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Researchers say positive thinking actually gets in the way of accomplishing your goals

Reuters/Anton Ferreira
You’re gonna make it.
  • Sarah Todd
By Sarah Todd

Senior reporter, Quartz and Quartz at Work

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Somewhere in an alternate universe, there exists the best possible version of me. Bizarro Sarah sends wedding gifts promptly and wakes up early to go running, three days a week. She keeps up her French, saves diligently for vacations, and reads emails as soon as they land in her inbox. She gets her bangs trimmed long before the sheepdog effect sets in.

But in our current universe, I have trouble staying hydrated and have somehow managed to accumulate $33 in overdue library fees. Which is to say, I’m often not as in control of my destiny as I might like to be. So at the end of 2015, I decided to start experimenting with a scientific technique, developed by psychology professor Gabriele Oettingen, that promises to help people stay motivated and achieve their goals. She calls it the WOOP method.

The cornerstone of Oettingen’s theory, as she explains in her 2014 book Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation, is that excessive optimism about our future achievements can actually hold us back.

“Many of us have been hearing since childhood that we should think positively about the future, and then we will fulfill our wishes and attain our goals,” Oettingen says. “But what we showed empirically is that positive thinking about the future doesn’t always hold its promise. It can actually hurt when it comes to fulfilling our wishes and achieving our goals.”

When we give into fantasies about how we’d like to change our lives, we effectively trick ourselves into believing the hard work is already done.

Oettingen and her colleagues have found that when we give into fantasies about how we’d like to change our lives, we effectively trick ourselves into believing that the hard work is already done. In one study, people who fantasized more positively about losing weight shed fewer pounds. University graduates who dreamed of great success in their job search earned less money than their peers two years later. And young adults who daydreamed most positively about starting a relationship with the objects of their affection were less likely to actually get together with their crush.

There’s a biological explanation for this phenomenon, according to Oettingen.

“We find that people who have been induced to think positively about the future actually lower their blood pressure—they get relaxed,” Oettingen says. “That is, positive fantasies do not equip them with the energy that is necessary to attain the more complicated and cumbersome goals.”

So what’s a cockeyed optimist to do? The key, Oettingen says, is to introduce a dose of hard truth—and that’s where the WOOP method, which also comes in the form of a free app, comes in.

The WOOP method uses a strategy called mental contrasting, which involves “supplementing positive dreams and fantasies with a clear sense of reality,” Oettingen says. The acronym stands for the four steps in her recommended process: Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, and Plan.

A strategy called mental contrasting involves “supplementing positive dreams and fantasies with a clear sense of reality.”

First, express your wish. For example, let’s say you want to write the next 10 pages of your caveman romance novel. Next, think about the outcome: Imagine the sense of creative accomplishment you’ll feel after finishing the scene where Ooga saves Flinty from a saber-toothed tiger.

At this point, many of us would pat ourselves on the back, call it a day, and cue up Netflix. But the WOOP method pushes you to go further, prompting you to consider what’s most likely to get in the way of your goal. This could be anything, from poor time management to a nagging sense of self-doubt. Once this obstacle is identified, you make an “if-then” plan in case you even need to overcome it: If I get a case of writer’s block while channeling Ooga’s inner monologue, then I will set a timer for the next 15 minutes and not allow myself to stop writing until the alarm goes off.

“Imagining both the positive future and the negative inner obstacle helps us understand what the obstacle is all about,” Oettingen says, “and if we can overcome it, we will fully commit and invest in attaining our goal.” If the obstacle is too big or difficult to manage right now, mental contrasting helps you figure that out in advance—and either postpone the attempt for a more favorable time or give it up altogether.

Eager to put WOOPing to the test, I’ve been trying the app off and on for the past few months. Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

1. When it comes to goals, it’s good to think small.

I’ve never had trouble coming up with big-picture goals: I’ve known for a long time that I wanted to be a journalist and live in New York City. On a daily basis, however, I’m less likely to set specific goals and more likely to focus on surviving the day’s multitudes of tasks.

But the WOOP app asks users to actively consider their priorities—on a daily and monthly basis. Carving out space in my day to consider everyday goals I’d like to achieve has helped me tackle activities that might otherwise have been lost in the shuffle. When I open an app that asks me what I hope to achieve that day, I’ve found myself more motivated to tackle lingering projects and long-delayed phone calls. And the process of setting goals each day helps me figure out what’s really important to me (meeting a pal for her birthday dinner) and what can be postponed (I can always do laundry tomorrow).

2. It’s way too easy to de-prioritize health

The WOOP app includes three categories for goals: professional, interpersonal, and health. The implicit suggestion is that you should probably make a commitment to do something in each category every day, rather than working 16 hours straight and falling asleep on the couch with your clothes on.

The need for balance may be obvious to some. But WOOP’s goal trifecta has helped me realize that I need to start paying more attention to my health. Prioritizing work and relationships comes to me pretty naturally; exercise and salads, not so much. Despite my best intentions, if I’m not planning ahead, I’ll wind up eating a bagel for breakfast, grazing on string cheese and potato chips throughout the day and heading straight to meet friends from the office.

Acknowledging these tendencies has helped me figure out how to create a healthier lifestyle. If I want to make sure I hit the gym after work, for example, I have to bring a snack to the office that I can eat beforehand. Otherwise, I’ll be so hungry by the end of the day that I’m bound to skip out.

3. I am my own worst enemy

I’ve noticed a pattern in my interpersonal goals: Many of the toughest ones involve responding to emotionally tricky messages. A lot of seemingly innocuous communications actually fall into this category. Writing back to my new landlord was a little scary, because I want to come across as an ideal tenant. Responding to a kind email from an old colleague was tough, because I wanted so badly to match his generosity. And telling a friend that I wouldn’t be able to follow through on a plan was terrifying, because what if she hated me forever?

The WOOP method has forced me to acknowledge the emotional factors that can lead to procrastination. And it’s prompted me to identify solutions that will help me overcome them. If I feel overwhelmed by the prospect of writing back to someone, I’ll set a timer and vow to respond to the message within five minutes. Giving myself a limited amount of time to respond to an email ensures that I won’t spend too much time agonizing over it. And because I won’t spend as much time agonizing over it, I’m less likely to put it off in the first place.

The upshot

I’m still nowhere close to the alternate-universe version of me. But I do feel like a marginally more together human being. I’ve even become enough of a proselytizer of the WOOP method that my family has picked up on the terminology.

On a visit back home to Cleveland over the holidays, I urged my parents to hurry up and finish their tea so that we could leave the art museum and head back to our house. “I’ve got WOOPs!” I announced.

My mom sipped her tea and looked thoughtful. “Well, my WOOPs are to go to bed before 9:30pm, write Christmas cards, and help you clean out the office,” she said.

I glowed with pride. Without even trying, she’d named goals in the categories of health, interpersonal, and professional achievements. “That’s wonderful!” I said. “You just did the three WOOP categories naturally.” My mother beamed right back.

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