WOOP: Gabriele Oettingen’s Scientifically Validated Dream-Realization Exercise

Want to make your dreams come true?

There’s a lot that goes into it. But Gabriele Oettingen has pioneered a variety of scientific studies that can help on your quest.

Oettingen, one of the world’s leading researchers on motivation, has been studying the impact of dreams on motivation since the early 1990’s.

In the beginning, her hunch was that people would be more successful at achieving their wishes if they purposefully spent time dreaming about it.

Unfortunately, what the research revealed wasn’t so straightforward.

The Downside of Dreaming

Take a second to think about something you really want to create in your life…

Maybe it’s getting a promotion, or learning a new skill, or hosting an unforgettable birthday celebration for your partner.

Put yourself into that situation. Imagine you’ve made it a reality! Let the associated feelings wash over you.

How does it feel?

If you’re like most humans, it feels pretty great! Thinking about achieving your dreams is a straight path to “warm-fuzzies.” 🙂

Here’s the problem with that: Warm-fuzzies are not very motivating!

To take steps towards an exciting future goal, you need energy. It takes effort and attention to create positive change!

But the good feelings caused by simply dreaming lead straight to lethargy.

So…does that mean that dreaming about exciting possible futures is a waste of time?

Fortunately, no! But there are a couple extra steps involved to effectively use your dreams as fuel.

Mental Contrasting: Moving From Dreams to Action

Since dreaming alone wasn’t enough to help people actualize their potential, Oettingen moved onto a new hypothesis, which she dubbed “Mental Contrasting.”

“I reasoned that the best way to get people up and moving was to ask them to dream and then to confront them right away with the realities that stood in the way of their dreams…If I could ground fantasies in a reality through mental contrasting, I might be able to circumvent the calming effects of dreaming and mobilize dreams as a tool for prompting directed action.”
~ Gabrielle Oettingen, Rethinking Positive Thinking

To put Mental Contrasting into practice, you simply compare two things in quick succession:

  1. Your wish (or dream) that you’d like to come true
  2. The reality of where you are right now as it relates to that dream

When you experience the contrast between where you want to be and where you are, it brings forth a necessity of action. You clearly see that you won’t get where you want to go unless you start taking action!

It’s important to note that your wish in this situation has to feel attainable to you. If it doesn’t feel feasible, mental contrasting might just lead you to feel overwhelmed. As Oettingen notes in her book Rethinking Positive Thinking, this process “won’t help you live more fully if your wish is to live on planet Neptune or become a billionaire within a year.”

But the research doesn’t stop there! Mental Contrasting should help you get moving towards your wish. But it might not be enough to get you past the inevitable roadblocks that will pop up along the way.

Implementation Intentions: Planning for Inevitable Obstacles

It’s inevitable that you’ll face obstacles on your path to do anything that matters to you.

Instead of getting upset about that fact of life, we can embrace reality and figure out how to work with it!

Implementation Intentions help us do that by creating specific plans for what we’ll do in the event that we hit an obstacle.

Setting implementation intentions looks like this:

  1. Brainstorm the obstacles that might get in the way of you achieving something
  2. Create a plan for what you’ll do if each of those obstacles arise

Thinking through the process in this way is a way of “pre-deciding” what to do. So when the inevitable obstacle arises, you don’t have to think twice before executing your plan.

You might be seeing where this is going…

Mental Contrasting works hand-in-hand with Implementation intentions to create an even more powerful tool.

After using Mental Contrasting to get going, you can use Implementation Intentions to ensure that you stay moving in the right direction!

Put the two together and you get my favorite goal-setting framework of all time: WOOP!

WOOP: The Scientifically Validated Exercise to Make Your Dreams a Reality

Mental Contrasting + Implementation Intentions = WOOP!

The WOOP framework has four main parts:

  1. Wish
  2. Outcome
  3. Obstacles
  4. Plans

Get it?


Applying WOOP in your own life is a straightforward process. Simply follow these five steps:

1) Create a Wish

  • What do you want to create in your life? Think of something that feels exciting, challenging, and feasible.
  • Describe it in 3-6 words.

2) Envision the Outcome

  • What’s the biggest benefit you could experience as a result of achieving this wish?
  • Describe it in 3-6 words. (We want to get clear and specific here…hence the small number of words.)

3) Identify Obstacles

  • What obstacle(s) might you create that would prevent you from making that wish a reality? (Focusing on the internal, or self-created obstacles first helps you focus on what’s in your control.)
  • Identify as many as possible…Let your pen run wild.
  • Prioritize the obstacles based on likelihood and significance.

4) Create “If…then” Plans

  • What might you do to get around the most significant obstacles you identified?
  • For each obstacle, make an “If…then” plan. (e.g. “If [obstacle occurs] then I will [plan 1].”)
  • Pick the most effective path you could take for each identified obstacle.

5) Take Action

  • Yell “WOOP!” and get after it. 🙂

(Okay, that fifth step was my own addition…I think it makes the process more fun! ?)


The best part about WOOP, aside from being scientifically validated, is that it’s applicable to goals in all areas of life!

Maybe you want to foster healthier relationships, or lose 20 pounds, or learn how to ride a unicycle. It doesn’t matter what your goal is…If you can wish it, you can WOOP it!

I’ve used WOOP to:

  • Reign in bad habits
  • Prepare for coaching conversations and meetings with potential clients
  • Navigate the resistance inherent in doing uncomfortable things that cause me to feel fear
  • Plan through doing new things to increase my chances of success

The possibilities are truly endless.

You can even use WOOP multiple times on the same goal.

  • On a big-scale, maybe you want to get a promotion.
  • But today, that means you want to make 20 additional sales calls.
  • And this month, it means asking for feedback on the side-project you’ve been working on.

Any of those goals are WOOP-able!

To get started with your own WOOP-ing process, just grab a piece of paper and follow the instructions here.

Or, download the free WOOP worksheet to get started.

Get the Free "WOOP" Worksheets

The easiest way to start turning your goals into reality.

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To bring the wide-ranging applicability of WOOP to life, here are a few examples of how you might put WOOP in action!

Building a Fitness Habit

  • Wish: Go to the gym 3x/week after work
  • Outcome: Better energy, confidence, and health.
  • Obstacle: Feeling tired and hungry at the end of the work day…Not wanting to go.
  • Plan: Pack a snack for the end of the work day, and bring gym clothes to work so I can go straight to the gym without going home.

Planning for a Client Meeting

  • Wish: Host a valuable client meeting.
  • Outcome: Exceed expectations on this project.
  • Obstacle: Not properly preparing for the meeting, defaulting to typical approach.
  • Plan: Block time on my calendar

Finding a new job

  • Wish: Have a job that lights me up!
  • Outcome: Increased fulfillment and satisfaction in life.
  • Obstacle: Not applying to positions (or reaching out to have conversations) for fear of being not _____ enough.
  • Plan: Reach out to 3 new people and apply to 1 job that makes me feel a little uncomfortable every week.

Going on a Date

  • Wish: Express my authentic self on this date
  • Outcome: Create a genuine and meaningful connection
  • Obstacle: Feeling nervous about being vulnerable by sharing my authentic self with them.
  • Plan: If I start to think nervous thoughts, I’ll focus on breathing deeply and slowly so I can come back to the present moment.

Going on Vacation

  • Wish: Recharge while enjoying my vacation
  • Outcome: Feel refreshed, energized, and balanced.
  • Obstacle: Getting out of the present by doing work, checking emails, or getting sucked into my devices.
  • Plan: Turn off notifications for all email applications. If I have the urge to check my phone, I’ll use it as a reminder to be present on my vacation.

WOOP Your Goals and Make Them Reality

The most reliable way to make your goals a reality is to take action, consistently over time.

The two biggest barriers to doing that are:

  1. Getting started
  2. Staying moving when you hit roadblocks

WOOP is a scientifically validated exercise to help you take action in spite of those challenges.

(And it’s really fun to say…WOOP!)

Do yourself a favor, and give it a try today. Make a habit of WOOP-ing things more often, and you might find yourself a little bit closer to your dreams.

Get the Free "WOOP" Worksheets

The easiest way to start turning your goals into reality.

We'll also add you to the Mindful Ambition email community. Powered by ConvertKit


  1. Hat tip to Michael Balchan for introducing me to WOOP earlier this year.

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