Why You Should WOOP
WOOP – or Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan – is a powerful evidence-based strategy for helping you stick to and reach your goals. Here’s what it is and why it works.
The phrase “wishful thinking” is never a compliment. And whether unfounded optimism or outright delusional thinking, wishful thinking is never a sound strategy.
And yet, we all have things we wish for – hopes, dreams, and desires.
What if wishes were grounded in some sort of evidence-based mental model? And what if that model were shown to be good for our emotional and mental well-being?
Wouldn’t that be magical?
This is why we need to talk about WOOP: Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. WOOP isn’t some random life hack. WOOP is a mental model, a strategy, supported by empirical research.
What Is WOOP?
Wishing doesn’t change anything. The WOOP model connects wishes to action. It has four components:
Let’s say you want to cook a meal for your loved ones. That’s the wish. The outcome might be everyone enjoys the food. But maybe food isn’t the point. Perhaps the best outcome is everyone has fun. Or maybe relationships are strengthened, important conversations are had, or time is spent together.
The obstacle might be your cooking skills or getting all the right ingredients. But consider the best outcome. If it were something relational, then do people really care how good your cooking is? If the goal is to have fun or to deepen personal connections, then maybe the food is secondary.
And maybe the obstacle is your own fear of being judged?
So, your plan might be to take the focus off the food, off your own feelings about cooking, and redirect them onto some other aspect of the gathering. Maybe cook something simple, order a delivery, or turn the event into a games night.
Now, instead of just having a vague wish, you actually have a plan, designed to help you overcome the obstacles you’re likely to face and a clearer sense of what you really want.
Why Does Mental Contrasting Work?
WOOP was developed by Gabriele Oettingen, the author of Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation. Oettingen is a professor of psychology at New York University, and her work focuses on the relationship between emotional self-regulation and goal setting and how this relates to health and relationships.
I first encountered WOOP in the Science of Well-Being course. That ten-week course, created by Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology at Yale, explores how changing our habits can literally rewire our brains. WOOP is offered as one of the strategies you can experiment with to see how it affects your mood and overall happiness. In a previous post, I mentioned that WOOP has been called “science’s #1 tool for habit change and goal achievement.”
WOOP is based on the idea of “mental contrasting”, which involves reflecting on both your goals and the possible obstacles you’ll face in attaining them. It’s a tool for assessing which goals you can reach and also what’s holding you back.
Studies suggest that mental contrasting works because of the way it changes the energy levels in your body. When we focus on a goal, our systolic blood pressure rises. Focussing on a goal without contrasting creates too much of an increase, more than seems ideal for translating ideas into action. With mental contrasting, the change is subtler and better suited to having the stamina to bring the desires to reality.
To put it another way, wishful thinking is exhausting.
Fantasizing leaves us depleted and unable to think creatively or adapt to challenges as they arise. Mental contrasting puts us in a more efficient physical mode, which conserves more energy for the small decisions and course corrections we need to make on the way to our goals.
The Research Behind This
Several studies support the effectiveness of WOOP for addressing habits like smoking or unhealthy eating, or increasing levels of exercise, having more helpful behaviour patterns and improving academic performance.
WOOP seems to work best for people who want to succeed and are confident in their ability but often feel frustrated by their performance or results.
The academic performance studies illustrated this. The students didn’t just get better grades. They also made more time for revision and preparation and reconsidered their approach to study.
However, all the studies suggest having some level of confidence and self-belief is integral to the success of WOOP. It’s also not clear how much time you should spend doing WOOP or how often.
But there’s enough evidence here, along with a continually growing body of research, to suggest WOOP can help you remain more committed to your goals and more likely to reach them.
Can I Get A WOOP App?
Of course, you don’t need to use a specific app for this.
I don’t think of WOOP as a separate category of things. Rather, it’s part of my daily and monthly planning. So my WOOP is happening all the time as I run my daily paper diary, when I sit to journal, or as I use Omnifocus and MindNode to plan my life.
A WOOP-based Life
But in the day-to-day challenge to live a healthy life, we need a strategy, especially since some of the obstacles – the ones that arise from our own fears and insecurities – aren’t always clear to us. This is why WOOP is so helpful. It’s a simple and effective mental model.
To try WOOP for yourself, I’d suggest picking something small and concrete, something you need to do in the coming week, maybe something you occasionally struggle to do as well as you’d like, or something you tend to procrastinate over. Choose a small project rather than a massive life goal.
Some of the things I WOOP include cooking and shopping for meals, travel preparations, exercise, reading more books, finishing articles and essays, and getting enough sleep – all building blocks of a good life. I’m not very systematic about the process. Sometimes the WOOP happens when I’m journaling, sometimes in the margins of my diary, sometimes in my head while I’m out for a walk.
The important thing is to articulate the wish, the ideal outcome, the obstacle, and the plan. Just expressing these things, in whatever way, is powerfully liberating.