Beyond Positive Thinking – What does science say about motivation?

We have all been taught to visualize our dreams—If we can imagine it, we can achieve it. I recently listened to a podcast on NPR’s ‘The Hidden Brain’ about what motivates us to achieve our dreams. Gabriele Oettingen of NYU studies motivation and wrote the book Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation. In this podcast she shared her research in which she found that people with stronger, more positive dreams/wishes about reaching their goals were, paradoxically, less likely to achieve them (and this pattern held up when she studied weight loss, post-surgery outcomes, dating, career change, as well as other areas). She found that dreaming, by itself, can lead to warm, comfortable feelings but not necessarily actions to achieve the goal. 

It isn’t that dreaming is bad, it is just often insufficient to motivate us to do the work of change. To help move that dream to action, Oettingen recommends a process that can be remembered by the acronym WOOP:

  1. Wish: Identify an important wish or intention. Acknowledge it and keep it in mind. 
  2. Outcome: Clarify the best outcome if your wish were achieved– how would your life change? What would you be doing?
  3. Obstacle: Identify the inner obstacles that stop you from fulfilling your wish. Inner obstacles are thoughts or behaviors get in the way of achieving your dream (e.g., “I am too old to change,” “I’ve tried this before and was unsuccessful,” “Other people will judge me,” etc.)
  4. Plan: Make a plan to counteract your internal obstacles–what will you do to overcome the obstacle? What are ways you can challenge your inner dialogue? (e.g., “Life is short, and this change is important so I am committed to making this change,” “I’ve learned a lot about what doesn’t work, and am now more skilled to enact what works,” “Instead of focusing on people I feel judge me, I am going to find and focus on the people who support me” etc.)

Let’s look at an example.

  • Wish: I want to increase the number of clients I serve.
  • Outcome: If in increase the number of clients, I would increase my income which would enable me to hire another person to take on the tasks I don’t love to do and would enable me to spend more time on the work I love.
  • Obstacle(s): I do not like marketing and am not good at it. I am too busy as it is to spend more time on marketing. 
  • Plan: I am going to challenge my assumption that I am not good at marketing, because I do have customers—I can identify what I have done that led me to the success I have experienced; I could talk to other businesses owners about how they approach marketing; I could possibly hire someone to focus on marketing for me.

You can do this to try out a new fitness habit, start dating again, change careers, etc. This framework is useful for goals small or large—to increase motivation and actually make the desired change. Every, “Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan” will be unique to the individual “dreamer” and will require spending time in honest reflection and will be an iterative process.

WOOP is a great self-help tool to move dreams/wishes into action. If you find you are still not making progress on your own, collaborating with a coach might be a way to get greater traction. 

© Peg Hunt, MS & Anne Garing, PhD

Other resources:

NPR: The Hidden Brain: WOOP–4 Steps to Motivation 

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