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“If you dream it, you can become it.” — William Arthur Ward
For years, I rolled my eyes at the Pollyanna bent of this common motivational phrase.
Sure, I’d dabbled with creating vision boards (and had a stack of half-cut up magazines to prove it), yet the prospect of trying to visualize my success into reality felt too New Age for my taste. Plus, staring at the glamorous photos and pictures of success from magazines often stirred up feelings of inadequacy, which certainly wasn’t inspiring to help me reach my goals.
My skepticism shifted when I learned more about the science behind visualization and how to use it effectively.
Now, as a coach, I help clients bridge the gap between where they are now and where they want to be — and I find mental imagery is a critical component to helping them achieve success.
What is visualization?
Generally speaking, visualization means creating a mental image of a goal you would like to accomplish in the future. You use your thoughts to imagine a certain outcome, and what you will do to get it.
Despite popular belief, visualizing isn’t about wishing and hoping something will happen. That’s fantasy. Effective visualization is future-oriented, but grounded in reality.
Many successful people — like Oprah, Jim Carey, and Will Smith, among others — credit visualization as part of their success. In fact, it’s a tool many high-performers rely upon to reach epic heights. Elite athletes use techniques like guided imagery and scripting in their training to do everything from simulate practice, to overcome fear, and even recover from an injury.
Emily Cook, Olympic freestyle skier, spoke to New York Times sports reporter Christopher Clarey about how she was used visualization to bounce back after a two-year hiatus due to injuries:
“I would say into the recorder: ‘I’m standing on the top of the hill. I can feel the wind on the back of my neck. I can hear the crowd… going through all those different senses and then actually going through what I wanted to do for the perfect jump. I turn down the in-run. I stand up. I engage my core. I look at the top of the jump. I was going through every little step of how I wanted that jump to turn out….
I don’t think I could possibly do a jump, or especially a new trick, without having this imagery process…For me, this is so very key to the athlete I have become.”
You, too, can use visualization to improve your ability to reach your goals.
The perks of dreaming big
Sports psychologists say that visualization is effective for improving athletic performance, creative thinking, and strength. It’s been associated with numerous benefits, including improving confidence, courage, resilience, memory and recall, focus, concentration, and energy regulation. Beyond that, it’s shown to boost performance across a wide range of professions — helping doctors avoid errors, police officers lower stress levels, and aiding musicians to play faster and more accurately. Research also suggests that visualization can spark psychological flow — a state associated with peak performance.
Despite these findings, many of us don’t use visualization enough — or at all. We’re either so caught up in worry that dreaming about the future feels like an indulgence. Or, if you’re anything like me, you shied away from the practice or dismissed it as non-scientific. If that’s the case, then you may be missing out on the many powerful benefits visualization has.
For instance, psychologists recommend visualization as a powerful technique for:
- Mastering a new skill
- Achieving difficult goals
- Becoming more confident and in control
- Calming down when your feel anxious or stressed
- Brainstorming possible plans and strategies
The science of visualization
As we learn more about the brain, we’re discovering that the mind can’t distinguish between imagination and reality. When you have a thought, it triggers the same cascade of neurochemicals, regardless of whether you are thinking about the past, present, or future. Your brain is stimulated the same way whether you’re physically performing an action or simply visualizing it happen in your mind’s eye.
When you think about yourself nailing a presentation or feeling a wave of pride after finishing a big project, your body and brain perceive that as being real in the present moment, even though it’s a far-off goal.
The neurochemicals stimulated go on to affect your motor control, attention, and planning, which spur you into action. Because neurons that fire together wire together, this process of imagining future outcomes creates new neural networks in your brain that help you form new beliefs, take new actions, and adopt new perspectives. You start to view the world differently, and thus, act in new ways to achieve your big goals.
In particular, visualization stimulates an area of the brain called the Reticular Activating System, which, put simply, scans your environment looking for new opportunities. That’s why when you start thinking about getting a new job or wanting to land a new client, suddenly new opportunities come your way. Your brain is scanning for them. Then, you take action on the newly available options and creative solutions you’re able to see.
Visualization doesn’t have to be limited to outcomes. Visualizing yourself doing the work to achieve a goal can be an effective form of rehearsal. For example, a writer can visualize sitting down to write for an hour every morning as a way of boosting their performance on that habit. Like a skier visualizing engaging her core, visualizing the work that goes into writing a book can be as important—or even more so—as holding the finished hardback in one’s hand.
Keys to effective imagery
There are a few core components to any successful visualization:
Pick a goal that’s clear and measurable.
Usually I start this process by asking clients, “Who do you want to be? What do you want to do? How do you want to feel?”. Then, I attach the vision to specific goals.
If you dream of mornings spent quietly writing, then pick a specific wake up time to target. After that, decide exactly how much time you want to devote to writing before going to work, for example. Getting specific about the future you want to create will help you craft a stronger mental picture.
Envision it in detail.
Imagine yourself performing — and achieving — your goal step-by-step in as much vivid detail as possible. Where are you? What will you be wearing, for example?
Engage all of your senses.
What smells, sights, and sounds are around you?
Think about the pavement under your feet as you finish that 10k race. Hear the clinking of glasses as you give a great speech.
Write it as a script
Reinforce your vision by writing it down. People who commit their goals to paper are significantly more likely to accomplish them.
Recall Emily Cook’s skiing script. Script out your own visualization and record an audio. Listening to it multiple times will encode the words and images in your brain.
Synthesizing the experience by using multiple senses helps activate different areas of the brain, making for a more powerful visualization — and better results.
As you start to think about the future, worries will inevitably arise. All those “what-if’s”, fears, and anxieties will rise to the surface. When they do, use them as tools to make your vision more flexible. These are called “implementation intentions”.
Think through the barriers that you might encounter, both internal (confidence, energy, etc.) and external (time, money, etc). Then, visualize how you’ll respond to each roadblock.
Here’s an example: I’m horribly uncoordinated and fearful of tripping over myself on stage when I speak. Instead of letting that thought hold me back, I visualize the absolute worst case scenario (falling on my face) and what I would actually do if that came to pass (pick myself up and make a joke about it). I mentally walk through exactly what I would say — even how I’d breath to lessen the panic.
You can use an “If-then” framework to work through these scenarios: “If I fall on my face, then I’ll pick myself up and make a joke about it.” or “If the phone rings during my writing hour, then I’ll ignore it and check for messages later.”
A visualization to try today
As a former visualization skeptic turned convert, the following exercise is the one that has worked best for me.
WOOP leverages a psychological principle known as mental contrasting which involves imagining yourself completing a goal and — most importantly — brainstorming a plan to deal with inner obstacles that may get in your way.
Here’s how it works:
1. Write down your wish.
Think about the next 4 weeks. What is your top priority? Describe it in 4–6 words. It should challenging but achievable in the next month. This time bounding is important to make your goal realistic and to limit procrastination and avoidance. The more specific you can be, the easier it will be to take action.
Example: I want to get a raise.
2. Imagine the outcome.
In other words, imagine that it works out exactly as you want it to. Use positive visualization: you reach your goal. What does that moment look like? How do you feel? What are you thinking? Write down as much detail as you can.
Example: I’m speaking confidently to my boss about the value I bring the company. I feel prepared, secure, and totally in the zone. I state my desired salary. My boss agrees to the raise without hesitation. I walk out of the room feeling absolute joy, like I’m on top of the world.
3. Identify inner obstacles.
What obstacles will you have to overcome to achieve your goal? What within you might hold you back from fulfilling your goal? It might be an emotion, an irrational belief, or a bad habit.
Without judgment, freely write down your concerns and fears. This question is not about external obstacles that you have no control over. It’s about identifying what’s within your power to change.
Example: I get nervous talking about money. I worry I’ll fumble my words when I tell my boss how big of a raise I want. I don’t think my accomplishments add value to the company — who am I to think I deserve a promotion?
4. Plan ahead: implementation intentions.
Now it’s time to put contingencies in place: your implementation intentions. For each inner obstacle you identified, create your if/then plan.
If an inner obstacle occurs, then I will:
…choose a healthier behavior
….take a positive action
…think a more helpful thought
“If I start doubting my accomplishments, then I’ll talk to a colleague to get their perspective on how I contributed to a project.”
“If I get nervous while talking to my boss, then I’ll take a deep breath to regain composure and pause to look at my notes.”
Visualization for the rationalist, as it turns out, isn’t about passively fantasizing about the future at all. Instead, it’s a specific process of applied neuroscience techniques to improve your performance on any goal.