Why Understanding Obstacles is Essential to Achieving Goals

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There is no shortage of pithy quotes encouraging positive thinking:

"If you can dream it, you can do it."

"Reach for the stars!"

"Look on the bright side."

"See the glass as half full."

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While inspiring words might provide a moment of motivation, it turns out they can have an adverse effect on achieving those goals. According to the latest research, the positive attitudes meant to provide inspiration may be the ones that get in the way of accomplishing those dreams.

For 20 years, psychology professor Gabriele Oettingen of New York University and the University of Hamburg has been examining positive thinking and her conclusion is clear. All that positive thinking can trick the dreamer into believing she’s already done the work to get to the desired goal, squelching the motivation to actually go after it. “Positive thinking alone is not enough,” Oettingen says. Indeed, fantasizing about success without an anchor in reality can actually diminish the likelihood of a better outcome. “[Positive thinking] has to be done in the right way and in the right form.”

What does contribute to success, she says, is the conscious adoption of a nuanced kind of optimism, one that takes into account the real-life barriers to success. In her recent book Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation, Oettingen shares a simple cognitive tool that can help children and adults stay motivated to achieve a goal. She calls it “WOOP,” for wish, outcome, obstacle, and plan, a more digestible label than the social-science term “mental contrasting with implementation intention.”

Here’s an example of how it works.

Wish: An 11th grader, say, wants to get an A in Honors English. This is his wish.

Outcome: Next, he thinks about what would happen if he achieved this goal, his desired outcome. Perhaps his teacher would recommend him for AP English, boosting his college options. His parents might stop nagging him about getting his assignments done, improving his relationships at home.

Obstacle: The 11th grader now has to engage in mental contrasting, and think about the internal obstacles that get in the way of achieving the goal. Maybe he feels tired and skips English homework when basketball practice goes late, and he’s unmotivated to diagram sentences. Perhaps he procrastinates on longer papers because he’s anxious about starting, and ends up handing in a rushed and sloppy report.

Plan: The final leg of the technique is to create a plan that sets up the obstacle and proposed action in a simple statement: “if obstacle x, then I will perform behavior y.” The 11th grader might come up with something like this: “If I feel tired after basketball practice, then I will sit down and do at least half of the sentences for my English homework.” Or, “If I get anxious about my research paper, then I will start work on it for 30 minutes.” He might even find an opportunity to form a preventive “if-then” plan: “if basketball practice starts late, then I will use the time to work on my research paper.”

This cognitive technique is effective, Oettingen says, because it works on the nonconscious mind. Fantasizing about attaining a feasible wish along with the obstacle that stands in the way of attaining it has the effect of tying dreams to reality. “With such a mental linkage in place, an individual couldn’t think about her dream any longer without reference to the obstacle, and the obstacle would serve as a nonconscious spur to take action,” she writes. “The association in turn explains actual, observable changes in behavior." Another advantage of the strategy is its simplicity: it depends on neither special cognitive skills nor abilities, and can be used at any age.

Oettingen and colleagues have tested the technique in schools, and the results are significant. In peer-reviewed studies carried out with elementary and middle school children in Germany and the United States, students who practiced mental contrasting were better able to learn and retain new foreign language words than students who only fantasized about success. Another study involving high school students found that those who set up a plan for overcoming their obstacles to studying for the PSAT practiced more diligently than a control group that merely dreamt about it. Later research showed that three hours of training in WOOP improved the GPA, attendance rates, and general behavior of fifth graders versus those of who were coached just to think positively. And middle school children considered “at risk” for ADHD showed greater self-regulation when exposed to minimal instruction in mental contrasting and implementation intention—the “wish-outcome-obstacle” and “plan” parts of WOOP.

Besides helping sustain motivation and self-regulation, this cognitive technique also helps children slow the world down, inviting them to look inward to discover what they want to do and where they want to go. “The children are often overwhelmed with messages,” Oettingen says; WOOP “allows them to settle down and think, ‘what do I really want?’” By summoning children to acknowledge what holds them back, “it gets rid of excuses,” she says, and empowers children to take action against their inner obstacles. To enable wider use of the technique, Oettingen has set up a free WOOP app to help kids get to college and stay there.

Oettingen’s research complements the teaching approach of acclaimed chess instructor Elizabeth Spiegel, who took kids from an underprivileged junior high school in Brooklyn to a national chess championship. Spiegel insists that her students think and rethink the possible outcomes of a chess move, and to find and correct the mistakes in their thinking.

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Oettingen is careful to point out that hope is a vital and necessary part of achievement, but that relentless pie-in-the-sky optimism detached from reality just hurts children. It desiccates motivation and implies that having a less sunny view of events is a sign of defective thinking and a deformed attitude. “It’s a load on people who doubt and question things, and who see things in a more differentiated way,” she says. “Positive dreams are not enough to actually achieve them.”

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