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WOOP, There It Is: Why You Need More Than Just Positive Thinking

Ever been told that you should just “think positive” about your goals? Your health? Your weight loss efforts?

Or maybe you’ve seen one of the zillion inspirational memes out there on Pinterest and Facebook, encouraging you to “make their jaws drop” or “work through the pain” or “think happy thoughts.”

Yeah, all of that is nice, and I’m a life coach (among other things), so I’m into some of the hippy-dippy stuff, like creating a vision board, picturing yourself preparing and eating that leafy green salad, and keeping your chin up, but my health science background tells me to make sure the research backs up the claims.

So, that’s what I want to tell you about today: Apparently thinking a positive thought and visualizing a goal is all good, but…ugh, it’s not actually going to make you pick up that dumbbell instead of the deep fried Oreo, according to Gabriele Oettinger, a professor of psychology who is out with a new book, Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation.

One of Oettingen’s studies actually showed that women in a one-year weight loss program who visualized the most positive outcome actually lost 24 fewer pounds than those who felt less optimistic. Oettingen speculates that if you’re living in the future (where you’ve already achieved your goal), you may not have the energy needed to get through the tough stuff, instead relaxing into the idea that you’re already there.

But, hey, even if positive thinking isn’t going to get you all the way to your goal, let’s talk about where it fits in and what you CAN do.

Oettingen has come up with an acronym to help you remember what steps, exactly, you have to take in order to achieve a goal. It’s WOOP. Possibly the best acronym of all time. And hopefully easy for you to remember.

Here’s what’s what:

W is for wish. This is the part that’s kind of fun and easy; you get to dream about what you’d like to achieve, whether it’s rockin’ your skinny jeans or finishing a marathon or giving up smoking.

O number one is for outcome. This is where you think about that very best thing that could happen as a result of the wish you’re wishing for coming true. This is also pretty easy and fun. Maybe when you finish that marathon a sneaker company senses your awesomeness and hires you to travel the globe representing them, and you get free shoes for life. Or, you know, maybe something more realistic, like you set an healthy example for your kids and they take a new interest in fitness.

O number two is for obstacles. This is where lots of people don’t want to go. It’s so, so easy to fantasize about the good stuff that thinking about what could go wrong might feel like a downer, and may even make you abandon the dream all together. Don’t do that, though. Instead, think through all of the things that could potentially hold you back and name them. Not really sure you can plan and cook three meals a week? Well, that’s an obstacle. Do you always overeat when you’re stressed? Well, that might hold you back. I think writing them down is the best way to get them out there and make yourself aware of them.

P stands for plan. Now that you know what your obstacles may be, you can plan a way to get around them. Come up with an “if-then” statement, which is when you decide, “if this obstacle comes up, then I’ll do this to get around it.” Something like “If I want to skip my workout, then I’ll call my fitness buddy and ask her to hold me accountable” or “If I want dessert after dinner, then I’ll have 1 oz of dark chocolate.”

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.