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Why Success Takes More Than Positive Thinking

By Kyle Danner


“If you can dream it, you can do it.”
-Walt Disney

“Once you replace negative thoughts with positive ones, you’ll start having positive results.”
-Willie Nelson



If what Walt and Willie say are true, then why is it so hard to complete a task or reach a goal even with the most positive outlook? Is there something wrong with us? Are we not positive, hopeful or optimistic enough?

Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation by psychologist Gabriele Oettingen challenges this conventional wisdom. She found through clinical research that positive thinking alone wasn’t enough. In fact, people who simply relied on positive thinking were less likely to achieve their goals.

Instead, we have to consider the obstacles that might get in the way of our goals. Juxtaposing our positive thought, dream or wish with the reality of what might get in the way is known as mental contrasting. This may sound defeatist, but Oettingen found that it motivated people to act.

She paired her work in mental contrasting with Peter M. Gollwitzer’s [i] research with implementation intentions. He was able to show that when people created a plan to achieve a goal, they were more likely to succeed.

Since terms like “mental contrasting” and “implementation intentions” are a mouthful, Oettingen came up with the handy acronym, WOOP that stands for:

Wish: the goal you want to achieve

Outcome: your desired result

Obstacle: what might get in your way

Plan: If I encounter the obstacle, then I will take this action.

WOOP can be used for self-improvement activities such as exercise, to boost productivity at work or even enhance relationships.

For example, you and your sister who’s also your business partner bicker when she says something upsetting. You know it creates stress for you and the back-and-forth doesn’t help your relationship, but you have to work together. Your WOOP may be:

Wish: to not bicker with my sister

Outcome: a better relationship with her and less stress for me

Obstacle: she says something that upsets me

Plan: If my sister says something that upsets me, then I will take three deep breaths before responding.

WOOP takes some practice, but Oettingen’s research shows it's an effective strategy that can produce results quickly. Even better, it’s easy to learn and share with others, such as  family members in the business and your work team. To learn more, visit the companion site at woopmylife.org.

Need Help Applying WOOP To Your Goals?

Download my free guide, The Ideal Life. In this guide, I'll provide you with worksheets, guides, and other resources to help you clarify your goals and create action steps to make them a reality.

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READ NEXT: How To Create A Vivid Vision So You Can Achieve Your Goals

[i] Peter is Gabriele’s husband. Sounds like there’s a family business in the works.