How to stop daydreaming and WOOP into action

Want to change? Use a mental contrasting model that beats positive thinking.

5-minute read

What if I told you that your obstacles can unlock your ability to achieve the change you want? 

So often the common rhetoric to facing a challenge or conquering a goal is to imagine yourself at the finish line after all the hard work has been overcome. Take a moment and visualize yourself accomplishing a goal you set for yourself to conquer. Maybe you see yourself soaring across the finish line at the NYC Marathon or shaking hands with smiling clients after a successful pitch. You feel so good. So… positive! 

If we just think positively, if we equip ourselves with an optimistic “can-do” attitude then surely, it is possible.  

That is, in fact, the problem. 

Researcher and NYU professor Gabriele Oettingen couldn’t believe it herself. When she saw the data she thought somewhere she had made a mistake. How could it be possible that people who had more positive fantasies about the future achieved less? Why do you think that is?

What she found was our dreams feel so good that we are demotivated to take action because we see ourselves as already there. We relax, finding ourselves at the proverbial finish line, and our feelings for motivation decrease. The same energy we need not only to begin working towards our dream but to keep going when the going gets tough has been depleted before we start. 

What Oettingen discovered was that in order to reach our desired future, we must address our present reality and the obstacles that stand in the way. The fancy name for this is mental contrasting with implementation intentions. The fun name for this is WOOP.  WOOP is an accessible behavioral change tool that shortcuts attitude and confidence, which are difficult areas to change. It stands for: Wish Outcome Obstacle Plan

WOOP is a great tool to use at work or in your personal life. Not only does it tap into our deepest wishes, it also reminds us that obstacles are within our own control and we can create a plan for what to do when we encounter them. 

You can WOOP by yourself or with the support of a coach, mentor, supervisor, friend or co-worker. Below, we will look at an example of how an employee used WOOP to fulfill her wish in the workplace. 

Scenario: Janice finds herself in a difficult place at work. She struggles to communicate effectively with her manager. Part of the problem is due to declining trust between both parties and an outcome versus process oriented environment. In her workplace, numbers are king. The inability to have effective conversations with her supervisors has impeded upon her confidence and self-worth. Janice came to me unsure of how to approach an important conversation with one of her bosses, the CEO of her company. 

Coach: Tell me, what is your most important wish for this conversation? This has to be something that you can fulfill. Instead of a magic genie in a bottle granting wishes, YOU are the genie. What is a wish you can fulfill? 

Janice: I want my boss to say yes to my request. 

Coach: I know it’s important to you that the conversation ends with a positive outcome, but unfortunately, you can’t control what your boss says. What is something you do have control over?

Janice: Well, every time I have a conversation with my bosses I can’t help but cry. I hate that. My wish is to control my emotions and speak confidently. 

Coach: Okay, good! Now, if your wish is fulfilled, how will you feel? What would the outcome be? 

Janice: The best possible outcome would be to get a new job.

Coach: I know that’s a goal you are working towards, a role and environment you can really thrive in. What about for this specific wish? What is the best possible outcome? Imagine in your mind you spoke confidently and controlled your emotions. How do you feel when you leave there?

Janice: If I didn’t cry and was able to have a mature conversation, then I’d feel more confident!

Coach: Excellent. Your outcome is you will leave feeling more confident. Now take a few moments and imagine yourself leaving the room feeling a heightened sense of confidence. Tell me when you can see it in your mind.


Janice: Okay, I can see it. 

Coach: Now think about what might get in the way of that. What’s an inner obstacle, something within you, that could hold you back? 

Janice: I don’t know. They are just so powerful and dominating.

Coach: And what goes through your mind, what are your thoughts saying when you experience that? 

Janice: My thoughts say I am weak and I can’t control anything. I am powerless.

Coach: I can see how your thought patterns can contribute to you breaking down in that moment. It sounds like you’ve identified the inner obstacle getting in the way of fulfilling your wish. Now bring to your mind being in that room with those thoughts, and you lose control. Can you imagine it fully? Let me know when you see it in your mind.


Janice: Yes, I am there. 

Coach: Okay, let’s take a moment to tap into the part of you that is powerful and strong. Can you think back on a time in your life where you faced challenges and you were able to overcome them? 


Janice: I can. 

Coach: Good. Now from a place of strength create your if/then plan. If you feel weak then you will…

Janice: Okay, so if I feel weak then I will stand up and take a deep breath and pause and remind myself I am strong and powerful before I speak. 

Coach: Awesome! Repeat it back to me.

Janice: Okay, I am writing it down hold on. Alright my if/then plan is, If I feel weak then I will stand up and take a deep breath and pause and remind myself I am strong and powerful before I speak.

Coach: Excellent. Let’s review the WOOP.

Wish: To control my emotions and speak confidently

Outcome: Feel more confident

Obstacle: My thoughts say “I am weak and I cannot control anything. I am powerless.”

Plan: If I feel weak then I will stand up and take a deep breath and pause and remind myself I am strong and powerful before I speak.

A few days later Janice reported that although her boss did not say yes to her request, Janice did not cry and felt proud about how she handled herself. 

Now it’s your turn. What is your deepest desire? If your wish was fulfilled what would be the best possible outcome? How would you feel? What obstacles can you identify so you can get out of your own way? What is your if/then plan? 

You can also check out WOOP my life for more resources so you can stop (only) daydreaming and start  WOOPing!