://woopmylife.org/

Learn more by reading Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation by Gabriele Oettingen


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I'm a curious problem solver.

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