The WOOP Method For Setting Goals

The WOOP Method For Setting Goals

I have read a great number of personal development books over the years that espouse the power of belief and positive thinking. As I wrote in my article “Survivorship Bias – Don’t Believe the Hype” it quickly dawned on me that all these gurus, books, and magazines follow a similar approach. Observe what successful people do and try to reverse engineer it. Package it up and sell it as a guaranteed “success formula” that will transform your life. Unfortunately, life is not fair. No matter how much you want something, how hard you work, or how diligently you follow the “success formula”, success is never guaranteed. These gurus peddle simplicity and certainty, in a world where complexity reigns supreme.

Dreaming about success, visualizing your success, and having positive expectations for achievement are important. But just wishing something were so, is not going to magically make it happen.

Professor Gabriele Oettingen, a psychology professor at New York University has documented findings from 20 years of studies in human motivation in the book, Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation.

Dozens of peer-reviewed studies were examined on the effects of positive thinking on people pursuing various kinds of wishes – from losing weight, quitting smoking, recovering quickly from surgery, and the improvement of professional, academic, and financial performance. The studies consistently found that people who positively visualize make either the same or less progress in achieving attainable wishes than those who don’t. Ouch!

Dreaming and visualizing our goals is important because it helps us to explore future possibilities. The problem is that we tend to forget about the obstacles and temptations that are sure to arise along the way.

The author documents a scientific method for people to set and achieve goals, called “Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions” (MCII).

The process is broken down into four steps, known as “WOOP” (Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, and Plan). Here is my take:

1. Wish

Choose your goal, your desired end result. Make it something that’s challenging and compelling, but realistically possible to achieve by the chosen due date. We call these SMART Goals.

When facilitating strategic planning with clients coach them to avoid the “Planning Fallacy”. This term describes our universal human tendency to underestimate the amount of time it takes to complete Projects and Tasks. Otherwise, clients tend to set due dates that are far too optimistic. This invariably leads to Projects not being completed on time, with the due dates being overshot by a considerable margin.

2. Outcome

I encourage clients to state in as much detail as possible, what the desired end state looks like when scoping out their Strategic Projects. It is important we fully describe what is “in scope” and what is “not in scope” at the beginning of each Project. This gives us an objective basis for determining when the project is complete, or when the desired milestone has been reached (if the project is being split into phases i.e. quarterly milestones). Everyone is aligned on the outcome, and everyone will know exactly when the goal is achieved.

3. Obstacles

Identify the obstacles in your way. To do this, I ask clients to imagine it is the future and your Project due date has arrived, but unfortunately, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. I facilitate a pre-mortem discussion to consider questions like:

  • What risk factors could negatively impact or delay this project?
  • What actions could we take to reduce or mitigate these risk factors?
  • What changes do we need to make to create a more realistic Project scope?

4. Plan

Now you are ready to formulate a plan to achieve your Goal. Scope out and list the known Tasks, the key action steps you will take. I also recommend that you formulate a plan for how you will overcome the obstacles you have identified. Create a series of “if/then” statements. If X happens, then we will do Y.

And the ultimate key to successful goal achievement in my experience? In your weekly meetings, make sure you identify “The One Thing” – the one key Task you will complete each week that is going to move each of your Goals forward.

Are you ready to WOOP it up?


Until next time…