61 - Mental contrasting and the practice of WOOP



You’re brushing your teeth in the morning and imagining an important presentation later in the day. You picture yourself setting the table for the problem, laying out the options, and winning the audience’s vote for a desired solution. You’ve quick answers and there’s not a moment you go off script. What may actually transpire, the reality of it is something that you don’t consider.

We often have a rigid framework for how something should pan out. And we will ourselves to believe through positive thinking that nothing outside that framework shall come to pass. So, we end up being surprised when it does because hey, this wasn’t supposed to happen.

Adding a dose of reality to your daydreams is what makes it a plan. An actual plan for overcoming obstacles. This is an approach called mental contrasting.

Mental contrasting debunks the commonly held view that only thinking positive can lead to positive outcomes, and that negative thinking is primed to fail. Instead, Gabriele Oettingen, who first came up with the idea for mental contrasting, believes imagining a positive future and pairing that with thinking through what may get in the way of that positive future is crucial.

Now, back to the presentation, what could be some real barriers to winning for you:

  • Not ensuring everyone agrees on key assumptions
  • Answering the surface question, not addressing the real one
  • Overcommitting
  • Not managing time
  • Underestimating the value of laying out clear next steps
  • Not thinking about who will execute the plan
  • Nerves that interfere with performance
  • Not knowing what is most important to the highest-ranked decision-maker in the group
  • Not anticipating ‘so what?’ and not having a response
  • Dealing poorly with personality issues, questioning styles, devil’s advocates

How to practice mental contrasting? Here’s a practice Oettingen refers to as WOOP. Write down:

W - What is your Wish?

O - What is your ideal Outcome?

O - What are the Obstacles?

P - What is your Plan to overcome the obstacles?

Here are some ways to overcome identified obstacles:

  • Have a self-talk routine (‘breathe, believe’)
  • Have a tension-release routine (two deep breaths and a smile)
  • Ask a question to go deeper into the surface-level question
  • Start with your plan’s weaknesses
  • Don’t get stuck at a point
  • Have rehearsed responses to things you’ve a habit of committing impulsively to
  • Prepare the opening and closing of your presentation (these influence the overall outcome disproportionately more)
  • Be clear about the one or two clear decisions you want from the meeting

These responses could be a series of if-then statements (If I encounter obstacle X, I’ll respond with action Y), something called implementation intentions.

Anticipating the future is anticipating the challenges it may bring and then making a plan to meet them. If you don’t want to be thrown off by what seems like a random question in the middle of your year-defining presentation, practice mental contrasting.

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