‘The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.’
— Richard Feynman
Telling others that you intend to do something and then not doing it carries the possibility that they might finally wisen upto your games and stop believing you. There is another, more pernicious way in which we fool ourselves about our goals, one that is even less detectable.
This is when we fantasize about a certain outcome, feel the nice, warm sensation of accomplishment and then conveniently skip doing the real work. The more vividly we think about something, the more pleasure we feel and less likely are we to put in the effort to actually fulfill our wishes.
German psychologist Gabriele Oettingen, who has done considerable research on this topic, found that when people actively fantasize about a desired future, they begin to feel more relaxed and therefore less motivated to actually do something about achieving their goals.
The reason for this surprising observation lies in the way our brains operate. When a goal is easy to visualize, your brain jumps to the conclusion that it might not be that difficult to achieve. Being the hyper-efficient organ it is, it decides to allocate only as much energy for a task as it thinks is needed.
And when a goal seems almost within reach — thanks to your high-definition fantasizing — it simply allocates less energy.
According to Oettingen, when we deprive ourselves of the motivation needed to make our future better, we actually make it worse. And then we fantasize again about a rosier future, kickstarting a vicious cycle from which it can be difficult to escape.
What can we do to break free of this automatic pattern? Stop fantasizing and altogether? No, not really. The answer is surprisingly simple. In fact, so simple that it’s a four letter word.
What to do about it
It’s called WOOP.
Short for, Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, and Plan, WOOP can be the magic pill that keeps you from forever swimming in your fantasies and actually moves you towards your goals. The steps are simple and they all involve a simple question:
Wish — What do I really wish would happen?
Outcome — What would the best outcome be if my wish comes true? Will I feel happier, more fulfilled, more confident as a result?
Obstacle — What is it in me that is preventing me from fulfilling that wish?
Plan — If I come up against that obstacle, what behaviour or thought will I show to overcome it?
The first two parts of WOOP are similar to fantasizing — you imagine all your dreams coming true and feel the positive emotions wash over you. It is in the third and fourth steps that the real magic happens. When you think of obstacles in your way, you aren’t focusing on external circumstances but only what you can control. This prevents you from making excuses and places the repsonsibility for your goals squarely on your shoulders.
In the last step, Plan, you decide on a course of action — in advance — when you come up against the expected obstacles. Why is this important? Well because we humans are weak-willed and poor predictor of our future actions. While we might feel confident about how we will react to a future event, it is literally like predicting the behaviour of a stranger because we simply have no idea of the context in which the future event will take place.
WOOP works because it links your desired future with your present reality. Your fantasy is no longer floating untethered in space but is firmly linked to a plan to achieve them. With enough practice, every time you begin dreaming about a future goal you will automatically bring up the obstacles you need to surmount and a plan to do that. In some ways, WOOP changes your reality by translating your desires into something you can do right now.
Oettingen calls this act of comparing your fantasy with your reality, mental contrasting. A series of experiments have shown that when people engage in this activity, it increases their energy levels and compels them to take action. The gap between where we are today and where we wish to be is the primary driver of all human endeavour. The reason why WOOP works so well is precisely because it creates this healthy tension that propels you forward.
The WOOP method also has the benefit of immunizing you against negative feedback. When you become mindful of the obstacles within you that are preventing you from achieving your goals, you stop taking negative feedback personally and start considering it useful information
Finally, WOOP forces us to think what we really want. Most goals that we hold dear are just borrowed from others. Therefore, wondering in advance how achieving those goals would make us feel—and whether it is worth putting in the effort— can help us decide whether it’s worth chasing them at all.
A goal doesn’t care how badly you want it. It only cares for the effort you put in to get there.
We often mistake our intense passion and desire for an outcome for the real thing: getting your hands dirty. We tell ourselves that it is only a matter of time before we convert our thoughts into action, but the sad reality is that that day might never really come.
Dreams can either be our window to what is possible, or they can be like a mirage in the desert: leading us astray with the promise of pleasure. Whether we eventually find what we’re looking for depends on our ability to side-step our self-sabotaging mind.
All we need is awareness, hard work and a little bit of WOOP.