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Leap Over Dissertation Hurdles with WOOP Power | 243

Summary: Stuck on your dissertation journey? Surmount your inner and outer obstacles with a new proven goal strategy. 

Estimated time: 6 minutes (that will save you untold anguished hours)


By Diane Dreher, Ph.D., C.M.C., A.C.C.

For years, you've dreamed of getting your doctorate.


Now you've begun your dissertation, visualized success, and set your goals, but something keeps getting in the way.


Despite all you've heard about the power of visualization, visualizing alone is not enough. In fact, it may even be sabotaging you.

How? In over twenty years of motivation research, Gabriele Oettingen, Ph.D., New York University social psychologist, has found that visualizing our goals actually saps our energy. It fools our brains into believing we've already achieved the success we seek, making us feel happy and more relaxed.

So what's wrong with that? To keep moving forward to achieve our goals, we need to be energized, not relaxed. Positive visualization does just the opposite. In fact, in one experiment, Oettingen and her colleagues found that women who visualized reaching their goals for only six minutes experienced a significant drop in energy.


WOOP Your Dissertation

So what can we do? Oettingen has developed a powerful strategy with the acronym WOOP to help us achieve our personal and professional goals. WOOP, which stands for Wish-Outcome-Obstacle-Plan, combines visualization with the proven techniques of mental contrasting and "if-then" planning.

Using the WOOP strategy focuses our attention and increases our energy, building motivation and positive momentum by asking us to visualize our goal, then discover an inner obstacle and develop an action plan to overcome it.


For fun, Dr. Oettingen illustrated her concept in these photos:


The Proven WOOP Strategy Explained

Here's how you can use WOOP to finish your dissertation:


1. W/Wish

In WOOP, the 'W' is a wish in your personal or professional life. Your current wish is to finish your dissertation.

2. O/Outcome

Now think of the first 'O' in WOOP—the outcome, how you'll see yourself when you've finished. What will getting your doctoral degree mean to you? Let your emotions and imagination take you there. Take a deep breath and really feel yourself there as vividly as possible. You may close your eyes if you like.

3. O/Obstacle


When you are ready, focus on the second 'O' in WOOP: the obstacle—going beyond any external obstacle to something internal. What inside of you is really holding you back? Search deep within yourself.


This obstacle could be a behavior, a belief about yourself, an emotion, or a habit. Be honest with yourself. The obstacle might be something you've been trying to hide, perhaps an old pattern from childhood, a feeling of being "less than," a tendency to feel like a victim, a habit of reaching for distractions whenever you feel anxious, a fear of failure or a fear of speaking up to affirm your own needs. Take a deep breath and really tune in to this inner obstacle. What is it and what feelings do you experience?

4. P/Plan

Then move on to the 'P' in WOOP, your plan to overcome the obstacle. First think of an action you can take or a thought you can tell yourself. Then make an if-then plan: if [the obstacle] occurs, then I will [take my chosen action].


Some examples:

  • If your obstacle is feeling inferior, then think of a past success and tell yourself, "I CAN do this."

  • If your obstacle is feeling too tired to work on the dissertation, then do something to energize yourself—take a stretch break, get up and walk around, or get yourself a cup of coffee.

  • If your obstacle is getting distracted by phone calls or text messages when you're working on the dissertation, then let the calls go to voice mail, or turn off the phone.

  • If your obstacle is checking your email when you're working, then tell yourself you'll check it after you finish your dissertation work for the day.


Build in "If-Then" Plans

Now it's your turn. Think of an if-then plan that connects your own inner obstacle with your chosen action.


Using WOOP is more effective than relying on willpower alone. According to Dr. Oettingen, WOOP sets up an automatic "nonconscious" reaction to move us toward our goals.


Try using WOOP each morning to get focused as you begin your day:

  • First identify the 'W,' your wish, the portion of the dissertation work you wish to accomplish that day—from reading a certain number of articles for the literature review to drafting a section of the dissertation.

  • Next visualize the 'O,' the outcome—how you'll feel when you accomplish this.

  • Then think of an 'O,' an internal obstacle that could block your progress.

  • Finally, come up with a 'P,' an action plan to overcome the obstacle, putting it into an if-then statement.


You can even download a free smartphone app to take you through these four steps at


Using WOOP on a regular basis can keep you more motivated to move forward. You'll feel more focused and energized, developing the powerful momentum you need to finish your dissertation.



Recommended Resources

Oettingen, Gabrielle. Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation.


Ben Dean interview with Gabrielle Oettingen, including additional resources:


WOOP My Life. An engaging three-minute video to get you WOOPing your life can be found at For the android or iPhone app, go to


Diane Dreher, Ph.D., C.M.C., A.C.C.

A best-selling author, coach, educator, and keynote speaker, Diane has a doctorate in English from UCLA. Her books include The Tao of Inner Peace, The Tao of Personal Leadership, and Your Personal Renaissance. Using powerful strategies from positive psychology, Diane's coaching helps people discover their strengths, overcome roadblocks, and create the life they've been waiting for. Contact her at


If you are considering whether to get your own coach to help you reach your academic goals, fill out this brief application for a free consultation with a dissertation coach.

An accomplished coach, workshop leader, keynote speaker, and educator, Gayle earned her doctorate in social psychology from the University of New Hampshire. Her deep expertise in positive psychology allows her to help clients build their personal strengths, positive habits, and confidence to overcome procrastination, self-doubts and other blocks in order to reach vital academic and personal goals. In addition to editing the ABD Survival Guide, she contributed two chapters to the positive psychology anthology, Women's Paths to Happiness. Contact her at for coaching, presentations, and workshops on thriving in graduate school and beyond, and find free resources

BEN DEAN, Publisher, ABDSG
Ben holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. He began writing the ABDSG in 1997. Over the years, the ABDSG has published hundreds of articles and provided thousands of hours of pro bono coaching and teleworkshops to ABDs all over the world. Ben is also the founder of MentorCoach (, a virtual university focused on training accomplished professionals to become part-time or full-time coaches. You may wish to subscribe to the Coaching Toward Happiness eNewsletter! It's on applying the science of Positive Psychology to your work and life (131,000 readers). Ben lives in suburban Maryland with his wife, Janice, their two children, and Dusty, their Norwegian dwarf bunny.



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