Our editors have independently chosen the products listed on this page. If you purchase something mentioned in this article, we may earn a small commission.
August 31, 2021 — 12:04 PM
Ever feel like a tumbleweed, mindlessly blowing through an open plain with no sense of direction? OK, that’s a bit of a dramatic metaphor, but you get the idea—you may have the drive and motivation to reach a certain goal or benchmark, but you feel you lack the agency to make it actually happen. You’re not alone.
Positive psychiatrist Samantha Boardman, M.D., author of Everyday Vitality, calls this feeling the “intention-action gap”; you have the right sense of determination, but you struggle with turning those dreams into a reality. “How do we close that [gap]?” she poses on the mindbodygreen podcast.
Considering her profession in positive psychiatry, her answer may surprise you: To actually achieve your goals, you actually shouldn’t just think positively. Boardman breaks down the theory below.
Why positivity doesn’t help the intention-action gap.
The idea actually comes from psychologist Gabriele Oettingen, Ph.D.: She theorized that the pervasive notion to “think positively” doesn’t actually help people achieve their goals. “It’s actually more demoralizing and undermining when what we daydream about doesn’t come to be,” Boardman states. “If it’s just in your head, it’s not going to happen in the world.”
Rather, you shouldn’t ignore or diminish the obstacles that stand in the way of your goals. In fact, they can actually inform creative solutions to work around those hardships—and, thus, help you actually reach those goals. “The obstacles that we think prevent us from realizing our deepest wishes can actually lead to their fulfillment,” Oettingen writes in her book, Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside The New Science of Motivation.
Says Boardman, Oettingen’s WOOP approach can help close that intention-action gap. Not only has this approach helped people double their physical activity and adopt a healthier diet, but it also helped couples strengthen their bond and students improve their time management. In other words: No matter your specific goal, this WOOP approach can be pretty profound:
- W stands for “wish.” What is the goal you’re hoping to achieve? For example, “I wish I would not look at my phone as much,” Boardman offers. Identify one goal at a time, perhaps saying it aloud or writing it down to help it become clear in your mind.
- The first O stands for “outcome.” How would you feel if you achieved that goal? What would happen? Boardman adds another example: “I would feel closer to my kids or I’d feel less distracted,” she says.
- The second O stands for “obstacle.” What is getting in the way of that goal? “Maybe it’s because your phone is always on the table,” Boardman poses.
- Finally, the P stands for “plan.” What are you going to do about it? Take actionable steps to overcome the obstacle: “Maybe I’m going to leave [the phone] in the other room, or maybe I’m going to turn it off,” says Boardman.
Set yourself up for success with a good night’s sleep.*
Of course, your goals may be much more complex and nuanced than the above phone example—but the point here is to dissect those goals into manageable steps rather than simply manifesting them into existence. In a way, focusing on the negative (or the obstacles) can ultimately inspire you to problem-solve your way around them.
“Those are ways to be more intentional about closing that intention-action gap and feel less like a tumbleweed in your everyday life,” says Boardman.
To truly achieve your goals, it takes more than positive thinking. As Boardman notes, reflecting on your obstacles with the WOOP approach can help you problem-solve your goals into reality.