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Want to change your habits? Try this simple, tested tactic

We've occasionally mentioned in recent updates that ClearerThinking is currently developing a free tool designed to help users change their daily habits or form new ones. As a result, we've been digging deep into the scientific literature on behavior and habit change, looking for proven but simple tactics to incorporate into the tool. We wanted to share one of the most thoroughly tested of these tactics with you today so that you can try it yourself.It's called WOOP — short for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan — and studies have found it effective in helping people exercise more, do schoolwork more diligently, and eat healthier food, among other things.

Developed by Dr. Gabriele Oettingen and Dr. Peter Gollwitzer, the WOOP strategy is a combination of two older habit-change tactics, each of which has been individually tested and found effective in helping people change their daily routines. These two tactics give WOOP its other initialized name, MCII — short for Mental Contrasting, Implementation Intention.

The first of these strategies is mental contrasting. Mental contrasting works like this:

  • Choose a behavior change goal (or "wish") that would be challenging to achieve, but still within the realm of possibility.

  • Imagine a positive future in which you've successfully accomplished the desired behavior change.

  • Consider the negative realities that currently diminish the prospects of reaching this future.

For example, someone wishing to start a daily exercise habit might imagine a future that involves increased physical strength and more day-to-day energy. The negative realities under consideration might include scheduling constraints, or simple lack of personal motivation.

The premise of mental contrasting is twofold. First, it creates a psychological association between the imagined future benefits of making the desired behavior change and the realities that might render that change difficult. It also mentally situates those obstacles as a barrier — albeit a surmountable one — between the individual and possible rewards available in the future. In essence, this process creates a clear-cut goal and a sense of what will be required to get there in the mind of the practitioner.

Mental contrasting comprises the "WOO" in WOOP — Wish, Outcome, and Obstacle. The remainder of the WOOP intervention consists of the second tactic we mentioned earlier: implementation intention. Implementation intentions are simple statements that contain a strategy for dealing with an obstacle to accomplishing a goal. For instance, for someone who wants to start exercising regularly, an implementation intention might look like this: "If I notice myself putting off going to the gym, I'll review the prior list I made of reasons why it's so important for me to exercise."

As you can imagine, these two tactics complement each other — mental contrasting requires users to establish a clear behavior-change goal to pursue, specify some rewards they might get from achieving that goal, and consider some obstacles they'll have to tackle. Implementation intentions require users to make a plan for overcoming one of those obstacles. This synergy appears to create significant results; recent studies have found that the WOOP / MCII strategy is more effective than either of its components in a range of habit-change scenarios. (This set of scientific papers on WOOP is a great resource if you'd like to learn more about the science behind it.)

Below, you'll find instructions for using WOOP yourself, adapted from the instructions used in one of the first studies conducted on the tactic under its MCII moniker (which you can read here). If you're looking to change your habits but are facing some hurdles, this easy intervention might be just what you need to get you started. Alternately, you can try out a couple of WOOP apps created by Drs. Oettingen and Gollwitzer.

  1. Relax and close your eyes.

  2. Think of a wish concerning a specific habit you want to change. Choose something that would be challenging to realize, but also possible to implement.

  3. Write this wish down.

  4. Please consider the most positive outcome you associate with successfully realizing this wish.

  5. Write this positive outcome down in one keyword.

  6. Now try to depict in your thoughts the events and experiences that you associate with the most positive outcome.

  7. Give your thoughts and images free reign and write them down.

  8. Think about what might be the biggest obstacle you face in your efforts to change your habit.

  9. Write down this obstacle in one keyword.

  10. Now depict in your thoughts the events and experiences that you associate with this obstacle. Give your thoughts and imagination full scope and write them down.

  11. To form your implementation intention, complete the following sentence: "If I face the obstacle captured by this keyword (obstacle keyword), I will..."

  12. Write the end of this sentence down.

  13. Look at what you've written and visualize acting out your new plan for about 2 minutes.

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