Thinking Positively Won’t Get You Closer to Your Goals

Thinking positive thoughts or wishing for good things to happen is unlikely to lead to constructive change or transformation. As I write about in Everyday Vitality, without taking steps to mobilize what we care about and to embody our values, our dreams will stay where they started–in our head.

New York University professor of psychology Gabriele Oettingen has found that people who spend time envisioning how good it will feel to reach a goal without taking any concrete actions toward it are less likely to achieve it. In a study of obese women who enrolled in a weight-loss plan, Oettingen found that women who had positive fantasies about their weight loss—such as showing off their new body to a friend who had not seen them in a year, or supposing that it would be easy to resist a leftover box of doughnuts—were less likely to lose weight than those who were realistic about the challenges they faced.

Oettingen found a similar pattern across multiple domains, including quitting smoking, starting a relationship, doing well on an exam, and getting a job. Fantasizing about being successful without actually pursuing it also undermined motivation. Dreaming turns out to be devitalizing. In fact, participants in a study who were asked to generate positive fantasies about the week ahead felt less energized and later reported poor accomplishment and lower mastery of everyday challenges. Moreover, they were less likely to put in the effort and persist when setbacks occurred. Oettingen theorizes that “mentally attaining” what you want obscures the actual need to apply the effort to make it happen.

Mental Contrasting

Instead of fantasizing, try mental contrasting, which combines being optimistic with being realistic. Mental contrasting means imagining a positive outcome while recognizing the potential obstacles involved and planning actions to overcome them. Based on her research about mental contrasting, Oettingen recommends setting what she calls WOOP goals to close the gap between one’s present reality and desired future.

The four steps are as follows:
1. Imagine something meaningful and important to you that can be attained within a specific time frame. Put the goal into words.
Examples: “I want to do well on my math test.” “I want to feel more gratitude while living my life.”
2. How would you feel? Imagine feeling this way and put it into words.
Examples: “I would feel deeply engaged in my work.” “I would feel proud of myself.” “I would feel tremendous relief.”
3. Consider what can hold you back from achieving what you wish for. Say it to yourself or put it into words.
Examples: “I have a hard time saying no.” “I get distracted by social media.” “I am always exhausted.” “I am a procrastinator.”
4. What is an executive action you can take to tackle this obstacle? Make what is known as an implementation intention (aka: an action plan) to confront the obstacle when it arises.
Example: “If someone offers me a drink, I will say, ‘No, Thank You.'” “If I get distracted by my phone when I am with my family in the evening, I will leave it on my desk.” “If I feel like eating junk food, I will go for a walk around the block.”
Mental contrasting has been found to be an effective technique with stressed-out college kids at increasing their physical activity, and with helping people to make healthier choices about what to eat. Students improved their grades and time management using WOOP. Nurses who performed a daily WOOP exercise to reduce work stress reported psychological and physical symptoms and increased vigor and engagement after three weeks.
WOOP may sound like a silly acronym but it’s a powerful tool.

I wish you all the best,

Dr. Samantha Boardman