Forget Positive Thinking. Instead, Try WOOP.

As dance business owners, we know that this back-to-dance season will have its unique set of challenges. WOOP is a powerful mental strategy that can help you meet them. And it’s simple to learn.

Sketch of little people with barrier. Doodle cartoon scene about overcoming the obstacle.
WOOP preps your brain to deal with obstacles when they occur, setting you and your dance business up to achieve your goals this fall. Getty Images

Inflation, recession, supply chain, monkeypox. What will dance businesses have to deal with next? These certainly are times of great challenge—but also of great opportunity. To successfully meet those challenges or seize those opportunities you need to take good care of your company’s greatest asset: you.

This starts with the basics—what high-performance coach Brendon Burchard calls “taking your M.E.D.S.” (meditation, exercise, diet, sleep). That’s a great start, but I think these times call for even more.

Like a principal dancer who lines up her massage therapist, acupuncturist and performance coach before a big run of shows, we need to look to advanced techniques to help us through and to help us thrive.

Where Positive Thinking Falls Short

The best technique I know for handling tumult and seizing opportunities is science-based, easy, and it’s free. It’s a practice called MCII, popularly known as WOOP. (“MCII” stands for “mental contrasting with implementation intentions,” and “WOOP” is short for “wish, outcome, obstacle, plan.”

The WOOP practice, developed by psychologist Gabriele Oettingen, a professor at New York University and the University of Hamburg, is a mental strategy based on more than 20 years of scientific studies. Oettingen’s groundbreaking research looked at why positive thinking seemed to backfire—people who visualized positive outcomes actually had worse results than those who didn’t visualize. For example, in one study, the more that overweight people positively fantasized about losing weight, the less weight they lost. 

Priming Your Mind for Action When Obstacles Arise

Positive thinking feels like it should work. Counterintuitively, it doesn’t. (If it did, I’d have six-pack abs and all of my hair. I don’t.) So what’s the problem? Oettingen, author of Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation, found in her research that positive fantasizing tricks the brain into thinking that you’ve already reached the goal, so your brain relaxes and doesn’t put in the effort. The effect is so powerful that positive fantasizing will actually cause a drop in blood pressure.

However, if you think of an obstacle after visualizing the positive outcome, your body and brain are primed for action. (Even your blood pressure goes up.) This priming for action has been proven in study after study. Subjects who did this wish/obstacle juxtaposition—or “mental contrasting”—took more action and got better results. As Oettingen writes, “The solution isn’t to do away with dreaming and positive thinking. Rather, it’s making the most of our fantasies by brushing them up against the very thing most of us are taught to ignore or diminish: the obstacles that stand in our way.”

And the real obstacles are internal: Our thought patterns, our fears, that’s what keeps us from finding solutions.

Smiling woman (Gabriele Oettingen) with brown hair, ivory scarf and gray dress.
Psychologist and NYU professor Gabriele Oettingen has drawn on more than 20 years of research to develop the WOOP mental strategy. Courtesy of Gabriele Oettingen

Interestingly, if people reversed the order (obstacle/wish), the technique didn’t work. So your brain needs to want the wish and then be presented with an obstacle. Then your nonconscious mind starts working in the background on the obstacle. So when you encounter a challenge, you’ve worked on the obstacle and are better equipped to handle it as well as any others that arise.

We’re all going to need this. Because if there’s one thing that’s certain about this fall, it’s that challenges are going to arise. Again and again. But things will be easier if you put your nonconscious mind to work in the background by using this mental contrasting. 

What’s Your If-Then Scenario?

Mental contrasting is so powerful you can see the effect on an MRI. This technique activates areas of the brain connected to willfulness, memory and holistic thinking. Oettingen also found an overall energizing effect, and that subjects who practiced mental contrasting were more productive. (And we can all use a bit more of that.) 

After proving in study after study that this mental contrasting worked, Oettingen found a way to make it even more effective. She looked at research on “implementation intention.” This research showed that you are more likely to achieve your goals if you think in terms of “if-then” scenarios: If this happens, then I’ll do that.

If-then thinking “preactivates” the mind to an obstacle about to crop up. It “programs our own automatic selves to respond in a helpful way,” Oettingen writes. 

An Example of WOOP

So let’s say you wish to calmly lead your staff in the back-to-dance rush at your studio or store. The obstacle is that employees will sometimes make mistakes, and you’ll snap at them. Your if-then goes like this: If they mess up, then I’ll keep calm and be supportive. Your brain will work in the background on an approach, so your response will be better when they goof up. You’ll get the outcome you want.

Oettingen found that combining mental contrasting with “implementation intention” was more powerful than either technique done alone. Students got better marks, and patients had better outcomes. Again and again, Oettingen proved that this combined approach she called WOOP works. 

Learning the WOOP Mental Strategy

WOOP is a simple, four-step practice, but it does require your full attention for 5 to 10 uninterrupted minutes or so. (Think brief mindfulness meditation, not checklist. You’re worth it!) Find a quiet, comfortable setting, and give yourself the mental space to focus. Visualize a WISH, then think of an OUTCOME—how you will feel when you fulfill that wish. Imagine an OBSTACLE that could stand in the way, and think of a simple PLAN to overcome that obstacle.

Go to the WOOP My Life website to quickly learn the fine points of the technique. (There are plenty of videos, including some of Oettingen guiding a person through the four steps.) Once you’re familiar with the method, you can download the free WOOP app and use that to guide you. As you get more in the habit, you’ll likely find you can WOOP on the fly. You may even find, like many do, that it becomes a habit.

WOOP is one of the most powerful tools to get our minds right in these challenging times. We’ve been through so much, and many more challenges are ahead. Why miss out on a simple, proven mental strategy that will help us meet the challenges and achieve our goals? We owe it to ourselves and our businesses to try it.

Gilbert Russell is president of Brio Bodywear, which has two brick-and-mortar dancewear stores in Ottawa, Canada. Through his consulting firm, No Qualms Retail, he shares his experience and knowledge with other independent retailers.