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Achieve your goals with Tiny Habits and WOOP

By Marcus Degerman, Claus Höfele and Boris König

Looking for a good way to start your morning? Make a habit of thinking about what you can achieve that day and what might stop you. It’s a science-based approach to reaching your goals.

Optimism and mental contrasting

Do you know that beautiful, cozy feeling that a daydream can give us? We think about the next salary increase, imagine the long-awaited vacation on a paradise island, picture six-pack abs, or wish to be famous. As teenagers, we dreamed of what it would be like to date that girl/boy we had long wanted but never dared to speak to. They often didn’t even know we existed. And often they are still unaware of our existence, as many of us still dream without ever taking the first step to make those dreams a reality. We know these people very well: They have many great plans. Yet they never realize them, jumping from one unfinished or never even started project to the next.

The behavior we are talking about here is optimism based on dreams, desires, and positive visions of the future, independent of actual experience. This kind of optimism is the research area of ​​German psychologist Gabriele Oettingen, who teaches in New York and Hamburg. She wanted to know if wishes and positive ideas for the future could also give us enough strength and energy to realize our dreams and achieve our goals.

Most people consider positive thinking as the basis for fulfilling our desires and achieving our goals. True to the motto: If you believe in it hard enough, then you can do it! But it doesn’t work that way. In her research, Gabriele Oettingen shows us that idealizing the future as a strategy to achieve goals does not necessarily work. Here’s an example: when she analyzed the inaugural speeches of US presidents between 1933 and 2009, she found that the more optimistic the speech, the worse the economic performance in the respective term of office.

On the one hand, positive visions of the future make us feel good and help us to get in a good mood. They also allow us to design different possible scenarios for our future. Indulging in daydreams and positive fantasies can be almost addictive because we want to experience these feelings over and over again. On the other hand, that is exactly what might prevent us from mobilizing the necessary energy to work towards our dreams because we have already achieved them in our imagination.

Positive visions and fantasies of the future can help us achieve our goals. However, Oettingen found that it requires a little trick so that we can draw strength and energy from it. This trick is called “mental contrasting.”

What is mental contrasting? 

In contrast to daydreaming, mental contrasting involves considering obstacles that could prevent a possible future. For example, the job you’d really like to have might require heavy studying to have a chance of getting it, but the payoff makes it worthwhile to pursue your goal nonetheless.

Mental contrasting adds the necessary dose of reality to our positive ideas about the future, brings our high-flying fantasies back down to earth, and holds the mirror of reality in front of us.

Gabriele Oettingen was able to prove the success of her method in a number of studies. She and her team not only demonstrated the positive effect of mental contrasting for stress management and better time management for employees in the health sector, but also for better learning success in children in elementary school.

Goal setting with WOOP

How could you benefit from these ideas? Based on the principles of mental contrasting, Gabriele Oettingen developed the WOOP method to apply her research in this area to everyday life. Not only is WOOP a more accessible version of these principles, it’s also a really fun name.

WOOP is the abbreviation of these four steps with its associated questions:

Wish – What is an important goal that you want to accomplish? Your wish should be challenging but feasible.

Outcome – What will be the best result from accomplishing your wish?

Obstacle – What is the main obstacle inside you that might prevent you from accomplishing your wish?

Plan – What’s an effective action to tackle the obstacle? Make a when-then plan.

A key aspect of the method is to vividly imagine your desired future in contrast with the obstacles. This way, when an obstacle arises, you are more likely to remember to execute on your plan.

And here is where it gets interesting for Tiny Habits connoisseurs: BJ Fogg’s behavior change method complements the WOOP method perfectly. Whereas WOOP helps you with goal setting, Tiny Habits provides the practical steps to achieve those goals in your daily life.

Two examples will make it more clear how to combine WOOP with Tiny Habits to achieve your goals.

Elizabeth’s journey to publish a children’s book

Elizabeth’s greatest dream was to write a children’s book. A book with all the stories she has dreamed up since she was young and which she had all stored in her head.

She loved to tell her stories to her nephews and nieces and is often asked to finally put them on paper. She usually smiled and replied that these stories were nothing special and not worth writing down, even though that was her biggest secret wish.

She made several unsuccessful attempts to put her stories on paper, but always gave up because she thought she had written something banal or bad. This made her afraid of the blank white pages in her notebook. She didn’t realize that the process of writing also requires a certain persistence and routine. It’s hard work, but it can also be fun if you know how. After almost giving up on her plans out of frustration, she found a solution to her problem with the help of Tiny Habits and a writing coach.

With Tiny Habits, she began writing regularly, even if it was just a few lines at first. But she could quickly see her progress and enjoyed what she was doing. Of course there were setbacks and she often reworked her lines until she was reasonably happy. The writing coach helped her find her own style and gave her the feedback she needed. Her first book was nearing completion when we asked her about her successful recipes:

I use WOOP every day after I wake up. I have connected it to the Maui Habit that is BJ Fogg’s favorite. After I say “Today is going to be a great day!”, I then ask myself: 

  • What has to happen for today to be a good day?
  • What steps will bring me closer to my long-term goal, the completion of my book? 

This is the Wish in WOOP. Then I pause for a moment and try to imagine how I would feel if my wish came true. Or how I will end the day with this good feeling. What am I feeling? Pride, relief, gratitude. That’s the O. Outcome.

Now it’s time to switch to the Obstacle, and I imagine what can go wrong; distractions, focusing on other things, new stories in my head that I want to continue spinning, spending too much time with emails or on social media, …

No panic. Here is my Plan: small habits for today that will help me move towards my goal:

  • “Whenever I feel like distracting myself, I take three deep breaths.”
  • “After checking my mail, I close the mail program.”
  • “Whenever an idea for a new story pops into my head, I make a quick note in my idea book.”

We look forward to Elizabeth’s book being published. It will bring great joy to many children.

Tom’s approach to being more productive

The second example of how Tiny Habits and WOOP can be easily integrated into everyday life comes from Tom. He works as a tax accountant for an accountancy firm and often has trouble concentrating on work and tends to procrastinate. 

He has worked for this company for a long time and has a lot of experience. He is very supportive of his colleagues and is often asked for advice, but this has also caused him to fall further behind on his own duties. As a result, his inbox was overflowing, he was constantly overloaded with his work, and his bosses were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with his work.

This is one of his Tiny Habits recipes that helped him stay focused and complete his tasks: 

  • After I start a new task then I do a WOOP

He takes a pen and paper and writes down the key words:

  • What do I want to achieve (W)?
  • How will I feel when I achieve it (O)?
  • What can distract me (O)?
  • What will I do when I realize that I am in danger of getting distracted (P)?

This allows him to remember all the little behaviors he wants to get into:

  • Stay focused
  • Say “no” more often
  • Don’t take on too many tasks
  • To create a working environment in which he is more undisturbed

Then he starts his work.

Achieving your own goals

These two examples show how powerful WOOP is and how it can become a healthy habit. Only looking optimistically into a beautiful future carries the risk of remaining stuck in your dreams. Mental contrasting and WOOP give your dreams the necessary portion of reality to make them come true.

How will you use WOOP in your life?

The contributors: