You’ve heard of “the Secret,” the phenomenon popularized on the Oprah Winfrey Show a few years ago based on the laws of attraction. Millions of people purchased the book, which is likely collecting dust on bookshelves around the country.
But that’s only part of it, according to Gabriele Oettingen, a psychology professor at New York University who’s studied human motivation for the past 20 years, and author of the forthcoming book, Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation.
“Dreaming is important,” Oettingen says. “Dreaming is a way we can mentally explore future possibilities. For that, dreaming is very good.” Where we run into trouble, Oettingen says, is when we forget about the obstacles and temptations that arise along the way.
Fast Company spoke with Oettingen about her research, and the technique she says can change your life in as little as five minutes a day.
Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions (MCII) is a scientific method for people to achieve goals and change their habits. According to Oettingen, it can be applied to all areas of one’s life, including health, work and relationships. The process can be broken down into four steps, known as “WOOP” (Wish, Outcome, Obstacle and Plan). Here’s how it works:
Ask what it is you really want. It should be something that’s challenging for you, but possible to achieve within a certain period of time. For example, becoming more comfortable speaking during business presentations.
In the public speaking example, it could be visualizing yourself getting your message across in an engaging presentation or answering every question without getting flustered. Oettingen suggests letting your mind go and imagining how good it would feel to accomplish your goal.
Ask yourself, “What is it in me that stands in the way?” You can only control the way you act, and you can’t change your boss or control how those in your company react, Oettingen explains. In the example, it could be that you tend to talk too fast when you’re nervous, or you’re afraid of forgetting what you want to say.
Think about what action you can take when you encounter the problem, and formulate it in an “if/then” statement. For example, “If I’m nervous, then I’ll remind myself of the other successful presentations I’ve given in the past,” or “If I’m afraid of forgetting key points, then I will spend more time preparing my remarks, or have an index card with key words to jog my memory.”
To start, Oettingen suggests finding some time, whether it’s on your commute or at lunch, to focus. In other words, you can’t WOOP while responding to emails or helping your kids with their homework. If you’re a visual person, writing down your WOOP in a few words can be helpful. Oettingen has also developed a free app for iOS and Android users to practice WOOP for both long- and short-term goals.