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.
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.”
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.
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 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:
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:
We look forward to Elizabeth’s book being published. It will bring great joy to many children.
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:
He takes a pen and paper and writes down the key words:
This allows him to remember all the little behaviors he wants to get into:
Then he starts his work.
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?
So much to do!!
Where do I start?
What should I do next?
Put a stop to indecision and overwhelm once and for all!
Let the sticks decide for you!
I came up with this idea years ago when I was teaching, growing a side-business, and raising children. So much to do! Where would I start? Everything seemed important. This is when my Select-a-Stick method was born.
I had already created Pick Me!, a random selection method to engage students and have all feel important. I thought, “If I can do this with student’s names and with randomly selecting activities for students, I could use the same concept in my own home!”
I collected some craft sticks, a mug, and a permanent marker. On each stick, I wrote a job that needed to be done. Some of the jobs included: finish IEPs, help Chloe on her project, address Christmas cards, wrap presents, pay bills, plan dinners for 3 nights, shopping list, read a magazine for 15 min. (I always add something fun.), etc. I put the sticks in the mug and decided I would let the universe decide what to start on first.
Even before I knew about Tiny Habits, I knew I was the type of person who didn’t want to do any one job for too long. So, I’d set a timer for 5 min., pick a stick, and work on that job until the timer went off. If I was really into the job, I’d set the timer for 5 more minutes. If I had finished the job, I’d throw the stick away. If not, I’d put it back in the mug. Then, I’d set the timer for 5 minutes and pick a new stick.
By using this random selection method, I quieted the negative thoughts in my head. Movement created action. It was a fun way to stay in action. I gained confidence as I completed jobs that I had been putting off. I realized how much time 5 minutes really is.
One time behaviors:
For example, Everyday jobs such as…
Specific jobs such as…
Major project completions such as…
Pick a Stick and Start Moving
By picking a random selection of sticks, the intention is to get you moving for a short or a long period of time. With the timer, you will decide how long you want to work at that particular job. As you complete each job on your stick you will begin to gain confidence in obtaining your goals, no matter how big or small.
The sticks will keep you focused and in control. Many of you will want to make this a habit. Create a Tiny Habit recipe (Anchor Behavior Celebration) to ensure that you get things done.
After I _________________, I will pick a stick and set a timer, and celebrate. Then celebrate again when the timer goes off for doing something.
This is your time to play. If you don’t want to do the job listed on the stick, put it back and pick another one! Please make sure you plan for some down time after you have completed your job. Either write something fun on the other side of the stick or take a break between sticks. The sticks take the guesswork out of you taking action! Using these sticks will help with feeling stuck, indecisive and overwhelmed.
I made two Loom videos for a friend showing her how to use them. I’ve included the links below for you as well.
If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me.
Tiny Habits Certified Coach
Tiny Habits for Reducing ADHD Overwhelm
Stephanie Marcusky, CALC
If you are familiar with the Spoon Theory for chronic illness, or the idea of how to best allocate resources in a system, you may understand the idea that some people with ADHD feel that they only have the emotional energy for some activities and that there may be a lot of things that they can’t get to in a given day.
You might also think of this as “bandwidth” – the emotional energy you have available to handle activities and stress is analogous to the amount of data traffic that can be handled by the network.
Neurotypical people who subscribe to a GTD (Get Things Done)/Eat The Frog way of life may not understand this.
How Many Health Points?
So let’s put it another way – When you start a new game that uses Health Points (HP), you generally have a small number of health points, but the activities you’re supposed to do only need a few. You level up pretty quickly, and you get more capacity for health points. There comes a point, though, when doing only small activities makes it take longer to level up, so you might have to slog through slow gameplay before you can level up.
Bigger activities take more HP but you get the rewards of accelerating through the game.
If we’re talking real life, going to college is going to get us farther in life than staying home and doing small chores. But it’s going to take a lot of HP. And if we have anything else that needs HP – physical or mental health problems, family to care for, unsafe living arrangements, unsafe communities, lack of transportation, cost of books and courses, all the way up to systemic economic and social structure problems – it might take longer.
The Six ‘S’s
On an individual level, if you need help getting your life under some semblance of control, some ADHD Life Coaches use the acronym of Three Ss: Structure, Support, and Systems. I like to add Strategies, Strengths, and Skills. To explain:
Structure is along the lines of how you organize your environment to help you. For example:
Support is alarms, automatic bill pay, Alexa/Siri/Google for creating shopping lists and setting timers, hiring people to help, or finding a friend to body double while you do boring things.
Strategies are how you approach problems. We may unconsciously start getting angry when things aren’t going the way we planned, but if we take the time to step back and re-examine, we may find a way to reframe the issue that helps us let go of some of the anger. Or we take a time-out to work off some steam with exercise or music.
Strengths mean using what we are good at. It may be different than what we’ve been taught is important, but it is our strength, and it’s important to start there and build on that. A fish isn’t going to be good at climbing a tree, but maybe swimming is exactly what helps you succeed.
Skills can be learned to support you where you might be lacking.
Systems are routines to order your life and environment.
When we want to make a change to our routine behaviors, whether it’s adding exercise, flossing our teeth, or meditating – things that can fall into any of these Six Ss – we need a system to change our behaviors.
The Fogg Behavior Model
BJ Fogg, a behavior researcher at Stanford, realized that behaviors need 3 elements to occur (https://behaviormodel.org/): Motivation, Ability, and a Prompt.
If you aren’t motivated to make a change, you probably won’t. If you’re very motivated, but don’t have the ability to make the change, you won’t – throwing a library of motivation books at you isn’t going to help. And if you don’t notice an internal sensation (like needing to use the restroom) or an external “flag” (your medicine is next to the coffee maker so you can take it before you leave for work), you might not realize/remember you should do that behavior.
This leads to figuring out how to help people make those behaviors easier.
Creating a Tiny Habit
Tiny Habits® helps you create new behaviors, and it’s as easy as ABC: Anchor habit, tiny new Behavior, and Celebration.
Your Anchor is your prompt, a tiny new Behavior is small enough that you can do it quickly, and the Celebration sets the habit by flooding your brain with feel-good chemicals. Looking at it another way, (maybe more scientifically) you are strengthening your neural pathway to do that behavior. Three simple ingredients, and the encouragement to play and stay curious.
So why did I start with the long-winded Health Points game-play story, you ask? Because Tiny Habits is the key to getting more done with less HP. When you set a new habit in place after an anchor habit, you can grow it to become automatic, and you can move it from something that takes emotional labor/”HP” to something you don’t have to think through. So either it becomes a lower HP item, or almost a 0 HP item, and you can use that HP for something else.
If you know your kids are going to be bickering and asking questions and forgetting clothing items as you’re trying to get them out of the door, adding a new habit isn’t going to work right then. But if you add the Tiny Habit of hanging your car keys by the door when you come home, you save yourself a lot of HP later. If you help the kids learn the habit of putting their shoes in the bin by the door instead of letting them take the shoes into the living room where they can be lost under the couch, you’re saving time, frustration and brain power.
Why Habit Stacking Doesn’t Work
You may have heard of “habit stacking” – a 13-step process for creating a repeatable set of habits – a routine – that you can adopt to make things easier. The problem is, the more you stack together, the more likely your proverbial Jenga tower of blocks can fall if you forget something.
A Better Strategy for Success
Let’s go back to the idea of marshaling the kids out the door to get to school. If you get distracted by a kid looking for a shoe, you might forget that you are supposed to grab your keys, then grab your lunch bag, then grab your purse/laptop bag.
I would suggest that you set 2 or 3 separate habits: when you put your coffee cup/dirty dish by the sink, move the lunch bag by the door. When you grab your shoes, move the work bag to the door. Then when you grab your keys, you will grab your bags. This is an extra check to be sure you have both bags together.
If you’re looking to reduce your stress by adding mindfulness to your day, trying to find specific time to set aside can be hard, especially with kids. But you can build a Tiny Habit to add 30 seconds of mindful breathing every time you go to the bathroom and wash your hands.
Our modern world is complex, fast-paced, and not wired to help you focus on long-term goals. So, perfect to distract our already-distractible brains even more. The less our overburdened brains need to remember, the lighter their load and the lower our stress and overwhelm. Tiny Habits turns more high-frequency behaviors into automatic habits and increases our ability to tackle more high-energy/HP/bandwidth activities without getting overwhelmed as quickly.