Any creative person knows that pursuing meaningful work also means climbing aboard an emotional rollercoaster. One moment, you’re on top of the world, stepping out onto a stage, or hitting “publish” on a post. Then a disappointing email or a critical comment about your work sends you plunging into despair.
As a perfectionist with an honor-student complex trying to navigate the real world, I know these feelings very well. Those of us who pride ourselves on being goal-oriented can get so emotionally wrapped up in success that the results of our efforts start to dictate our happiness. We begin to over-identify with achievement.
It’s easy to stay motivated when things are going well in your career. But when you’ve invested your whole self in writing, the arts, or even starting your own business, falling short of expectations can be a major blow.
Unfortunately, we can’t always control the outcomes of our efforts. But we can better prepare ourselves for the possibility of failure. We can build resilience so that we keep striving even in the face of setbacks—the key is making your own emotional contingency plan.
When work gets personal
The movie Don’t Think Twice tells the story of a close group of friends who are all members of an improv comedy troupe. When one of their own achieves wild career success, the rest struggle to cope with their feelings of inadequacy and failure.
The problem the friends are experiencing is that when you’re too emotionally invested in any one role—such as being a comedian—adverse events seem to pose a threat to the very core of your identity. The process of being too easily swept up or controlled by negative events is called over-identification. In this state, a person may romanticize the past, when things were better. (One member of the comedy troupe, for example, just wants to go back to the way things were, when they were a close-knit crew of six.) Others may let a failure define them: Another member of the troupe grows angry and depressed because he takes his friend’s success as a personal affront.
For each person in the film, the problem comes down to managing their own internal resources. They need a strategy that allows them to act in the face of adversity—not be disabled by it. One such strategy is known by a light-hearted name: the WOOP method.
WOOP it up
The WOOP method, created by psychology professors Gabriele Oettingen and Dr. Peter Gollwitzer of New York University, has been scientifically proven to improve everything from academic achievement to drug addiction. The strategy uses mental contrasting to help develop a concrete plan to achieve your goal, as well as how to recover if you don’t.
Here’s how it works:
1. Make a wish.
Choose a goal that’s important to you. It should be challenging yet realistically attainable.
“I want to finish writing 3,000 words by the end of month.”
2. Imagine an outcome.
Imagine the best result if this wish came true.
“I feel relieved and proud of myself because I’m making progress.”
3. Identify the obstacle.
Identify the main inner obstacle that stands in the way such as an emotion, irrational belief, or bad habit. What is it within you that holds you back from fulfilling your wish?
“I get distracted by email and social media, then beat myself up because I never get as much done as I want to.”
4. Make a plan.
Now create your contingency: If faced with (obstacle), then I will (take this effective action in response).
If I find myself avoiding writing, then I will:
- Turn off Wifi
- Take a five-minute walk to reset
- Commit to writing just 100 words, no matter what they are.
Because it requires you to think ahead about likely pitfalls that may be demoralizing, the WOOP method helps you build an emotional contingency plan. By reframing obstacles as opportunities—not devastating roadblocks—you internalize failure less and can easily move past difficulties by following the action steps you’ve laid out.
Striking a balance
Another form of emotional contingency planning involves diversifying your goals. According to quality-of-life research, people experience higher levels of well-being when they have multiple goals across different life domains, and not just in one single area.
Essentially, this backs up the old adage “don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” Going all-in on your professional pursuits may backfire, leaving you always teetering on the edge of emotional over-investment. But it’s hard to mope too long over a rejection letter if you’ve got a cooking class on the same night, and have plans to go on a camping trip with friends over the weekend.
In this way, it can be helpful to better to think of our lives as a “happiness pie,” comprised of different segments like career, family, health, friends, and community. Yes, some slices may be bigger than others. But ultimately it’s important to respect that each slice needs tending to if you want to optimize not only your success—but your sanity.
If you start to sense that work has too great a grip over your identity, bring things into balance by taking stock of each area of your life. Reflect on your commitments and priorities in categories like:
- Money and finances
- Professional projects
- Friends and social ties
- Learning and growth
- Health and fitness
- Service and contribution
- Pleasure and fun
This approach prevents over-investment in any one area and makes sure your goals are balanced to nurture all parts of your life. When I notice my own workaholic tendencies flaring, I realize it’s a sign that my “happiness pies” needs attention and possibly recalibration. I ask myself if how I’m spending my time is an accurate reflection of my values.
You can do the same. If you claim that making time to be creative is important to you, yet your art supplies are gathering dust, what’s one action you could take in the next week to change that?
By the same token, positive momentum in one domain can benefit others. If you’re making a conscious effort to continually improve and push yourself out of your comfort zone, that confidence can spill over to other areas—what Stanford psychologist BJ Fogg calls “surfing the motivation wave.”
Put simply, when you feel good after reaching one goal, it’s easier to achieve others. The greater your motivational reserves, the more you have to draw from for emotional contingency when the going gets tough. So take the leap and try that guitar class, or try that yoga class—such pursuits may give you the confidence boost you need to navigate the emotional rollercoaster of a meaningful, and more perfect life.