Most of us have set a goal at some point in our lives. Unfortunately, too often, we get distracted, something gets in our way, and the goal is not achieved. There are countless goal-setting approaches available, and some of them even work. The problem is not setting the goals, it’s sticking to the behaviours that you need to reach them. In this blog, I’m going to share a simple, effective, evidence-based goal-setting tool, that could actually help you to stay focused, avoid obstacles and achieve your ambitions.
Does Goal Setting Even Work?
For the last couple of years, I’ve juggled a full-time job, PhD studies and family life with two young kids, while trying to maintain some level of fitness. You probably have a different mix of demands, but most of us struggle to fit everything in and accomplish all that we set out to achieve. I’ve tried several goal-setting frameworks and approaches, from SMART goals to SMARTER goals and even SMARTER-R goals. Many people have found these tools useful, including me.
I enjoy the warm fuzzy feeling of accomplishment when I see my goals written down on paper. The problem is, it’s easy to set goals, but the goal-setting process rarely takes into account the reality and unpredictable nature of everyday life. There is hope, though. I’ve found that a simple motivational strategy, with the acronym ‘WOOP’, has been one of the most effective ways to turn my good intentions into action. You could probably benefit from it, too.
From Feeling Good To Doing Good
The WOOP strategy was conceptualised by two psychologists, Gabriele Oettingen and Peter Gollwitzer. In the scientific literature, you’ll find it referred to with the catchy name “mental contrasting with implementation intentions”.
Fantasising about all the great things that could happen in our future can us feel accomplished and happy. However, Gabriele and Peter describe how these fantasies can actually harm our attempts to take the actions required to turn this fantasy into reality and eventually lead to low energy, low effort and us not achieving our goals1. Indulging in positive future fantasies was even associated with depressive symptoms.
So, does this mean we should stop imagining a positive future? Absolutely not. Positive future fantasies only seem to be an issue if we stop at the fantasy. If we also take time to reflect on reality, alongside the fantasy (a process called mental contrasting), it can clarify what we are trying to achieve and highlight the steps we need to take.
WOOP Your Goals Into Shape
The WOOP acronym stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. Rather than imaging big, vague aspirations, the WOOP strategy encourages us to focus on smaller steps and practical actions. The WOOP strategy is easy to learn and apply, and over 20 years of research suggests that it is an effective way to change habits and achieve goals, ranging from people doubling the amount of sporting activity they do2, to overcoming disappointment, regret, anger and other negative feelings3.
The First Four Steps To Achieving Your Goals
The WOOP strategy can be applied in four steps:
Wish: Think about the next 24 hours/Week/Month/12 months (select as appropriate). What is the wish you would like to fulfil, or something you would like to achieve? Pick a wish that feels challenging to you but that you can reasonably fulfil within the period you select. Note down your Wish in 3-6 words:
Outcome: What would be the best thing about fulfilling your wish? How would life be better? How would you fulfilling your wish make you feel? Note your best outcome in 3-6 words and take a moment to imagine this best outcome. Imagine it as fully as you can. Write your thoughts down.
Obstacle: What is holding you back from fulfilling your wish? What might stop you? It might be a feeling, an irrational belief, or a bad habit. Identify your primary obstacle, and note it down in 3-6 words. Take a moment to imagine encountering this obstacle as fully as you can, and write your thoughts down.
Plan: What action can you take to overcome the obstacle? Identify one practical step you can take or one useful thought you can think, to overcome your obstacle. Note your action or thought in 3-6 words, and then describe it as an “if… then” statement.
If… (describe obstacle), then I will … (action you could take or thought to focus on). Repeat and imagine this if-then plan.
I encourage you to try out these steps. Make sure you spend some time imaging the scenarios and writing down your thoughts. It’s a surprisingly powerful exercise. You can find more information about WOOP here.
Putting It Into Practise
In 2018, I had struggled to exercise regularly. So, last year, I used the WOOP framework to establish the wish that I wanted to do at least one exercise session every two days that I travelled. The outcome was that I would be fitter and feel healthier. The obstacle was my unhelpful belief that an exercise session under 1 hour wasn’t worth it. Even though I’ve told countless clients this isn’t the case, for some reason, I was still holding on to this unhelpful view. My plan to overcome this was the commitment that, providing I had 30 minutes free, I would do some kind of exercise, even if it was press-ups and body-weight squats in my hotel room. Most of the time, I stuck to it, and at the end of this year, I feel a lot better for it.
The Fifth Step: Don’t Make Perfect The Enemy Of Good Enough
So, the 5 ways to achieve your goals this new year are to 1) set a wish; 2) establish your outcome; 3) identify your obstacle; 4) make a plan. The fifth step is to remember this: Don’t make perfect the enemy of good enough. By all means, set your goals and implementation intentions, but cut yourself some slack. Some days will be better than others, the key is identifying progress over the long-term. I hope that you find that the WOOP framework is a useful tool to help you translate your good intentions into action. If you do try out the WOOP framework for yourself, do let me know how you get on.
- Oettingen G, Gollwitzer PM. From Feeling Good to Doing Good. In: Gruber J, editor. The Oxford Handbook of Positive Emotion and Psychopathology. New York: Oxford University Press; 2019.
- Stadler G, Oettingen G, Gollwitzer PM. Physical Activity in Women. Effects of a Self-Regulation Intervention. Am J Prev Med [Internet]. 2009;36(1):29–34.
- Krott NR, Oettingen G. Mental contrasting of counterfactual fantasies attenuates disappointment, regret, and resentment. Motiv Emot [Internet]. 2018;42(1):17–36.