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Reading this book was bitter-sweet for me. The bitter part came from the realization of all the time that I wasted in "positive-thinking-lala-land". The sweet part came from a deep sense of excitement about the possibilities ahead of me with this new found knowledge.

For those that don't want to read the entire book or even this entire blog post (I know how tired athletes can get), let me give you a quick summary. 

Through more than 20 years of research Gabrielle discovers that positive fantasies do not help us achieve our goals as much as we believe they do. In fact, positive thinking lowers our energy and diminishes our resolve to accomplish the tasks required. Instead of positive fantasies, Gabrielle proposes something she calls "WOOP"  (Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan). This is an extremely effective meta-cognitive tool that is proven to clarify what we need to do to accomplish our goals and thereby, help us achieve those goals. The way this tool works is that we must first imagine for a minute what activity or objective we wish to accomplish. We then want to vividly imagine the result from this wish or activity. If the wish is to be able to do more cardio, then the outcome will be to be able to last longer in the race, run or fight. Important note : it is important that the wish and the outcome are both feasible. Following that, we envision the obstacles that we must face in order to achieve that outcome. You must ask yourself, what is in me that prevents me from reaching this goal. For example, "I hate doing cardio" or "cardio is boring". And lastly, we decide how we are going to behave in the face of those obstacles - essentially what is our plan. The plan is known to be extremely effective if it is in the form of "if____ (obstacle), then ____ (action). For example, if I get don't want to get on the bike or go running because I hate it or find it boring, then I will find a way to enjoy it by making it more entertaining and run with a friend". Below I have the exact script that you want to follow when doing this mental exercise for whichever goal you have. The only caveat here is that the goal should be achievable - if it is not an achievable goal then you will find yourself with even less motivation to achieve it. An example of a study that Gabrielle conducted with participants that wanted to exercise more, found that those who used WOOP, exercised twice as much as those who didn't. This pattern was evident for the first 4 months and remained the same for TWO more years. You can also download a free WOOP app that walks you through this exercise. It takes some practice but WOOP is incredibly power and within couple of days of practice, I have found it to be extremely effective.

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WOOP example #2

Wish : rehab exercises before practice

Outcome : less injuries

Obstacle : feeling tired and distracted by teammates

Plan : If (after practice I am tired and my teammates are chatting) then I will remind myself of all the injuries I had and how I can prevent them with 5 minutes of quick exercise

For those who wish to learn more here is the science behind Gabrielle's discoveries.

What is Positive Thinking?

In reality, positive thinking as described by Martin E. P. Seligman, founder of the positive psychology movement conceived of optimism as beliefs or expectations about the future that are based on past experiences of success. However, with mainstream society's imagination and intensive enthusiasm in the face of hardship, optimism came to be something disassociated from reality. Best-selling books like The Secret and Chicken Soup for the Soul taught us the notion that simply imagining our deepest wishes coming true will help us attain them. As a result, Gabrielle writes : "It suggested to me that there were in fact two distinct kinds of optimism worth studying: positive expectations that were based on past experience, and the more free-flowing thoughts and images that were rooted in wishes and desires." Seligman (who we mentioned above) conducted studies proving that positive thinking based on previous experience led to increased motivation and success. Gabrielle on the other hand wondered if the more free-flowing thoughts and images that were rooted in wishes and desires would also increase motivation and success. Why not, right?

So does "free-flowing" positive imagery help us reach our goals?

Back in 1991, Gabrielle conducted a study with 25 women enrolled in a weight-loss program. Gabrielle had these women engage in imagining themselves losing weight and ponder what people would think about after they lost the weight. Here are the results of the study

"women who had strong positive fantasies about slimming down... lost twenty-four pounds less than those who pictured themselves more negatively. Dreaming about achieving a goal apparently didn’t help that goal come to fruition. It impeded it from happening. The starry-eyed dreamers in the study were less energized to behave in ways that helped them lose weight."

Back in 1991, no one wanted to listen to Gabrielle's "over-realistic" findings, instead they wanted to continue engaging in their positive fantasies. So over the next twenty years, study after study Gabrielle continued to prove the same results over and over again with different demographics, different goals and even different experiments. Personal relationships, finding jobs and even rehabilitation from injuries was less successful the more people engaged in positive imagery. Gabrielle writes, "You would be ill-advised to indulge in dreams about achieving your goals and then assume you’re well on a path to success. Life just doesn’t work that way." On the other hand, The more the people were aware of the challenges and steps necessary to achieve success the more they succeeded.

Is all positive fantasy bad?

Positive fantasy does have an important role to play in various scenarios. The first one: simple tasks. Actually the simpler the task the more positive fantasy helps with getting the individual into action. On the other hand, the more complex the task or the more effort the task requires, the more positive fantasy impede the individual from taking action. The second purpose of positive fantasies is it helps us disassociate from a painful, boring or harsh reality. For example if you are waiting to get a results on your exam (where there is nothing you can do to help your situation) positive fantasy can help you pass the time by quicker. Gabrielle discovered that the more dis-engaged the individual is from their work (as 70% of all employees are) the more they engaged in positive fantasy and also the less work they got done as described by their managers. However, Gabrielle wondered does positive fantasy help in depression? The result is yes, but only in the short term as it provides the individual with a burst of pleasure but in the long run it is actually promotes sadness. Positive fantasy is more of a coping mechanism than a way to improve your situation.

Why doesn't Positive Fantasy work?

Following various experiments, Gabrielle discovered that positive fantasies have a "relaxing" affect on the individual. She discovered this by measuring the lower systolic blood pressure of people that engaged in positive fantasy.  In fact, the findings were so significant that positive fantasies have become a subscription for relaxation.

The second reason that positive fantasies don't work for goal achievement is that it makes us "unfit" for complex and challenging tasks. Students who engaged in positive fantasy performed worse in tasks that required deliberate effort. So Gabrielle concludes that positive fantasy is good for simple tasks where not much effort is required.

The third reason that positive fantasies do not help us succeed is that as we’re dreaming, our minds are fooled into actually believing that we’ve already reached that future. As a results, positive fantasies tell our minds that we no longer need to exercise or work hard to achieve the goals we seek.

Another slight negativity of positive fantasy is that it “locks” us into our dreams. We don’t know if we could achieve these dreams because our fantasy kept us a state of relaxation and false accomplishment. But because of the pleasure we receive from simply "dreaming" we continue to engage in that dream instead of trying to engage in a goal that is feasible.

The wake of Mental Contrasting

Gabrielle proposes something she calls mental contrasting which is basically visualizing the positive successful outcome and then immediately visualizing the challenges or realistic obstacles that separate us from that success. Gabrielle reasoned that imaging the obstacles immediately after the positive fantasy would bi-pass the relaxing and dissociative affect of positive fantasy and would get people moving into action.

Gabrielle had people choose a goal that they wanted to achieve in their personal life or work life. And judge how achievable they thought those goals were Then she split them into 4 groups. The first group was mental contrasting where they first engaged in positive fantasy and then reflected the obstacles they would face. The second group indulged in only the positive fantasy. The third group only dwelling on the realistic obstacles and the fourth group was reverse contrasting where they first thought about the realistic obstacles and then they had their positive fantasy.

Regardless of the goal, demographic or study, over twenty years Gabrielle consistently found that those whose goals are achievable mental contrasting energized and got the individuals moving towards achieving their goals.

The side benefit of mental contrasting is that if the wish were not feasible, mental contrasting would actually lower motivation and energy.

In other words, mental contrasting helped people engage forcefully into their goals that are feasible and disengage from goals that are not feasible.

The results repeated themselves for a variety of demographics and a variety of goals such as finding a partner, being more creative, being more accepting of various social group, getting better scores on a test and many more experiments conducted by Gabrielle

Why does Mental Contrasting work?

1. Getting your nonconscious brain to work on your obstacles

By performing this exercise, you are creating a link in your brain between the desired outcome and likely obstacles. From that point moving forward, every time your brain consciously or unconsciously goes over your desired outcome, it will immediately also go over the obstacle. Furthermore, your brain also allocates a lot more resources to prepare and solve the foreseen obstacle(s). As a result, you are much more likely to actually  take action to overcome those obstacles than if you indulged in positive fantasy.

Mental contrasting is a great tool for also figuring out which wishes are out of reach. The reason is that if you visualize an unachievable goal and then you visualize the challenges you’ll have to face, your brain will not make that unconscious connection between the goal and the challenge and you’ll have even less energy to achieve that goal than if you did not engage in mental contrasting with this unachievable goal. In this way mental contrasting is saving us energy from trying to achieve a goal that is our of our reach.

2. Connecting to the instrumental behavior

Also, Gabrielle’s research shows that mental contrasting forges powerful, nonconscious associations between the obstacles we perceive and the instrumental behavior we need to take to overcome the obstacle. Instrumental behavior is the most important task that we need to do in order to overcome the obstacle. Therefore, we are much more likely to take do the "instrumental behavior" necessary to overcome the obstacles in the way of our desired outcome.

3. Processing Negative feedback

Mental contrasting also helped people process the negative feedback relating to their specified goals. For example, when students performed mental contrasting, they were better able to hear negative feedback and translate it into effective plans for realizing their wishes.

4. Increased problem solving

Another great benefit from mental contrasting is that discoveries, insights and revelations happen to people during and immediately after mental contrasting. It is during the process of "visualizing" the problems that our brain is able to generate realistic solutions to help us reach our goals.

Introducing WOOP

The cool thing about Gabrielle’s book about rethinking positive thinking is that is incorporates research that her husband was doing regarding “implementation intention”. The basis of his research is that people who take a step of planning how their were going to achieve their goals are much more likely to actually achieve those goals. The concept of implementation intention recommends that your plan contains the contrast of “if (challenge/obstacle), then (positive reaction/action) then you are even more likely to achieve your goals.

As you can see, mental contrasting and implementation intention are actually converging into something Gabrielle calls WOOP. She uses WOOP (Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan) to help teach us how to achieve any goal that we might have – may it be personal or interpersonal or external. I myself have been implementing WOOP into my own athletics and it has helped me tremendously. So how does WOOP work? Simple follow this procedure to WOOP :

“On a blank sheet of paper, name the wish in three to six words. Identify the best outcome (also in three to six words) and write it down. Now let your thoughts lead your pen, taking as much paper as you need. Then name your obstacle and write it down. Imagine the obstacle, again letting your thoughts wander and lead your writing. To create a plan, first write down one specific action you can take to overcome the obstacle. Write down the time and place when you believe the obstacle will arise. Then write down the if-then plan: “If obstacle x occurs (when and where), then I will perform behavior y.” Repeat it once to yourself out loud.”

The benefits of using WOOP are extraordinary and far-reaching. You can use it to literally do anything that you want from achieve new successes, to fixing relationships, to overcoming fears or bad habits. Using WOOP will also help you determine if goals are even worthy of trying to achieve – it does so by putting the costs directly in your face – giving you the option to opt out and direct your limited energy to attaining something else. WOOP is a metacognitive tool that has been scientifically proven to help people achieve various goals anything from losing weight, getting better marks and even improving relationships.