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Get Active! The Power of WOOP

featured / behavioral research / health research / fmg culture

A few months ago, FMG launched their first ever Get Active! Challenge. For several weeks, employees worked in teams to log their daily "steps" and compete for some great prizes. This sparked a little friendly competitiveness between colleagues, prompted some clever team names, and most importantly, got us up and moving.

Being a new employee at the time, I was a little timid about sharing my less-than-ideal workout habits with my coworkers. So I chickened out and decided to watch from the sidelines. However, I knew that even if I wasn't ready to put my exercise habits in the limelight at work, I needed to work on them at home. To help me in my quest, and because I am a huge nerd, I turned to recent research on motivation and goals.

Exercise Habits

One promising motivational method that researchers have tested and refined over the last 20 years is known as mental contrasting with implementation intentions (MCII). With MCII, you do more than just set a goal, think happy thoughts, and trust that the universe (or your own willpower) will deliver. MCII also forces a reality check on your goal and, assuming it's feasible, helps you develop if-then plans to tackle your greatest obstacles. It does this using a 4-step process known as WOOP: Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, and Plan.


As an example, here's how I used WOOP to kick-start my new exercise regimen:

  1. WISH: I really want to start exercising more regularly.
  2. OUTCOME: Exercising more regularly would make me feel better about myself, all-around. Take a minute to visualize that healthy, energized feeling and sense of accomplishment you get after putting in a good workout. It's pretty great.
  3. OBSTACLE: When the weather is bad, the "blahs" set in and I often skip my workout. Visualize curling up on the couch when it's cold and raining outside, instead of going to the gym or running or doing some crunches. Sounds lovely - and no wonder this is such a big obstacle for me. But I can beat this...
  4. PLAN: If the weather is bad, then I'll do some exercise at home while I catch up on a favorite TV show. Visualize doing some yoga, cardio, crunches, squats - anything, just get up and get moving - for an entire episode of House of Cards. Not bad at all! I can do this - and I will!

Now, I realize all this WOOP business may sound too simple to be effective. Starting healthy habits isn't easy, after all. However, WOOP has been shown to motivate and help people achieve a variety of goals, from quitting smoking to treating chronic back pain to tackling tough interpersonal challenges. It worked for me - and it's worked for others - in starting and keeping good exercise habits. (There's also a WOOP app if you're so inclined to 'WOOP your life'.)

At FMG, we're often tasked with helping our clients drive change in behaviors that many people want to change but find challenging (e.g., quit using smokeless tobacco). WOOP is a rigorously-tested but surprisingly simple method that we can leverage to help people make the changes they want to make in their lives. Taking a minute or two to walk someone through WOOP - or to model someone else walking through it - could be enough to kick-start a change in someone's life.

So dig deep. What's your wish? What's the best possible outcome? What's your biggest obstacle? And what plans can you make to overcome it?

  1. See Oettingen, G., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2010). Strategies of setting and implementing goals. In J. E. Maddux & J. P. Tangney (Eds.), Social psychological foundations of clinical psychology. New York: Guilford Press.
  2. Besides helping people to achieve their goals, WOOP has also been useful in clinical interventions to help people disengage from infeasible, destructive goals. The contrast between fantasy ("Wish") and reality ("Obstacle") can provide a powerful wake-up call for goals that just aren't going to happen.

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