Taking Action: The Third Step for Increasing Harmonious Passion

Simply fantasizing about a better future has been shown to alleviate stress in the short term, but it will promote discouragement in the long term if dreaming is all you do. Talking endlessly in committee meetings about what needs to be done is a sad fact of life in many hospitals.

Gabriele Oettingen, a psychologist at New York University, New York, has shown that merely talking about positive outcomes makes it much harder for people to tackle tasks that require a concerted effort. In numerous studies, positive imaging produced lower energy levels and lower levels of accomplishment. As a result of dreaming about losing weight, for example, people’s brains told them that it wasn’t necessary to exercise or eat well because their mind had already shot ahead to the end of the story in which success had been attained. Unwittingly, by picturing that they were already where they wanted to be, they had demotivated themselves from feeling the need to take action.27

Oettingen found that an effective method for getting people to take action after they had identified a goal was to immediately confront them with the realities of what was standing in the way. This technique, termed mental contrasting, gave people a surge in energy. They were able to instantly engage in working toward their goal— but it was only those subjects who believed they had a reasonable chance of success.

Subsequent studies have shown that mental contrasting paired with positive reinforcement leads to even better outcomes. Supportive relationships provide an amplifying effect that helps us achieve our goals.

“Dreaming a little and then imagining the obstacle lets you unlock new potentials inside of yourself, potentials that you scarcely knew existed,” Oettingen writes. “Until now you have likely approached life using only part of your mind’s latent capacities. Mental contrasting lets you finally engage in viable, heartfelt wishes with everything you’ve got.”28

While Oettingen was conducting her research, her husband, Peter Gollwitzer (also a psychology professor at New York University), was studying how people can best achieve their dreams. He was interested in determining why so many people set goals but fail to translate their intention into action. New Year’s resolutions are the prime example.

What Gollwitzer discovered was that creating “implementation intentions” makes it much more likely that people will take the necessary steps to accomplish

their goals. Simply stated, an implementation intention is an “if_then_”


Forging explicit intentions about how to achieve a goal occurs in two phases: initially, you consider possibilities and decide to commit to a goal, and then you make a plan for what you’ll do to achieve the outcome. Decades of studies have demonstrated that creating a strong intention to pursue a goal will greatly improve the chances of achieving a positive outcome.29

Gollwitzer identified two reasons people fail to follow through on their intentions: (1) They set a goal but never take any action (indicating the need for initiating a first step) and (2) they start to take action toward a goal but derail (indicating a need for assistance in maintaining the goal-directed behavior). These impediments account for the fact that most people never accomplish their intended goal.

A meta-analysis of nearly 100 studies revealed that using “if-then” statements resulted in significantly improving the odds that people would accomplish their objectives. If-then statements help you begin to take action on tasks, “whether getting started was an issue of remembering to act, seizing good opportunities, or overcoming initial reluctance.”30 Moreover, it protected against becoming distracted, overcame counterproductive habits, and helped sustain energy to tackle new tasks.

Experiments over the past 20 years have examined the positive effects of creating if-then intentions to successfully achieve a variety of goals, including New Year’s resolutions, performing self-examinations to detect cancer and implementing workplace safety measures.

Oettingen and Gollwitzer combined their research into a single, unified tool that they termed WOOP—wish, outcome, obstacle, and plan:

  • ? Wish: Visualize what it will look like to achieve your goal.
  • ? Outcome: Imagine how it will feel when you’re there.
  • ? Obstacle: What is it within you that has been holding you back?
  • ? Plan: If you experience that obstacle, then what’s your plan for overcoming it?

In one study using WOOP to help healthcare providers cope with stress and improve engagement in difficult professional environments, providers who used WOOP reported that after 3 weeks they could significantly reduce their level of physical and mental distress by turning their energy into effective action.31 Now that’s a tactic you can use to generate the passion you need for acting on the values that are important in your life!

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