In May, when I spoke with the psychologist Gabriele Oettingen at the Psychological Science convention, she’d recently navigated her way out of a common dilemma.
There she was at the convention, eager to discuss her own research and attend other psychologists’ presentations. At the same time, she had a bunch of manuscripts to write and review. She couldn’t possibly give her full attention to both the conference and the papers. She couldn’t do two things at once.
And so she WOOPed.
That is, she engaged in a process of setting a goal and planning for ways to achieve it.
“WOOP” is a strategy that Oettingen — a professor at New York University and the University of Hamburg — and her colleagues developed. It stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. (The less-catchy term is “mental contrasting.”)
When you WOOP, you think about your ultimate goal, the best possible outcome, the personal obstacle(s) that stand in the way, and the plan for getting around those roadblocks.
Oettingen introduced WOOP to the public in 2014, with the publication of her book “Rethinking Positive Thinking.” She also recently developed an app that allows users to WOOP health-related, professional, and interpersonal goals.
In the book, she presents research suggesting that positive thinking has serious limits — in fact, it may often hinder our success. Whether you’re trying to lose weight, ask your crush on a date, or ace an exam, Oettingen says fantasizing may not get you anywhere, but WOOP can.
To me, the most intriguing part of WOOP is that it often requires you to step away from a particular goal if it conflicts with another one, or if it seems unfeasible. In Oettingen’s case, she chose to temporarily step away from the goal of working on those papers, instead devoting her time and energy to the conference.
Oettingen emphasised that disengagement is not the same thing as procrastination:
You do want to get rid of this conflicting state of mind and you do want to understand that you can do one thing now and another thing later. But that doesn’t mean that you procrastinate. It means that you disengage from the idea that you can do both because you can’t.
In other words, life is about constantly making choices between one meaningful pursuit and another. You can almost never do it all.
As for Oettingen, she said to herself, “OK, this is something which I can now enjoy with good conscience — to be here and get the best out of the conference. And then the other thing [the papers] I will do right away when I come home.”
That way, Oettingen could work on the papers in a quiet place, undisturbed — instead of frantically trying to read or write in between sessions at the convention. Most of us know from experience what that’s like, and how we’d end up falling short on both our goals, meaning we’d neither enjoy the conference nor be productive.
Though this process, Oettingen said, “I can kind of separate the wheat from the chaff, and I can really go for those things which are feasible and which I really want to achieve, and let go from those which are either just too costly or not feasible.”
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