You know how many kids grow up with dreams of representing their country in the Olympics, or making the winning shot in the NBA playoffs?

For me, it was winning a music competition like the Indianapolis, Tchaikovsky, or Van Cliburn (it didn’t matter that I wasn’t a pianist) that inspired me. And I did participate in a fair number of competitions as a child, but none were ever at that top-tier level.

I always assumed that I’d get my act together and make this happen when I got to college, but I could never seem to get all the repertoire ready in time to make a tape (I know, excuses, excuses…). So when I entered grad school, I was determined to make this happen.

For once, I got a tape made and application submitted, and was excited when I was admitted into the Nielsen competition.

I started visualizing success, and feeling good about how prepared I would be for once in my life. I knew that I should be setting SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-based) goals, so I outlined my objectives and a series of deadlines for the next 6 months.

It was all very clear in my head. But then life happened. Or more specifically, summer happened.

It was hot in my apartment and hard to focus. I was a little burned out from the year anyway. Some unexpected gigs came up. My teachers were out of town. My girlfriend was in the city for a couple months, and she was way more fun to spend time with than Bach, Paganini, Wieniawski, Nielsen, et al. (and we got married eventually, so that part definitely worked out).

Needless to say, I was not prepared when the week of the competition rolled around.

Maybe it’s just me, but when this is the sort of experience you have with goal-setting, at some point it’s tempting to give up on goal-setting altogether. But then you just kind of drift along, and wake up one day to realize that the summer is over and you haven’t even started learning the last movement of the concerto. Or you’re nearing the end of college and never finished learning all 6 Ysaÿe Sonatas. Or you’re 40, and never did run that marathon. And it’s like, woah…what the heck happened? Where did all the time go?

If SMART goals have never worked for you, research suggests that there may be a better way to set goals. A method that might also resonate more with those of us who are glass half-empty types.

How so?

Unlike most goal-setting strategies, this one adds a splash of pessimism into the mix.

Wait…what?!

Three parts of goal-setting

There are 3 basic parts to goal-setting. The first part is coming up with a vision of what it is that we’re striving for. But at some point we need to actually get started and take a step in that direction. And then, we have to keep things going in the right direction, which can be a whole different challenge.

I never had any problem with the vision part. It was no problem at all to conjure up an exciting picture of the future, or set very sensible milestones along the way. It was the follow-through part that kept tripping me up.

But isn’t that just a motivation, willpower, and discipline issue? Where we simply have to hunker down and make ourselves do the work?

Well, perhaps to some degree, but that seemed to be my problem. I could never seem to will myself to the realization of my goals.

Does that mean that I was a lost cause?

PSAT prep

A team of researchers recruited 66 second-year high school students, who would be getting PSAT prep books as part of their summer homework.

One day near the end of the semester, they were asked to complete an assignment that was made to look like it would help them prepare for the writing part of the test.

First, they were asked about their expectations of success (“How likely do you think it is that you will complete all 10 practice tests in the PSAT workbook?”). They were also asked a question to gauge their level of motivation (“How important is it to you to complete all 10 practice tests in the PSAT workbook?”)

Then, they were instructed to write down two positive benefits of completing the practice tests (e.g. “I would feel good about myself”), plus two obstacles that might stand in the way (e.g. “I’m too busy”).

One group of students was then asked to write a short essay (control group).

The others were asked to brainstorm two contingency plans for each of the potential obstacles they identified earlier, using the format “If [obstacle], then I will [solution]” (experimental group).

Was there any difference?

The researchers found that both groups had similar expectations for success, and equal levels of motivation to complete all 10 practice tests over the summer.

However, when they returned to school in the fall and turned in their workbooks, there was a big difference in the groups’ level of follow-through.

The students in the control group averaged 84 practice problems. Not too shabby, I suppose, given that they were on summer break. However, this wasn’t even close to the students in the experimental group, who completed an average of 140 practice problems.

Take action

In research circles, this strategy is known as “mental contrasting with implementation intentions.” But it’s also known as WOOP, which stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, and Plan (and is much funner to say).

The idea is to:
Wish – come up with a meaningful goal; something important to you that you’re willing to work for
Outcome – visualize that future when you’ve achieved your goal
Obstacle – but don’t just visualize successful achievement; also visualize the inner obstacles that are likely to get in the way
Plan – create an if/then contingency plan for overcoming these obstacles

Developed by psychologists Gabriele Oettingen and Peter Gollwitzer, there’s a quite a bit of research behind this method, going back almost a decade.

So if you’ve ever tried setting SMART goals, and found yourself falling short, don’t give up on goal setting quite yet. Try the WOOP approach, and see if this might help you to overcome some of the sticking points that have gotten the best of you in the past.

Additional resources

See an example of WOOP in action: Dave Levin at Character Lab

Download this printable WOOP toolkit with worksheets to help guide you through the process.

Take this free 60-minute WOOP course if you want to learn how to introduce this into your teaching (summer’s right around the corner; a perfect opportunity to help students set goals).

And finally, here’s a 21-minute NPR podcast episode on WOOP, for those who are tired of being told they need to think more positively.