Last updated on 4th February 2018
WOOP is an acronym for Wish-Outcome-Obstacle-Plan. This sequence is based on the very impressive body of research on how to boost motivation, goal setting & goal achievement assembled over many years by professors Gabrielle Oettingen & Peter Gollwitzer. I have written extensively about their work in previous blog posts (and associated handouts) - see "WOOPing along: an excellent way of helping us achieve our goals", "Implementation intentions & reaching our goals more successfully" and "Mental contrasting: a way to boost our commitment to goals we care about".
How is it best practically to follow the WOOP sequence? In her recently published book "Rethinking positive thinking: inside the new science of motivation" Gabrielle writes (p.134) "First of all, remember that WOOP is different from other exercises you may have tried in that it involves free thoughts and images rather than rational or effortful thinking. You need to focus so that the thoughts and images will flow. Find a secluded place where you can enjoy some peace and quiet. Make yourself comfortable so that you can focus ... If this is your first time, fifteen to twenty minutes should be enough time for the exercise. As you become more familiar with WOOP, you will be able to create your mental space and do it much more quickly - in a matter of a few minutes or even less. We begin with the "W" in WOOP, a wish or concern that you might have. Relax, take another breath, and think about one wish or concern in your personal or professional life, something that is challenging but that you think is possible for you to achieve in a given period of time ... Put the wish or concern in your mind's eye and hold it there. Now think of the first "O" in WOOP, the outcome. What is the best thing that you associate with fulfilling your wish or solving your concern? Identify this outcome and keep it in your mind's eye. Really think about it; imagine the relevant events and experiences as vividly as possible. Let your mind go. Don't hesitate to give your thoughts and images free rein. Take your time; you may close your eyes if you would like to. When you are ready, open your eyes again. It's time to focus on the second "O" in WOOP, the obstacle ... What is it in you that holds you back? What is it really? Find the most critical, internal obstacle that prevents you from fulfilling your wish or solving your concern ... When thinking about obstacles, people often look at the external world, naming circumstances or individuals they feel are blocking them. But by choosing a wish that we think is feasible, we're already accounting for obstacles outside us (if serious obstacles outside us existed, the wish wouldn't be feasible). The point of this exercise is to help us prevent ourselves from getting in the way of our dreams. In selecting an internal obstacle, it's also important to dig deep enough to make sure you're addressing one that's critical for you ... (it) could be a behavior, an emotion, an obsessive thought, an impulse, a bad habit, assumptions you jump to ... finding your most relevant obstacle really pays off ... In many cases, you'll be discovering something new about yourself that you never would have thought or that you had not quite understood before ... Please keep the obstacle in your mind's eye. Then really think about it. Imagine the relevant events and experiences as vividly as possible. Once again, let your mind go. Do not hesitate to give your thoughts and images free rein. You may close your eyes again if you'd like. When you're ready, let's move to the "P" part of WOOP - the plan. What can you do to overcome or circumvent the obstacle? Name one thought or action you can take - the most effective one - and hold it in your mind. Then think about when and where the obstacle will next occur. Form an if-then plan: "If obstacle X occurs (when and where), then I will perform behavior Y." Repeat this if-then plan to yourself one more time."
Oettingen goes on to say "The version of WOOP we just did together is a mental form. You can also do it in writing: On a blank sheet of paper, name the wish in three to six words. Identify the best outcome (also in three to six words) and write it down. Now let your thoughts lead your pen, taking as much paper as you need. Then name your obstacle and write it down. Imagine the obstacle, again letting your thoughts wander and lead your writing. To create a plan, first write down one specific action you can take to overcome the obstacle. Write down the time and place when you believe the obstacle will arise. Then write down the if-then plan: "If obstacle X occurs (when and where), then I will perform behavior Y." Repeat it once to yourself out loud."
It may well be helpful to complete the WOOP exercise using simple specifically designed forms. For example you can download a "one-to-a-page longer form" here and a "three-to-a-page shorter form" too. There are also free "apps" available on the Apple App Store and on Android Google Play - both for general use and in a version fine-tuned specifically for students. The website associated with Oettingen's new book provides good further information as well. I have been using Mental Contrasting, Implementation Intentions and now the rebranded WOOP for several years. They have evolved somewhat. Gabrielle Oettingen currently emphasises an imagery-based, "pre-conscious" style of work that can definitely be very helpful. I say this primarily because of supporting research and also from personal experience. She particularly highlights internal rather than external obstacles to goal achievement. This too works well. However there are additional ways of potentially boosting WOOP outcomes if you're not fully achieving the results you want to. These somewhat more "left brain" techniques involve identifying external obstacles as well as internal. They may also chew more over what "Plan" to use. OK, this may simply emerge intuitively, but it won't always. In general we do better using our strengths than our weaknesses. Ask yourself questions like "Have I successfully tackled this kind of obstacle in the past? How did I manage?" It's often sensible to retry these personal previously helpful approaches. If this isn't enough, ask yourself whether you know anyone who has managed to overcome this kind of obstacle. How did they do it? Could you try this ... or a version of it? Research too may well be worth looking at. What kinds of approach have been found to be best for this type of problem in well-controlled trials? WOOP approaches have been successfully combined with CBT methods - see, for example "Making self-help more helpful: A randomized controlled trial of the impact of augmenting self-help materials with implementation intentions on promoting the effective self-management of anxiety symptoms" & "Using mental contrasting with implementation intentions to self-regulate insecurity-based behaviors in relationships". Earlier blog posts (and handouts) like "Implementation intentions & reaching our goals more successfully" further explore this material.
Once we find WOOP methods helpful, we're then likely to wonder how often to use them, under what circumstances, and how long to take with them. Remember these approaches are likely to be most useful when trying to reach outcomes that we genuinely want, but suspect will be quite hard to achieve. Maybe initially try the fuller fifteen minute or so exercise format (see above). As you get more experienced with the approach, by all means use briefer formats. It may be fun and helpful to use WOOP on a daily basis ... for work-related as well as interpersonal & personal challenges. The bottom line is "Does it help you achieve the outcomes you're aiming for?" If it does, you're probably doing it right. If it doesn't, maybe go back to the drawing board and look at how you could use the approach more thoroughly. Overall though, WOOP is an excellent method that potentially has hugely wide applications for work, for study, for emotional & interpersonal challenges, and for changing personal health behaviours. Do give it a try. If you put in the effort, it's very likely to reward you with really encouraging outcomes.