I was listening to Shankar Vedantam’s amazing Podcast, Hidden Brain, the other day. If you haven’t checked this out yet, give it a listen, it’s worth your time. Shankar does an in-depth analysis on pretty much anything cognitive. His guests are almost always interesting and he’s got a penetrating interview style that keeps you riveted for a half hour a week. In this particular podcast, I was listening to You 2.0: WOOP, There it is!
His guest for this show was psychologist Gabriele Oettingen. Dr. Oettingen recently authored the book, Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside The New Science Of Motivation. In the podcast, she discusses how positive thinking can often have a negative effect. She spent many years studying folks looking for jobs, trying to lose weight, recovering from injury or striving to reach some other goal. What she found was counter-intuitive, at least to the current social wisdom. She found that those people that have stronger, more positive fantasies (positive thinking) about hitting their goals were less likely to achieve them. These folks got fewer job offers, lost less weight and recovered slower.
Interesting. When you dive a little deeper though, the reasoning becomes a lot more obvious. Most of these folks are doing just the positive thinking part. They’re dreamers that aren’t getting off their asses and doing the work. No wonder they aren’t hitting their goals.
Oettingen offers a very cool, very simple process to help realize your goals. It is an acronym called WOOP. WOOP stands for Wish-Objective-Obstacle-Plan. The idea is that we think about the most important goal we wish to accomplish in the next finite period of time. We then think about the best possible outcome if this wish is fulfilled. She asks that we really get into it, really feel as if the outcome has already happened. We then start to think about the obstacles within us that could prevent us from accomplishing this goal. The important part of that statement is within us. We still have very little control over a lot of external factors, but we certainly have control over the fears and weaknesses inside of us. She asks us again to really feel it, then define and acknowledge these obstacles. Finally, we build a plan. The plan is an If – then statement right out of Comp Sci 101. If obstacle, then plan.
This idea of thinking about the obstacles that get in our way when trying to accomplish a goal is based off of a technique Dr. Oettingen calls mental contrasting. Mental contrasting is very similar to a technique I’ve been using in business for years called the pre-mortem. Everyone is familiar with the post-mortem in business. This is where you analyze how a project went, then start working through all of the lessons you learned from the project so that these lessons can be disseminated through the organization so others can learn from the mistakes and successes of the project. The pre-mortem is different. This is a strategy where the folks about to start on the project or organization get together and look into the future and imagine that the project has failed. They then work their way back from the failure to the present day and try to unearth all of the reasons why the project has failed. This is a great way to do a risk assessment.
I have learned to use this technique sparingly. Certain teams react very negatively to this approach. You most often find this negative reaction with teams that are new to working together or they don’t have a ton of buy-in to the project in the first place. In these scenarios, it can cause a serious lack of confidence in the project and may bring on the dreaded ‘Chicken Little’ effect. In strong teams, it is incredibly effective because it brings a much needed dose of reality. If you’ve ever built software you know that most coders default to thinking they can do the impossible by tomorrow. This overconfidence has sunk many ships. This risk along with many other obstacles get quickly exposed in the pre-mortem.
I’d assume the same is true for mental contrasting. In doing some quick research, it is fair to say this approach is not for those that lack confidence. Those that lack confidence should spend most of their time in the WOOP exercise on the Wish and Objective phase and only token time on the Obstacle and Plan phase. A lack of confidence could prevent you from even starting on the goal in the first place if you get totally hung up on the Obstacles.
The idea behind mental contrasting is interesting and loops back to a lot of what Harari said in his book Sapiens that I reviewed previously. Most visualization that we undertake is of the positive-future imagery flavor. Our brains have the wonderful capacity to create fictions of the future. The fact that we can visualize a positive-future imagery tricks our brains into assuming that this visualization is real and attainable. That’s why it works. The fiction convinces your brain that the desired future is likely to come true.
However, if you are already a very confident person, this positive-future imagery can burn you. Your brain starts to assume that the goal is a lot easier to acquire than it actually is. With that scrambled logic, your brain starts to allocate less energy to the goal and you end up not doing the work. An interesting tangent to this – this seems eerily similar to why smart kids get so frustrated when they can’t solve something quickly. They expect it to be easy and are not familiar with the concept of stretching the brain and doing the work. Their brain is not used to allocating that energy and they get depressed and give up. This is why it’s important to praise kids for ‘hard work’ over being ‘smart’. End tangent. To combat this problem of allocating less energy and not doing the work, we developed mental contrasting.
Mental contrasting works because your subconscious mind is a lazy 4-yr old. It can’t think past a couple of minutes. This is why long term goals are so hard to hit, your subconscious doesn’t give a damn. All it wants is for you to be happy and healthy in the now. It doesn’t understand why exercising is a good idea – all it sees is that running on a treadmill is a pointless waste of time. Mental contrasting is training for your subconscious. It connects the dots of future reward with obstacles in the now. Your conscious mind understands that running and dieting is a good idea but your subconscious mind just wants to finish the whole damn roll of thin mints. The subconscious speaks in images which is why mental contrasting is so effective.
One note of caution if you are interested in further research on the topic. I can’t recommend the book. I would recommend that you just listen to the Hidden Brain podcast. I thought the book was somewhat poorly written even though the idea of WOOP is a great one. She has obviously done a ton of research and should be lauded for it. The presentation of that research in the book however, was not done very objectively. In all of the great scientific books I’ve read, the results of a study are shown then conclusions are drawn from those results. Here, I felt like the conclusion was made ahead of time and then the results were shown to support the conclusion. I’m not making any claims that this is bad science, because I don’t think that’s the case at all, just that the presentation of the science was weak.
Personal Improvement Plan
So how does this all tie back into the personal improvement plan? I talked about SMART goals in a previous post. The WOOP approach will complement SMART goals very nicely. This is how we will get from knowing thyself to a scorecard. I’ll start with some examples of this in my next blog on the process.