This is the second of 2 articles on the topic of “promoting lasting change.”
Click here for part 1.

In this article, we continue to share some of what we did in our school-based projects with young people this December. This is particularly interesting to share with you in a time when we’re excited about the New Year, and setting New Year’s resolutions!

Besides learning about how to make goals specific and action-based, realistic, and how to make them personal and linked to our identity (see the first article), young people also learned all about an interesting strategy that has been found to be most helpful in achieving our goals. This is a helpful tool that can help everyone achieve their New Year’s resolutions: WOOP.

Learn about WOOP: consider obstacles in your way and create plans to overcome them!

Research by Gabriele Oettingen has found a strategy called the Wish-Outcome-Obstacle-Plan (WOOP) strategy (also called Mental Contrasting), to be the most efficient way of fulfilling goals. Engaging in this strategy improves students’ effort, attendance, homework completion, and school results, reduces stress, improves time management, and promotes physical health.

Only indulging in an ideal future in which our goals are fulfilled, or only dwelling on everything that is in the way of this ideal future, are both unhelpful strategies for goal setting. On the other hand, WOOP or mental contrasting is a useful strategy that includes thinking about both of these together.

Here is the step-by-step guide to WOOP:

  1. Formulate a Wish
  2. Imagine the Outcome of that wish – how would achieving it make you feel?

This is helpful, because planning is related to visualisation. We think in mental images and movies, which create emotion and facilitate motivation. In some cases, instead of more drills, sports coaches use visualisation e.g. of perfect free throws in basketball, to achieve better results. The problem occurs if we JUST visualise the positive outcome!

  1. Consider the Obstacles in your way – these must be internal, which you can control

Difficulties will always arise, and simply imagining the ideal will not be enough for most goals. Considering all the obstacles, such as ‘I tend to get distracted’ is therefore very important.

  1. Formulate a Plan as ‘when’ ‘then’ rules for yourself.

The best way to consider our obstacles is to turn them into constructive responses. This strategy therefore includes setting out specific plans for what to do when the problems or obstacles that are in the way occur (e.g. “when I get distracted by the TV, then I will only turn it on after I finish my homework”).

Setting simple rules for yourself in this way is helpful as they act as metacognitive substitutes for willpower, and help you avoid difficult dilemmas. This means that if I have a rule in place, I follow that rule and no longer have to engage in the difficult decision-making process every time a similar situation occurs (e.g. of whether to turn the TV on or off today before my homework is done). This is related to our discussion of the relation between behaviour and identity change in this article. Setting a broad rule for myself is similar to making a decision about who I am, as it prevents having to make the difficult decision in different contexts over and over again.

This is the best way of creating the habits that can lead to character growth, and is a useful strategy to keep in mind when thinking of your New Year’s resolutions.

So, what will your WOOP be? What specific, action-based goal, realistically linked to who you are and who you hope to be, will you set yourself for 2018? What obstacles might stand in your way and what ‘when-then’ rules will you include in the formulation of your resolution?

For more information on mental contrasting/WOOP, see this resource by Character Lab

For more details on research around the mental contrasting strategy, see: Oettingen, G., & Cachia, J. Y. (2016). The problems with positive thinking and how to overcome them. In K. D. Vohs & R. F. Baumeister (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation: research, theory, and applications (3rd ed., pp. 547-570). New York: Guilford.