Lazy Girl Fitness: Why visualizing your goals doesn’t work (WOOP)

15 Apr

Hilarious Weight-Loss Quotes to Instantly Feel Better About Your Diet

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I could also entitle this post: Ha! I knew I was onto something.

You’ve heard me say before that the only way I was able to become an active person was to make exercise a habit, like brushing my teeth. Absolutely no other strategy came close to getting me off my butt on the reg.

Turns out I’m backed up by #science.

Reading this completely unrelated book, I learned of a strategy call MCII, aka Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions.

Hu..What? Sorry, I spaced out for a second since that is literally the most jargony snoozefest of a term ever invented. No offense to the brilliant psychologist whose research brought forth the concept.


Fortunately, another person with a short attention span came up with a snazzier acronym: Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan–or WOOP. (Parents of preschoolers: does anybody else hear the Octo Alert from Octonauts in their head right now?) The book showed how applying this theory helped underprivileged students improve test scores, but my mind went immediately to its health implications. There are whole books devoted to this technique but I’ll summarize.

When it comes to goal achievement, some people focus on what success will look like (visualization). Other people get hung up on the obstacles to reaching it (dwelling).  Neither of these work very well on their own. You can probably guess why dwelling isn’t helpful. But visualization is at least as ineffective, if not more so.

Why You Should Delete Your Fitspo

This is important when it comes to exercise, because how many times have we been told to visualize our fitness goals? The health rags always suggest visualizing stuff like running a 10k, but please. I know y’all have a Pin or 12 of PYTs on your Pinterest board to “motivate” you. I once had a page of the Vicky Secret swim catalog taped to my wardrobe mirror with the suit I wanted to buy that summer (with the Angel I wanted to look like wearing it, natch).

Back in the stone age before we had TV and overpriced lingerie to help us imagine things, it made sense that seeing something in our minds enabled us to do it. It gave us the confidence that something imagined could be real. But now that movies do the imagining for us, we know full well that having a slammin’ body is possible–at least technically.

Happier Human lays it down:

If you’re reasonably confident but just lack motivation, positive-future visualization has been shown to hurt more than it helps. The reason is simple – your brain assumes the goal is easier to acquire than it actually is.

Don’t know about you, but lack of motivation pretty much sums up my relationship with exercise.

Your brain, so smart yet so dumb, tries to expend the least amount of energy possible at all times. For the underprivileged students, this translates to studying for ten minutes and still expecting to ace the math test. For us Lazy Girls? I think you can see how not spending too much energy is basically the whole problem.

As Happier Human puts it, “your subconscious speaks in images,” meaning that if you see fit people, it’s easy to imagine yourself as one, and if you can imagine yourself as Sofia Vergara, your lazy ass brain decides you’re pretty much already there. This is why those “if you can dream it, you can do it” posters on every middle school wall in America are utter rubbish. And why looking at attractive people has always just made me want to eat more.

I’ll get right on that. As soon as I finish these pretzels.

It Takes Two, Baby

So what about this WOOP WOOP stuff then (one woop just doesn’t cut it, wouldn’t you agree)? Basically, it’s the combination of the two: visualization and dwelling. You imagine what it would be like to strut down the beach in your new suit, yes, but you also mentally elaborate on how the present reality of chomping your child’s abandoned chocolate Easter Bunny while binge watching The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt might prevent that dream from becoming realized. This is the “mental contrast” part, for those keeping track.

Then we add the implentation int blah blarr part. Long name for a simple concept: the use of “if–then” scenarios. These scenarios help us identify the nitty gritty when/where/how of meeting goals and have been used by psychologists for years in behavior modification, for everything from bargaining more fairly to improving romantic relationships (if I cheat on my wife with her pilates instructor, then she will kill me, I guess?).

There’s one action step to each letter of WOOP, but honestly that makes it seem like more of a process than it really is. This train of thought chugs along quite quickly, even when you’re being very deliberate about it. In fact, you’re probably already doing it.

Got a real big brain but I’m lookin atcher BEEP

For example, maybe you’d like to get a promotion (wish) so you can earn more money (outcome) but Facebook stalking your crush is so much more fun than data entry (obstacle). So you make a deal with yourself that if you can finish your work early, you can briefly look through his/her photos (plan). The if–then scenario helps us overcome the obstacle (if I start to go crazy looking at these figures, then I will get up and stretch).

In one research study, the MCII method was used to improve snacking habits. At first it takes a little mental effort (the study participants had to actually write down their bad snacking habits and ways to deal with them). But after using the same imagery over and over, picking up an apple instead of potato chips became a no-brainer.

Literally. Over time, you make a whole bunch of neuron connections between overcoming routine obstacles and getting to your end result. Eventually, the connection in your brain between obstacle and future reward is so strong that it happens subconsciously. The best part is, it has nothing to do with your feelings about the change (do you think those study participants stopped liking potato chips just because they were choosing something healthier? Hell no).

That sounds like good news to me. It means students can get homework done regardless of whether or not it’s interesting (it’s probably not). It means you can quit smoking even if other people in your social circle don’t (they probably won’t). And it means I can get in regular workouts without necessarily enjoying them (I’m probably not). You just have to make a strong enough mental connection that making good choices becomes automatic.

In other words, a habit.

Say what? Yes, I am basically saying you hypnotize yourself into exercising.

One caveat: WOOP [WOOP] doesn’t work unless you have a “high expectation of success.” This is your efficient brain’s way of keeping you from focusing too much time and attention on stuff that’s never going to happen (wish someone had told my 14 year old self that when I was planning my wedding to Leonardo DiCaprio). Fortunately, becoming fit is very easy for most of us to imagine (see above re: Sofia Vergara). And you know what they say–if you can dream it, you can do it.

Status Update

So how am I getting along with my fitness plan, you ask? All I can say is that I’d better hop right to it and take a dose of my own medicine–while I was working Hairspray the past couple months, I had to use my lunch breaks to choreograph. It got me out of the habit of hitting the gym midday, which had been the bread-n’-buttah of my exercise for the week. It wasn’t a problem then because the daily dancing was plenty of exercise. But now that the show’s over, I’m left with a broken exercise habit and shorts season on the horizon. Let’s see if we can put this into practice!


2 Responses to “Lazy Girl Fitness: Why visualizing your goals doesn’t work (WOOP)”

  1. GreedyFrog April 15, 2015 at 4:21 pm #

    Making it a habit definitely worked for me! I go on set days, and I have actually started enjoying my exercise. Now if I don’t do it, I miss it. Only 2 years ago I was a total exercise-phobe, so I have to agree with your theory! 🙂

    • janielyoung April 15, 2015 at 4:27 pm #

      That’s so awesome it worked for you too! At the moment I’m still more in the feel-guilty-if-I-miss-it phase as opposed to the actually-miss-it phase, but it’s a work in progress!

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