Introduction to WOOP/MCII Strategy

In 2022, a new scientific paper was published in the official journal of the Gerontological Society of America, with support from Oxford University Press. This paper presented a revolutionary method for changing habits, known as WOOP/MCII. Let’s look at how the WOOP/MCII strategy is described today. The official book outlining this method was published back in 2014, so it’s interesting to see if the method has withstood the test of time.

WOOP, which stands for Wish-Outcome-Obstacle-Plan, is a strategy for independently altering one’s behavior in order to improve quality of life. The strength of WOOP lies in its individualistic approach. It encourages self-reflection during the process of change, a concept that is fundamentally different from what we’re typically accustomed to—focusing on others, whether through envy or admiration.

Key Areas of WOOP Strategy

In particular, the WOOP strategy assists in two key areas:

  1. It helps you better understand what you truly want.
  2. It aids in achieving your genuine desires.

Please note, this strategy is not about achieving everything under the sun, but rather about realizing what you truly want. In my experience, you’ll need to devote some time to understand whether your wish is something you genuinely desire. You might find out that your longing isn’t as strong as you first thought. Or you may discover that you’ve overestimated your capabilities and perhaps your wishes are too ambitious. Therefore, it’s important to start small. This is why willpower isn’t the central focus here. But, let’s not get sidetracked. Let’s proceed.

Effectiveness of WOOP in Various Contexts

The article discussed refers to experiments demonstrating the effectiveness of the WOOP method in various contexts: instilling a habit of physical activity, modifying dietary habits, improving relationships, managing anger, and even addressing chronic back pain and aiding in the recovery of stroke patients. Remarkably, the method has even proven effective with children diagnosed with ADHD!

Four Steps of the WOOP Method

In summary, the essence of the method boils down to these 4 steps:

  • Identify a feasible desire.
  • Formulate the desired outcome and visualize it.
  • Determine the primary INTERNAL obstacle that prevents the fulfillment of the desire and visualize it.
  • Write a plan stating “IF… [obstacle occurs], then I… [will engage in a specific behavior] to overcome this obstacle.” This way, WOOP turns DESIRES and DREAMS into concrete GOALS that you are determined to accomplish and then ACTIVELY implement in your life. While this sounds straightforward, it may initially be challenging to put into practice, which is why it’s often better to do it with someone else (feel free to join my group).

Simplicity and Effectiveness of WOOP

According to the method’s creator, the power of the WOOP approach lies in its simplicity—it can be taught and mastered without requiring any formal psychological education. To quote: “WOOP can be used as a 5-minute daily exercise that has lasting benefits on health and well-being, shown in multiple longitudinal and experimental studies.”

Components Ensuring WOOP’s Effectiveness

WOOP, or scientifically known as MCII (Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions), contains two components that ensure the method’s effectiveness:

  • Mental contrasting provides the brain with a direction for action, drawing a contrast between the future (what could be) and the present (what is).
  • Implementation intentions, specifically the intention to overcome obstacles, energize the brain to surmount challenges.

Meta-analyses have revealed that solely dreaming or planning isn’t as effective as integrating the two.

Comparison of WOOP with Other Techniques

The authors of the article suggest that WOOP differs from motivational interviewing techniques, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and problem-solving therapy. WOOP’s increased effectiveness compared to these more traditional methods lies in its emphasis on working with the subconscious through imagery. This engagement with the subconscious reportedly gives a considerable boost to transformative efforts by directly influencing cognitive, motivational, and emotional processes.

According to this theory, the subconscious begins to perceive reality not as the standard state of affairs, but as an obstacle to achieving desires. This shift purportedly sparks a focus and energy necessary for change, as opposed to an ambiguous concept of willpower.

Additionally, the practice of goal visualization is said to help deal with setbacks on the journey to achieving these goals, allowing one to maintain a sense of competence without labeling oneself as a failure or a weak-willed procrastinator.

Importantly, WOOP does not necessitate changing one’s existing beliefs. It doesn’t require you to work through your traumas, overcome self-doubt, or scare yourself with negative potential futures if you fail to change. Interestingly, it’s claimed that over time, all these mindsets will evolve naturally. This may seem too good to be true, but proponents argue this is exactly how the technique, aimed at overcoming learned helplessness, operates. Once you start achieving, you won’t be able to stop. But let’s not get sidetracked. Let’s continue.

Contrasting WOOP with Problem-Solving Therapy (PST)

The article specifically contrasts the WOOP method with Problem-Solving Therapy (PST). PST is typically applied when individuals feel powerless to solve problems, which often leads to depression and intense stress. PST usually includes a clear description of the problem, setting realistic goals, brainstorming solutions, evaluating the pros and cons of each solution, choosing a solution, developing an action plan, and assessing progress.

However, what is absent from this technique? It lacks the elements of visualization and the harnessing of desire’s energy, both of which are integral parts of WOOP.

Structure of the WOOP Process

According to the authors, the process should be structured in the following way:

  1. The first step should undoubtedly involve “seeking a strongly desired future.”
  2. The second step requires the “identification and vibrant envisioning of the best possible outcome.”
  3. The third step entails the “discovery and clear visualization of the main INTERNAL and controllable obstacle that exists in reality.”
  4. Finally, the fourth step involves drafting a plan using the format “IF… [obstacle], then I… [behavior] to overcome this obstacle.” The intent to act or overcome is a powerful technique that automatically kicks into gear when faced with an obstacle. After surmounting it in your mind, it then becomes easier to tackle in reality.

In essence, WOOP/MCII focuses on finding and visualizing INTERNAL obstacles (like emotions, irrational beliefs, or even robust habits). For example, I can change my impatience, but I can’t control others’.

Importance of Sequence in WOOP/MCII

The sequence of steps is also crucial for WOOP/MCII. You should first seek, imagine, and present the desired future outcome, and only then focus on the limits of reality. Reversing these steps — concentrating on our limitations first and then working on the desired future — can be detrimental and nullify the entire technique.

Observations from a Habit-Change Group

Upon examining the individuals in my habit-change group, I’ve noticed that only those who strictly adhere to the WOOP/MCII technique are making progress.

Conclusion: Change Isn’t About Willpower

This implies that change isn’t about willpower; it’s about possessing the right knowledge, much like knowing how to read or memorize multiplication tables.

Monin, J. K., Oettingen, G., Laws, H., David, D., Dematteo, L., & Marottoli, R. (2022). A Controlled Pilot Study of the Wish Outcome Obstacle Plan Strategy for Spouses of Persons with Early-Stage Dementia. Journals of Gerontology – Series B Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 77(3), 513-524.