GUEST POST: WOOP Your Way Forward - A Self-Regulation Strategy That Could Help You Get Ahead and Stay Ahead
By Marianne Fallon
Marianne Fallon, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Psychological Science at Central Connecticut State University and has taught undergraduate Research Methods (among other things) for over 10 years. She is the author of Writing Up Quantitative Research in the Social and Behavioral Sciences by Sense Publishers. A cognitive psychologist, Dr. Fallon conducts research in learning, memory, perception, and motivation. Her most recent research examines how developing growth mindset and character strengths help college students learn and succeed. She received her B.A. from Bucknell University and her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Toronto. You can find her on Twitter @MarianneFallon1. (She’s new to Twitter, so… learning curve.)
You’ve got a big project due at the end of the term. You’ve got a cumulative exam in two weeks. You’ve got an oral presentation in three days. You know you should space your study/work sessions (because you’ve been reading posts such as this one on this blog), but you can’t seem to get yourself motivated. You need to get to it and to stick with it.
Self-control is key for academic success; regulating behavior predicts academic success better than does IQ (1). But just knowing that you need to regulate your behavior won’t necessarily translate into self-control. You need a conscious, volitional strategy. Although there are numerous strategies to help you exercise self-control (2), one strategy seems particularly effective for regulating goal-directed behavior: Wish Outcome Obstacle Plan (WOOP), which involves mental contrasting with implementation intentions (3).
WOOP is an active, cognitive strategy that Dr. Gabriele Oettingen devised to promote goal-directed behavior, such as working on that project or studying for that final. Before WOOP-ing, you need to prepare – make arrangements to be in a place where distractions are minimal. Remember that the time you set aside to WOOP devotes attention to your well-being and realizing your goals. Decide whether you want to think through your WOOP-ing or write it down.
You begin by articulating a wish that you care about, find challenging, and is within your grasp. Don’t think about your wish for too long – fantasizing about a wish does not necessarily translate to goal-directed behavior (4). Transition to thinking about the outcome that you would experience should you achieve your wish. How would you feel if your wish came true? Try to reduce your feeling to three to six words. Spend some time visualizing/writing about that feeling.
Now think about the obstacles that would likely stand in your way. These obstacles should be internal (e.g., “I could become distracted” or “I could feel like giving up”) rather than external (e.g., “My roommate will bug me” or “My professor does not teach well”). Identify no more than two obstacles that you know from experience you are most likely to come up against. Visualize yourself experiencing these obstacles, including the emotions that will arise.
Generate a clear, concrete action plan that will help you overcome each obstacle. The plan should be in the form: “If <obstacle>, then <plan>.” For example, “If I don’t understand my professor’s expectations for this assignment, I will email my professor specific questions for clarification.” It’s really important that you construct your plan in this form so that you can mentally instantiate the cause-and-effect relationship. Visualize your plan and repeat it to yourself at least 3 times.
Oettingen cautions that all the steps need to be completed in this exact order for the strategy to be most effective (5). Evidence suggests that WOOP changes students’ goal-directed behavior. For example, Duckworth and colleagues (6) randomly placed a WOOP exercise or a partial WOOP exercise (just the wish and the outcome) within PSAT practice books that 10th-grade students had the opportunity to complete over the summer. Students who fully WOOP-ed about studying for the PSAT completed 60% more practice questions than students who partially WOOP-ed. Although actual performance on the PSAT was not reported, deliberate practice (like doing practice problems) is generally associated with better performance (7), so it is likely that students who completed more practice problems would do better on the later assessment.
I’ve seen my own students make “rookie mistakes” that could decrease the effectiveness of the strategy. Let me make some suggestions:
· Take your time. Rushing through the process undermines its effectiveness. Like any strategy, you need to practice to become proficient. Your initial WOOP sessions may take 5 or more minutes, but subsequent sessions may require only a couple of minutes.
· Confirm that obstacles are internal rather than external. You can’t always effectively address external obstacles, but you do have control over internal obstacles.
· Ensure that your if-then implementation plan incorporates an obstacle and a plan. It’s easy to slip into an if-then statement that reflects the Premack principle where more frequent – and potentially more pleasurable – behaviors reward less frequent behaviors: “If I complete my work, I will give myself 15 minutes on Instagram.” That’s not an implementation intention. You must address an obstacle with a plan: “If I find myself spending too much time on Instagram, I will give my phone to my roommate until I finish my work.”
· Let WOOP help you refine your wishes. If you find yourself getting nowhere despite WOOPing, re-examine your wish. Is your wish really meaningful? It is challenging? It is attainable? Sometimes we are too ambitious in our wishes and WOOP-ing can reveal that. If you wish to read – and understand – three chapters of your textbook in 1 hour, that’s certainly challenging, but it’s not realistic.
Even when you follow the steps, WOOP-ing is not a panacea that cures every case of an unrealized goal. Nevertheless, WOOP-ing is encouraging for several reasons. First, WOOP-ing clearly goes beyond pop-psychology advice to simply “think positive” or “visualize your future”. In fact, “thinking positive” without planning to overcome obstacles is counterproductive: indulging in positive fantasies (without specific action plans) immediately reduces depressive symptoms in college students, but is associated with more depressive symptoms 2 months later (8). Second, Oettingen and her colleagues have demonstrated that WOOP can be effective across multiple contexts including academic performance, healthy eating, physical fitness, and interpersonal relationships. Further, it can be used for short-term or long-term goals.
Third, there is a strong empirical foundation for the efficacy of WOOP-ing. Meta-analyses have estimated the effect size of the implementation portion of WOOP-ing (the obstacle and plan) to be medium to large (9). Fourth, although we spend time intentionally WOOP-ing, the process seems to automatically link the future wish and present reality, as long as wishes are feasible (10). As such, you do not have to expend cognitive resources reminding yourself of your wish and how to attain it. Rather, automatic processes shape your behavior and move you closer towards the goal.
Educators who want to encourage their students to WOOP have multiple options. Students can WOOP during one-on-one advising sessions or during office hours (see this website for more ideas). To set the tone for the semester, I facilitate a group WOOP on the first day of class. Educators could also consider assigning Shankar Vedantam’s The Hidden Brain podcast featuring Gabriele Oettingen. There’s a free app for students who want to record their WOOP sessions on their mobile device. And educators need look no further than this blog for additional potential applications for WOOP-ing – perhaps WOOP-ing can help students make better use of feedback, succeed in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS), or set and achieve writing goals.
So, the next time you have a big project or some other goal that you care about, consider WOOP-ing. Move beyond trying to will your wishes into existence; create plans to overcome the obstacles that stand in your way.
(1) Duckworth, A. L., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2005). Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents. Psychological Science, 16, 939-944.
(2) Duckworth, A. L., Gendler, T. S., & Gross, J. J. (2016). Situational strategies for self-control. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11, 35-55. doi: 10.1177/1745691615623247
(3) Oettingen, G. (2014). Rethinking positive thinking: Inside the new science of motivation. New York, NY: Penguin.
(4) Oettingen, G. & Mayer, D. (2002). The motivating function of thinking about the future: Expectations versus fantasies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1198-1212. doi: 10.1037//0022-35220.127.116.118
(5) Oettingen, G., Pak. H., Schnetter, K. (2001). Self-regulation of goal setting: Turning free fantasies about the future into binding goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 736-753. doi: 10.1037//O022-3518.104.22.1686
(6) Duckworth, A. L., Grant, H., Loew, B., Oettingen, G., & Golwitzer, P. (2011). Self-regulation strategies improve self-discipline in adolescents: Benefits of mental contrasting and implementation intentions. Educational Psychology, 31, 17-26. doi: 10.1080/01443410.2010.506003
(7) Brown, P. C., Roediger, III, H. L. McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
(8) Oettingen, G., Mayer, D., & Portnow, S. (2016). Pleasure now, pain later: Positive fantasies about the future predict depression. Psychological Science, 27, 345-353. doi: 10.1177/0956797615620783
(9) Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Implementation intentions and goal achievement: A meta-analysis of effects and processes. Advances in Experimental Psychology, 38, 69-119.
(10) Kappes, A., & Oettingen, G. (2014). The emergence of goal pursuit: Mental contrasting connects future and reality. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 54, 25-39.