“Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.” – Saint Augustine

“Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth.” – Mike Tyson

The Problem With Positive Thinking

When it comes to positive thinking, conventional wisdom often falls short. Having a clear dream or vision is important, but that’s not enough to make it come true.

No matter how clearly we can visualize an ideal future, we need to connect that ideal to the present moment and potential hurdles, or it’s likely to remain a dream.

But, when we combine a clear vision with a grounded sense of reality, we can empower ourselves to overcome the obstacles we face and create what we’re seeking.

WOOP: The Four-Step Plan to Turn Dreams into Reality

Drawing on more than 20 years of research, Dr. Gabriele Oettingen and Dr. Peter Gollwitzer, Professors of Psychology at New York University, have developed a tool to help us make our wishes a reality. It involves “making the most of our fantasies by brushing them up against the very thing most of us are taught to ignore or diminish: the obstacles that stand in our way,” Dr. Oettingen explains. “By experiencing our dreams in our minds and facing reality, we can address our fears, make concrete plans, and gain energy to take action.”

Formally known as “mental contrasting with implementation intentions,” the more popular acronym for Oettingen’s tool is WOOP, which stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, and Plan. It’s a clinically tested and experientially proven method similar to other challenge or failure-based techniques, like the Pre-Mortem/Prospective Hindsight, or Garry Vaynerchuck’s Clouds + Dirt philosophy.

Whether we’re combining wishes and obstacles, plans and failures, or dreams and execution, the outcome is incredibly powerful. As psychologist Daniel Kahneman shares, “I mentioned [the pre-mortem] at Davos, and the chairman of a large corporation said it was worth coming to Davos for.”

Matthew Syed elaborates in his book, Black Box Thinking:

“[One] failure-based technique, which has come into vogue in recent years, is the so-called pre-mortem. With this method, a team is invited to consider why a plan has gone wrong before it has even been put into action. […] The idea is to encourage people to be open about their concerns, rather than hiding them out of fear of sounding negative. […] By making the failure concrete rather than abstract, it alters the way the mind thinks about the problem.”

Finally, as Gary Vaynerchuk writes:

“You need a healthy dose of those extremes: the clouds—the high-end philosophy of what you believe—and the dirt—the low-down subject matter expertise that allows you to execute against it. If there’s one bit of advice I can offer you it is to start pushing on both of those edges. Raise the bar on your philosophies and dig deeper into your craft. It’s a recipe for success and I urge you to give it a try.”

How to WOOP: Wish. Outcome. Obstacle. Plan.

Here’s the simple four-step process:1

1. Formulate a Wish.

“On a blank sheet of paper, name the wish in three to six words.”

Think of something that you’d like to achieve either personally or professionally, whether over the course of a day, quarter, year, or more.

2. Imagine the Outcome.

“Identify the best outcome (also in three to six words) and write it down. Now let your thoughts lead your pen, taking as much paper as you need.”

This step is where we apply the power of positive thinking to explore the possibilities of the future we’d like to create. What would the best-case outcome be if you realized your wish?

3. Identify the Obstacle(s) that may stand in the way.

“Name your obstacle and write it down. Imagine the obstacle, again letting your thoughts wander and lead your writing.”

Think of an obstacle that may hold you back, something that you have at least partial control over. How might you get in your own way? What kind of external situations should you do your best to avoid or plan for in advance?

4. Devise a Plan to overcome that obstacle

“To create a plan, first write down one specific action you can take to overcome the obstacle. Write down the time and place where you believe the obstacle will arise. Then write down the if-then plan: ‘If obstacle x occurs (when and where), then I will perform behavior y.’ Repeat it once to yourself out loud.”

Create a simple if-then plan. IF an obstacle arises (internally or externally), THEN I will take this action to overcome that obstacle.

WOOP In Action: Examples

WOOP works on all scales, from a single conversation, experience, day, or practice, to an entire lifetime. As Oettingen shares, “The elegance of WOOP really is that everybody can apply it, from 8 to 88. It works across populations in people from different venues. It works in different cultures.”

Pick a task, project, goal, or habit that you’d like to make happen, get clear on your intention, and then WOOP!

For example.

To have more meaningful interactions:

  • Wish: To be present with each person who I share a moment with.
  • Outcome: I will be in loving relationships and experience more joy.
  • Obstacle: I get distracted by my phone.
  • Plan: IF I’m going into a shared experience (meal, conversation, meeting, etc.) THEN I will put my phone on airplane mode and leave it in my bag or pocket.

To move my body:

  • Wish: To be physically strong, healthy, energetic, and vibrant.
  • Outcome: To experience all of my heartbeats and thrive.
  • Obstacle: I don’t feel like it in the morning.
  • Plan: I will increase the stakes by scheduling workouts ahead of time with a cancellation or no-show fee, and commit to doing them with a buddy.
  • Obstacle: I don’t have time.
  • Plan: IF I say I don’t have any time THEN I will find a way to do HIIT for 5-10 minutes.

To start a meditation practice:

  • Wish: To practice mindfulness daily.
  • Outcome: A calmer, clearer, more joyful, abundant, connected, healthy mind and body.
  • Obstacle: I have a busy day.
  • Plan: IF I am “too busy” THEN I will make space for a 2-minute meditation of 4 x 30-second box breaths (in ~8 beats, hold ~7 beats, out ~8 beats, hold ~7 beats)

What Can You WOOP?

  1. Oettingen, Gabriele. Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation []