The 4-Step Scientific Way to Reach Your Goals
Nobody wants to be like a Simpsons character, never changing from episode to episode—it makes for pretty boring watching. We want to be able to look back on our past selves and see how far we’ve come.
Here on the Wednesday Wellbeing column, we’ve discussed how important a growth mindset is—the belief that skills and intelligence aren’t fixed, but developed. This means we see overcoming our failures as a problem-solving journey that will be character-building.
The idea of growth mindset is great, but how can you actually put it into action?
That’s what we’ll be discussing today. Let’s just say it doesn’t involve sitting there watering your head in the hope a plant will grow.
In order for our growth mindset to grow fruit, we need to set and work towards goals. Luckily for us, psychologist Gabriele Oettingen has researched the most successful way of goal setting. Her method is called WOOP—which fits, because that’s how excited you’ll be when you achieve your goals.
The wonderful thing about WOOP is that when Gabriele Oettingen instructs people, she doesn’t even suggest you need to write your WOOP goal setting down. It’s effective even if you just regularly find a little time to sit and quietly think through the following steps.
Step One: W stands for Wish
This is the easy part. You need to work out what it is that you want to achieve—something that’ll challenge you, but isn’t a massive step up from what you’re already doing.
For example, if you want to get fit, it’s probably not realistic to go from never having set foot in a gym to going 5 times a week. Instead, aim to go twice a week and then, when that becomes a habit, you can consider leveling up.
Make sure you’re specific about your goal, and it’s something that you can measure. E.g. ‘I want to go to the gym twice a week.’
Step Two: O stands for Outcome
This is the fun step: you get to really visualise what it’ll be like to reach your goal.
This will probably come pretty easily to you—many people will spend a bunch of time fantasising how great reaching their goals would be.
Say you’ve been thinking about getting fit. Now’s the time to think about how great you might feel posting those pictures of you in a complicated yoga pose, or having just completed a marathon.
Really bask in the feeling of what it’ll feel like to reach your goal. Imagine exactly what it’ll feel like.
Step three: O stands for Obstacle
It’s easy to imagine how great it would feel if it was a habit for us to roll out of bed and hit the treadmill and how satisfying it’d be to be able to lift heavier and heavier weights. You know how healthy exercise it is and how it can make you feel happier and live longer—you can almost see yourself at age 102 smiling and showing off your biceps.
It’s easy to fantasise about the good parts, but how about the harder parts.
In reality, we know reaching goals aren’t easy—there’s a lot of hard work between wishing to be fit and kissing your bulging biceps in the mirror. So far, we’ve looked at both ends of the spectrum the wish at the beginning and outcome of applying growth mindset to your goal.
Now, it’s time to think about the biggest obstacle to applying your goal. In the same way you visualised the great outcome of your goals, you’ll need to take a moment to think about the obstacles that’ll you’ll encounter.
See in your mind the ways that these struggles will come between you and your goal. When will they come up? For example, maybe your kryptonite when it comes to the gym is not going straight after school; instead maybe you go home and get distracted on the computer.
Step four: P stands for Plan
Gabriele Oettingen has found in her research that the easiest way to overcome the obstacles to your goal is to make an if/then plan.
This sort of programmes your brain like a computer: you imagine the obstacle, and then you picture how you will overcome it.
Here’s a simple example of how if/then plans work: if I put my hand on the doorknob to leave the house, then I’ll check I have my keys. You’ll find that—if you rehearse it a few times—keys will pop into your head when you go to leave the house. You’ll never forget them again!
Create an if/then plan for the obstacle you just visualised. Rehearse it over and over in your head, and you’ll find you are much more likely to easily overcome the obstacle when it pops up.
WOOP! You’ve wooped your goal. Gabriele Oettingen suggests WOOPing daily, mentally overcoming all the obstacles you come across and keeping your goals at the front of your mind.