How to use "WOOP" to make your wishes come true

"It’s similar to a bicycle: You can learn the skill of riding a bike, but where you go is up to you."


Gabriele Oettingen is a professor of psychology at New York University. She is the author of Rethinking Positive Thinking and developed the mental strategy WOOP.

A version of this article also appears in the Sunday Scaries newsletter. Sign up for free to receive it on Sundays.

How can WOOP help people achieve their goals?

The acronym of WOOP stands for “wish, outcome, obstacle, plan.” It’s an imagery tool based on science. Using the tool is a skill and not linked to any content or worldview. It’s similar to a bicycle: You can learn the skill of riding a bike, but where you go is up to you. Similarly, you can learn the skill of WOOP, but which wishes you tackle is up to you.

No one can tell you what your wishes are. You are the expert of your life. WOOP starts with a wish that is important to you because wishes we feel passionate about give action direction. But to get what you want, you also need to go through the three other steps.

Once you identify your wish, and it should only consist of a few words, consider the first O in WOOP — what the best outcome that could result from fulfilling your wish might be. How would you feel after fulfilling your wish? By identifying the best feeling, you will know whether or not the wish you’ve identified is the one that fills you with passion, and it will show you how much you care about the wish. It will give you the direction to act.

"You are the expert of your life.”

The second O in WOOP is about identifying and understanding your main inner obstacle – what is it in you that holds you back from tackling your wish and experiencing your outcome. Get rid of the excuses and look for your inner obstacle! It might be an anxiety, an irrational belief, or a bad habit. This O is part of the process because it gives us the energy needed for wish fulfillment. In fact, only imagining or indulging in positive fantasies about the future saps people’s energy, and it leads people to drop the effort and limits their success.

WOOP is a strategy designed to help people make their dreams come true. 


That’s because daydreams can make people feel like they’ve already accomplished something, and that takes away the energy needed to achieve their wish. Understanding what your obstacles give you the energy to overcome the obstacle, and you learn how to overcome that obstacle.

The P is a planning strategy developed by Peter Gollwitzer. In the context of mental contrasting it can be formulated as if “obstacle” occurs, then will “perform behavior X to overcome obstacles.” Mental contrasting and forming implementation intentions both work via processes occurring outside of people’s awareness. These processes are then responsible for behavior change, which ultimately leads to goal attainment.

Are there certain goals that are the best to tackle with the WOOP strategy?

You can use WOOP for any wishes, life-changing or trivial, big or small. You can use it before a meeting when you don’t really know what you want from the meeting. You can use it when you want to figure out if you should quit your job or marry a certain person. It’s applicable for any kind of wish you might have.

However, it is a skill, and skills need practice. Often our obstacles have been around for a while, sometimes a long time. WOOP helps you to discover them. Discovering your “wish, outcome, and obstacle” will allow you to move out of your comfort zone, you’ll find yourself becoming involved in life in a very different way and things will change to become more worthwhile and interesting.

To WOOP you have to first figure out what you wish for. 

Wikimedia Commons

Be diligent in following the four steps of WOOP — if you do them in the wrong order, it will not work. But when you do them in the right order, it can really help you, for your daily life and your long-term development. Research shows that people who use WOOP find more win-win solutions, they act in a fairer way, and they are better at taking on the perspective of others. You don’t need to involve analytical thinking, you just need imagery. That’s why people can use this from age eight to 88.

What are some of the biggest mistakes people make when they set goals?

People might want to avoid being pushed and pulled by social comparison. When people take on the goals of others, and they compare themselves, those goals don’t fit with their own lives and needs. And when that happens, a person can be stuck with a goal that doesn’t fit and the likelihood of achieving those goals decreases. And even if they achieve it, it might feel lukewarm.

"Feel out your most important wish.”

Instead, the thing to do is to take five or ten minutes, put yourself in a quiet place, and tell yourself everything else can wait now — no emails, no talking, no nothing. Then think about a certain time frame and think about what you really want and what you really can achieve in that time frame. Feel out your most important wish. That is how you can pinpoint what your wishes and dreams about the future really are.

And strike a balance between having a wish that is both challenging and realistically achievable.

Is it fair to say that our wishes and future fantasies are an expression of our needs?

That is what our research shows. Studies suggest that positive fantasies and daydreams are an expression of our needs. So, when people feel deprived of meaning in their life, they start fantasizing about getting a more meaningful job. Or when they are deprived of interpersonal relationships, they fantasize about getting together with friends and family.

Do you ever find yourself using WOOP to achieve your own wishes?

I use it every day. Without it, I would have never left my comfort zone as a university professor and written a trade book. More important, I would have never brought WOOP to the world.

A version of this article also appears in the Sunday Scaries newsletter. Sign up for free to receive it on Sundays.

Related Tags