WOOP: 4 simple steps to help you achieve your goals

Setting goals can be easy. Achieving goals can be hard. Saying you want to max the APFT, writing it on a sticky note, and putting it on your wall is easy. You can do it right now. The hard part is having the determination to complete your workout each day, the motivation to run even though it's raining outside, and a set plan to overcome obstacles such as the delicious donuts suddenly appearing in the break room. The WOOP—Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan—strategy provides 4 simple steps that can help you generate the energy, motivation, and plan you need to achieve your goals.

Step 1: Wish

WOOP begins by setting a meaningful goal or “wish.” Think about something in your life you want to work toward: your career, schoolwork, relationships, or anything personal. It should be challenging, realistic, and attainable. One strategy you can use in combination with WOOP to help you set effective goals is described in HPRC’s article on SMART goal setting, which includes a worksheet.

Steps 2 and 3: Outcome and Obstacle

Now that you have set your goal, the next 2 steps will help you generate the energy you need to get you moving toward your goal.

Step 2: Outcome

Think about what it would look and feel like to have your goal fulfilled. Take some time to deeply imagine, see, and feel what it would be like to attain the best possible outcome.

Step 3: Obstacle

Just thinking positively about the best outcome isn’t enough, though, because there are obstacles that inevitably get in the way of your goals. Imagine an obstacle that you can control from within—such as thoughts, feelings, bad habits, or actions—that might prevent you from working toward your goal. Take some time to deeply imagine what it might feel like to encounter that obstacle.

Steps 2 and 3 together help get you motivated. Fantasizing about the outcome gets you excited about your goal. This positive thinking might help you feel good, and it might be enough to get you to do the “easy things.” However, it’s not enough to generate the motivation you need to buck up and do the hard stuff. This is why you need to contrast your positive thinking with the reality of the obstacles standing in your way. Steps 2 and 3 together can provide you with the motivation to do what’s needed to accomplish your goal.

Imagine you’re the captain of a football team trying to motivate yourself and teammates to win the Super Bowl. You would want to envision the glory you’ll all feel holding the trophy at the end of the game, but that alone won’t get you motivated to do all the work needed to win. You also need to focus on what’s standing in the way of that glory: your opponent…your obstacle…your enemy! Now you and your team are fired up and motivated to do whatever it takes, but being energized and motivated alone aren’t enough. You need a plan to overcome your obstacles so you can win the Super Bowl.

Step 4: Plan

Finally, devise a plan to overcome the obstacles you identified. This plan involves “when…then” statements known as “implementation intentions.” You might think, “WHEN (obstacle), THEN I will (effective plan).” Repeat this for each obstacle you identified. Using “when…then” statements helps you deliberately connect your plan to the obstacles you’ve identified ahead of time. For example, the obstacle to your goal to max the APFT might be that you tend to sit on the couch and watch TV when you get home from work instead of going for a run. You could devise the plan of “WHEN I come home from work, THEN I will immediately change into my running clothes and go for a run.” The WHEN...THEN strategy prevents you from wasting mental energy deciding what you should do because you already have an automatic plan in place.

Bottom line

Accomplishing a goal is a process. So whether or not you accomplish your goal after each WOOP session, reflect on how the process went, and think about what you need to adjust next time. Each time you use WOOP you are learning not only how to accomplish a specific goal, you’re learning more about yourself and what keeps you motivated to accomplish your goals. WOOP is also a great strategy to work through with your kids or partner to help them accomplish their own goals.

Resources

Oettingen, G. (2012). Future thought and behaviour change. European Review of Social Psychology, 23, 1-63. doi:10.1080/10463283.2011.643698

Oettingen, G., & Schwö rer, B. (2013). Mind wandering via mental contrasting as a tool for behavior change. Frontiers in Psychology,4:562. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00562

Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist, 54, 493-503. article

Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Implementation intentions and goal achievement: A meta-analysis of effects and processes. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 69-119. 

Adriaanse, M. A., Oettingen, G., Gollwitzer, P. M., Hennes, E. P., de Ridder, D. T. D., & de Wit, J. B. F. (2010). When planning is not enough: Fighting unhealthy snacking habits by mental contrasting with implementation intentions (MCII). European Journal of Social Psychology, 40, 1277-1293. doi:10.1002/ejsp.730