When we seek to create forward movement in life, goal-setting is the go-to starting point. As an executive coach, much of my work with clients begins with setting inspiring and achievable goals — and high achievers were born with a goal in hand. Needless to say, I spend a lot of time thinking about and observing how we set goals, what happens when we do and how we get results.
SMART (specific, measurable, achievable/action-oriented, realistic, and time-bound) goals are often thought of as being the “gold standard” of goals because they are how the organizations where we work teach us to write our professional goals. While SMART goals ensure we’re not getting too lofty and we’re able to measure what is accomplished, they can also steer us toward thinking only in terms of what’s ultra-realistic and easy to measure. As the saying goes, ‘what gets measured gets done.’
But what about when the things we want in life are more challenging to measure — or even those visionary ideas we’re not sure are realistic or achievable? Are SMART goals keeping us too contained? We run the risk of telling ourselves that our aspirations are not SMART when, in fact, NOT moving in that direction could unnecessarily restrain our unique brand of genius.
In her book Rethinking Positive Thinking, Gabriele Oettingen articulates a different way to conceptualize our goals: WOOP (Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan). In my own practice, I’ve found that WOOP goals tend to garner more significant results for transformational goals, which include work in addition to other things, like finances, health, family, etc. Neuroscience explains the efficacy of WOOP goals quite well.
Human behavior is governed by a neurological mechanism called the ‘threat and reward response'. The brain processes billions of stimuli per day and our brains must quickly choose what to focus on by sorting stimuli into the ‘threat’ or ‘reward’ category. This information is used for survival, to make inferences or categorize and feel emotions that attract us to certain people. Because the brain must process billions of stimuli, we cannot consciously interpret all that we take in. Change – even when it’s a goal we have set – often gets sorted into the ‘threat category by the brain because we lack clarity on how to achieve it or we’re overfocused on the obstacles. It is exceedingly common in the pandemic environment for goals to become threatening and cause us to avoid movement toward them all together.
WOOP counterbalances the brain’s threat response by priming us to envision our wish (the goal) as well as the outcome (the ‘reward’) in as much detail as possible. When visualizing the outcome, it is important to visualize what success will look like in the most detailed way possible, just as a professional athlete does before competing.
With the clarity of what the outcome will look like, we become inspired by the reward state and the threat response is reduced, making us more likely to move toward our goals with greater commitment and conviction.
What is unique about WOOP is not only envisioning things working out, which feels good but does not tend to correlate with actually achieving what we set out to do, but also envisioning the obstacles we will meet while we’re in a reward state. I like to think of this as rose-colored reality — we’re visualizing the win, but acknowledging it won’t happen without significant effort and some hurdles. Oettingen refers to it as ‘mental contrasting,’ which involves contrasting your desired outcome against the possible obstacles. Oettingen’s research revealed that mental contrasting only resulted in more motivation for people who had high expectations of succeeding and were convinced they could achieve their goal. For people who had lower expectations of success, mental contrasting resulted in lower motivation. The upside of employing this method? It’s a way to stress test your goals to determine if they’re worth pursuing. If the obstacles lower your motivation, you’re statistically less likely to achieve your goal anyway so you may want to opt out. If envisioning obstacles makes you more motivated, then you’re ready to create your plan, your implementation intention, which includes how you’ll navigate the obstacles.
Here are steps you can take to WOOP up your goals:
Step 1: Identify what you want to do/accomplish (Wish)
This can be anything that you need, want or have to do in the short- or long-term, professionally or personally. Don’t let the ‘wish’ language fool you into thinking this is whimsical — this is for dreamers and realists alike. Determining what you truly want is often the toughest part!
I want to write a book.
I want to create a new product.
I want to spend more time with the people I love.
Step 2: Visualize what it will be like when you achieve the goal (Outcome)
Envision — in as much detail as possible — what life will look like once you’ve accomplished your goal. What is the best possible outcome? How will you feel? What life will look like in the new state? Who will be there?
I will throw a book launch party in the back room of my favorite restaurant with all of my closest friends and colleagues.
I will pitch my product in front of the leadership team during their weekly meeting.
I will eat dinner with my family at least five nights a week, take a full, two-week vacation each year and have one full weekend day off every week.
Step 3: Visualize the obstacles that you will encounter (Obstacle)
Anticipate the obstacles that could prevent you from accomplishing this goal. Imagine these obstacles.
I have writer's block and procrastinate writing.
I won’t correctly anticipate the stakeholders’ concerns and they won’t buy into my pitch.
I am not able to maintain the work-life boundary and will continue as I have — working too much.
Step 4: Determine the steps you will take to achieve your goal — your implementation intention (Plan)
Movement toward your goal will include your response to anticipated obstacles to predetermine how you will act in certain situations. The concept of implementation intentions was introduced in the late 1990s by psychologist Peter Gollwitzer whose research showed that the use of implementation intentions tended to result in a higher probability of successful goal attainment. Think of it as ‘if – then’ planning for your obstacles. It’s worth noting that the ‘if’ could be any situational cue, not just an obstacle. It could be a behavior, place, object, thought or trigger.
If I have writer’s block, I will stop writing and do something that inspires me (exercise, read, connect with others).
If stakeholders have unanticipated concerns in my initial pitch, I will request a chance to revise and make the pitch again.
If I find myself working weekends or missing dinner, I will recalibrate to determine what I need to delegate or decline.