Visualization: How Mental Imagery Can Make You Better at Life
Improve your precision skills, achieve your goals, and optimize your health by visualizing desired outcomes
Visualization is simply a mental practice of imagining or meditating, with a particular focus on imagery.
As opposed to silent meditation, where you let go and don’t intentionally guide your thoughts, visualization is about consciously creating mental images.
Our minds can treat visualized experiences and real experiences as much the same when it comes to practice and learning. This effect is so profound that visualization has been scientifically proven to benefit the development of fine motor skills, such as hitting a golf ball or shooting a target.
The benefits of a visualization practice can apply to health and business, too. How you see yourself and how you imagine your desired future can improve blood markers and may make you more capable of achieving your goals.
In this article, we are going to dive into the science-backed benefits of visualization, and then I’m going to share the specific mental imagery practices I use to optimize my life and that you can use in yours.
Plastic Surgeons, Self-Help, & Science
My first major introduction to visualization came in the form of a powerful book called Psycho-Cybernetics by Dr. Maxwell Maltz. Though few today have heard of this work, it was once known as “the bible of self-help” and has been changing lives since the 1960s.
Despite having been written over 50 years ago, I found the book to be positively fascinating and surprisingly scientific. Maltz was a prominent plastic surgeon, whose most common service was to give people new faces by correcting abnormalities. He quickly noticed that his clients often became whole new people after the surgery, finally freed from this-or-that blemish or scar.
To Maltz, however, it wasn’t these incredible success stories that caught his attention, but the failures. Though most people came out of the surgery feeling like a brand new human being, others would feel that nothing had changed, and even accused Maltz of doing no surgery despite the obvious changes to their face. Family and friends could see the obvious differences, but the client denied it vehemently.
Maltz developed a theory that physical changes to one’s image only matter if they cause a simultaneous change to one’s internal “self-image.”
Our self-image is, simply put, the way we see ourselves — not just physically, but also the many talents, traits, strengths, and weaknesses we believe ourselves to have.
If the image we see in the mirror and the image we have in our head does not align, we will deny the evidence in front of our face in favor of our mental visualization of reality. Maltz felt that people were not capable of doing something that contradicted their self-image without also changing that image.
For example, if you believe strongly that you are incapable of making a basketball three-pointer, and then you make one, you change your self-image.
Some people hold so tightly to their self-image that even proof that it’s false will not get them to change. If you’ve ever seen someone like this, it feels like witnessing a person with short-term memory loss.
I used the three-pointer as evidence for a reason. When I was a kid, one of our basketball team members, Jacob, was absolutely convinced he couldn’t make a three-pointer. We spent a whole practice making him shoot for a three to (hopefully) prove him wrong and get him out of his funk.
First, we could tell he was shooting badly on purpose, trying to get out of it. When he realized our resolve to make him shoot for the whole hour, he began trying. Eventually, perhaps purely from the pressure of being singled out, he made a three.
Of course, we all celebrated, but Jacob didn’t react to it. It isn’t that he tried to deny it or be humble, or even sulk. He just went back to the rest of practice and continued to insist he couldn’t shoot threes.
This is similar to what Dr. Maltz experienced with clients who claimed he had skipped performing surgery on them, and that they couldn’t see any changes even when it was obvious to everyone else. Their self-images were stubbornly rooted, and physical evidence alone wasn’t enough to change them.
Wanting to solve his client’s problems, Maltz began to explore the deep realms of psychology, and soon having clients who he’d council and help to change their self-image without ever going under the knife.
Maltz coined this field “psycho-cybernetics.” Psycho refers to the mind, and cybernetics refers to the feedback-based system of the self-image. Like a thermostat, your self-image is a feedback-based machine. You feed it images and experience, and it aligns with reality based on that.
Another great metaphor is the homing missile. Homing missiles don’t just go straight to their target. They are actually making slight mistakes on their flight path and making constant slight corrections the whole time. They operate by having an aim and correct themselves along the way to reach that aim.
Maltz believes this is how your self-image operates. You supply an aim, like the missile’s target, and then your self-image edits itself over time to reach that aim.
I know this may seem like a lot to wrap your head around, but it will become more clear once we look at some research.
Maltz’ concepts sound great in theory, but in the modern era, they’d be worthless without science to back them. Fortunately, science we have.
One of the easiest ways to see the benefit of visualization is to observe it’s use in physical skill, such as improving one’s golf game or improving one’s basketball shot. In this study by the Department of Justice at The University of Lewisville, visualization was used to improve firearm capability as a way of aiding in police training.
72 student volunteers were grouped into visualization and control groups to test the efficacy of visualization. All students practiced their marksmanship physically, but those who also made use of visualization improved an average 32.86 points higher than those who simply practiced physically.
In psycho-cybernetics terms, these students improved their shot by providing their mind with a target to aim at. Just like the homing missile described earlier, the students aimed mentally at their target, and visualized themselves successfully shooting.
This process helped tune their self-image to see themselves as capable of shooting well, and then their shots improved more than if they had simply practiced physically.
I have a personal story that convinced me of the power of tuning your self-image for success, especially with motor skills.
One of the most famous, yet most difficult movements in CrossFit is the Ring Muscle-Up. To perform this move, one must grab onto a pair of gymnastics rings hanging high above the ground.
Then, you must find a way to get the rings under your shoulders so that your torso is above and between them. Then, you do a tricep press. The total sum of this movement looks something like swinging your body to gain momentum, jerking your body up towards the rings at the top of the swing by using your arms, and then engaging your core like you’re doing a sit-up to swing your torso above the rings and “catch” yourself in the upright position.
Here’s a video that shows the movement:
Despite watching several technique videos, I could not for the life of me finish the movement. I knew I had the strength, and my technique was great, but I just couldn’t get my torso to pull upright over the rings.
But this whole previous year I’d been using Maltz’ techniques to optimize my life across multiple spectrums, so I decided to apply a little self-image tuning to the muscle-up.
I sat down, and first visualized myself performing the muscle-ups in the third person. I saw myself doing the entire movement smoothly and perfectly. Then, more importantly, I visualized myself in the first person, as though I were actually doing it in real life.
When I stopped visualizing, and got on the rings, I did my first muscle up like it was easy, and went on to perform the move regularly.
The biggest change I noticed had nothing to do with technique. It’s that when I tried to do a muscle-up this time, I felt like someone who already knew how to do muscle-ups. Before, I felt like someone who had never performed a muscle-up, so I wasn’t confident.
By behaving as though I’d already performed muscle-ups, even if it was only true in my mind, I blasted through the movement with no issue. The biggest barrier was confidence, not technique or strength.
Visualization can heal the body
Before we move into the visualization techniques, I want to discuss one last thing.
Visualization can literally heal you.
Consciousness is one of the least understood realms of study. We know that our biology houses consciousness, but so far, it is impossible to tell where physical body ends and consciousness begins. Sure, the brain is the primary engine for consciousness, but the brain and mind affect the function of the body.
With regard to visualization, a meta-analysis of 15 studies by Peter R. Giaccobi et al. found that guided imagery, aka visualization, appears to be beneficial for improving arthritis in afflicted patients.
Guided imagery lowered the stress hormone cortisol, which is often implicated in inflammation, and patients reported reductions in their arthritis symptoms.
Now, I don’t want to over-hype that power of visualization. If you have cancer, don’t try to solve it using visualization only. But the fact that there is some influence on health markers is mind-blowing in its own right.
Visualizations for Life, Goals, & Skills
While the implications of visualization for sport are obvious and studied, one of the most common uses for visualization is for long-term goals and business.
When it comes to life goals, rather than tuning a fine motor skill such as shooting a target or performing ring muscle ups, visualizing is about tuning your confidence and “alignment with opportunity.”
A huge component of achieving major life goals is the confidence and belief in oneself that you are capable of achieving them. That sounds like common sense, but think about it.
How often have you stressed over a major goal and caught yourself worrying whether you have what it takes? Then, when you finally achieve it, you realize it was easy.
For my part, I used to feel major stress about the idea of walking into a business and pitching a product back when I was affiliated with a credit card processing company.
Even though my company offered the lowest card processing rates, and had an amazing track record of saving businesses money, I was mortified by the idea of going into a business and asking if they would be interested in more information.
The first business I walked into rejected my offer, but I was ecstatic! The pitch went smoothly, and when I admitted it was my first pitch and more for practice, the owners warmed up to me and accepted some pamphlets.
From that point forward, pitching was easy, and I had no problem walking into multiple stores a day. It took me months of thinking and worrying to pitch to one store, yet I turned around and pitched to 20 more in the first week after that.
This is just an example of how our beliefs about ourselves limit achievement, and a visualization is an amazing tool for rectifying these limiting beliefs.
I use two types of visualizations for pursuing life goals and business targets.
First and foremost is something called a “future me” visualization. I learned this from the book Way of the SEAL by Mark Divine. Mark is a former Navy Seal commander who served for 20 years, as well as a master of karate and a yogi. On top of his military and fitness accolades, Mark has also started 6 multi-million dollar businesses since he retired from the Navy — and he attributes a huge component of his success to visualization and meditation.
“Future me” is a practice Mark uses to keep his aims clear and his life-path consistently in his mind, as well as to identify limiting beliefs that may stop him from achieving his goals.
The Future Me visualization for life goals
To do the future me meditation, start by taking deep breaths through your nose for 5 minutes.
If you get impatient, try putting on a calming musical track like The Mighty Rio Grande by the artist This Will Destroy You.
After 5 minutes of deep breathing, begin a visualization.
3 months: Imagine your ideal self in 3 months, having achieved your most immediate goals and in perfect health. Try to conjure up as much detail as possible. See yourself working in an ideal, happy, and diligent manner, as well as participating in activities with good friends, or doing things you haven’t done yet but want to do. Try to see color, and even bring smells into your visualization.
The more detail, the better. If you can, try to visualize the highlights of a whole day playing out as though watching a movie. What time are you getting up? When and where are you working, and with whom? What leisure activities are you involved in? etc.
1 year: Now take the visualization out even further, and see yourself living your ideal life a year from today. What are you doing? How is your work? How fit/healthy are you? Really get into it and see yourself living ideally in a year.
3 year: Lastly, paint yourself a picture of your ideal life as it is happening in 3 years. This is often where I visualize myself doing very difficult things I have always dreamed of, such as doing Kokoro camp, an event that allows civilians to experience 48 hours of Navy Seal Hell Week training. This is also where I imagine myself living in the cities I’ve always wanted to live in, having a kid on the way, or things of that nature.
You want things to still be realistic. You should have some goals you are still pursuing, even in the 3-year meditation. Maybe you’ve achieved all the goals you have now but are pursuing something new, like another degree or an independent business.
Merge: The final part of this meditation is the most important. Visualize each of these future versions of you, and collapse them into the you that exists now. See yourself as already being the person who has done the things in your visualization, so that you see yourself as someone capable of such goals.
Fantasize with purpose
Fantasize with purpose is another visualization I learned from Mark Divine’s Way of the Seal. This one is similar to Future Me in that it focuses on a desired future, but is instead focused on a specific goal.
To perform fantasize with purpose, pick a major goal you are pursuing. For my part, my goal is to have Keenan Eriksson Fitness become a powerful hub for online courses, one on one coaching, and to have a physical location in San Diego where I can train clients and run my business with a team.
Once you’ve picked a goal, again begin by performing deep breathing for 5 minutes.
Now, imagine your goal either as you are fulfilling it, or after it has already been fulfilled and you are maintaining it.
For example, if you have a goal that involves a one-time achievement, such as making a big sale or climbing a mountain, then visualize yourself training for it and then performing this achievement perfectly.
See yourself doing the prep necessary, such as reading books like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, or doing hikes around your neighborhood with a heavy backpack.
If your goal is something that will fundamentally change your day-to-day life, then you also want to include visualizations of that life.
For example, with my goal to house Keenan Eriksson Fitness in a physical facility in San Diego, I both visualize the training and steps to make that goal a reality as well as the day to day life after I have achieved it.
I see myself and my training team working at the facility and teaching clients, and living this ideal life.
Batten down the hatches
Once you start visualizing achieving goals, you will likely notice areas of your mental practice that seem more important. For example, you may notice that future version of you has a set of skills that you lack, but are crucial for making your goal a reality.
This is where you want to identify a piece of your visualization to practice daily.
You can still explore your fantasize with purpose visualization by adding new things, but make sure to repeat your visualizations of things you find difficult. This is akin to the students who used visualization to improve their shooting, but instead you are practicing the most difficult steps of your future goals.
Now, not everything can be practiced in your head. Some of these steps will be less like skill-practice, and more like advertisements for things you need to do in real life.
An example would be seeing that you need to read a book about marketing or buy a backpack for hiking. For these types of visualizations, I still suggest repeating them daily, but you should buy these tools or start doing it in real life within a week.
If you still haven’t bought a backpack in a week, put a pin in it and visualize something else. Otherwise, the backpack visualization will simply be noise and time you could spend identifying other important tasks. It will come back up when and if it is important enough.
The key to fantasizing with purpose is repetition. This is the kind of practice you want to perform daily until you achieve your goal.
Mark Divine used a mix of Future Me and fantasize with purpose to blast through BUD/S, the section of Navy Seal training that includes Hell Week, which is considered by many the hardest military training in the world.
Mark not only became a Seal, but also a Seal officer and the honor man of his Bud/s class, which is a distinction given to the person considered the best among a Seal graduating class by his peers and instructors alike.
Mark attributes his success to a visualization he started performing in the year leading up to his joining the Navy. Mark would watch a popular TV advertisement for the Navy Seals at the time, and then visualize himself in the ad. He’d see himself performing drills, doing log PT, and getting “wet and sandy” with “his” crewmates. Mark would visualize himself not just surviving, but thriving through navy seal training, and that’s exactly what he did when the day came.
Skill practice visualization
Last but not least is skill practice. This is actually the first visualization we discussed, as it is the act of practicing a skill in your head to improve in real life.
This one is pretty simple. Start by taking 3 large abdominal breaths, relaxing with each exhale. Ease your mind and come to a place of stillness.
Now, imagine yourself performing a skill you are aiming to improve, perfectly. This is easiest to imagine with sport skills, but it’s also incredible for things like music or preparing for an event.
First, see yourself in the third person as though on video. See yourself perform the skill a few times perfectly, as though you were a world-class expert.
Now, move to the first person, and feel yourself performing the skill perfectly a few times. Notice how your body is moving, how it feels, and really get into the visualization physically.
I use this meditation often in fitness or sports. I’ve used this to improve in martial arts, dance, olympic lifting, swimming, and even to exert more strength during exercise.
A great way to boost the power of this visualization is to record yourself performing a skill on video and watch technique videos before visualizing. This will arm you both with the knowledge of what perfect looks like (the technique video) as well as what you look like.
Many of you will find this visualization more useful in business or general life. Use it to “rehearse” before an event or anything that intimidates you.
Giving a speech? Practice it in your head. Going bungee-jumping and feeling nervous? Practice doing it calmly in your mind. I used this meditation before doing door-to-door sales for the first time.
Virtually anything that can be practiced can be used in this meditation. Don’t limit yourself. It’s incredible how much you can improve by taking a few minutes to visualize detailed success before going to perform in real life.
Bonus: Freestyle visualization
Though I’ve outlined 3 specific visualization tools you can use, you can expand on them to develop your own. If possible, begin with at least 3 deep breaths, and ideally 5 minutes of deep breathing for more powerful visualization.
Then simply visualize desired outcomes. Don’t be afraid to visualize things you may think are beyond your control.
When I was sick, I would visualize myself healing. Meditation has been shown to lower inflammation, and it’s possible that visualizing yourself healing can actually “heal” you, to some extent.
In the realm of chronic disease and functional medicine, it is a common experience that people will not heal until they address their emotional state. Even though they’ve done all the supplements and have their body should have the resources to heal, they stay sick until they go deep and see themselves as a healthy person instead of a broken one.
We don’t fully understand the mechanisms of how consciousness affects the physical body, so don’t underestimate the power of getting your head in the right place.
Other forms of freestyle visualization are to see yourself in a loving relationship or having a family. This isn’t about making things happen for you without doing the work. I don’t think of these practices as magical or that they get the universe to give you what you want. However, I do think they prime you to believe in yourself, and see yourself as someone who could confidently get the things you desire in life by doing the work.
Some of the most difficult problems can be at least aided with these practices.
For example, perhaps you have infertility issues, which are all too common among both men and women these days. I know of people who have solved their infertility with lifestyle and dietary changes. Visualizing yourself as fertile and conceiving a child probably won’t make it happen on its own, but it can prime you to be more receptive to solutions—and then follow through with action.
Remember, the main purpose of visualization is to set your aim both consciously and subconsciously. The better you have aimed your mind at a goal, the easier it will be to take the needed action to pursue and achieve it.
My main point is to say: don’t limit yourself. If you want something in life, no matter how out-of-control it may seem, apply your visualization process to it and truly imagine it becoming a reality.
My own story is actually one you are witnessing right now. I had health problems for about a year and a half, and I was determined to make an income despite being unable to work classical jobs.
I also realized I had a huge tome of powerful health and fitness information in my head that could help others. There were many things I had tried that helped, and I had deeply researched many others.
I re-read Mark’s book, as well as Side Hustle by Chris Guillebeau (which is about turning an idea into income in 5 weeks) and within a month created a website where I wrote health and fitness articles. Within 4 months, I was writing for Better Humans.
Without my visualizations, I would not have believed myself to be skilled or knowledgeable enough to write for this publisher, but in my head, I saw myself as a true expert and leader in this field during my “fantasize with purpose” drills.
A year ago today, I couldn’t work out and I had bad mental and physical fatigue. Today, as I type, I can feel the soreness of yesterday’s kettlebell workout, and later tonight I’ll go two-stepping with some coworkers from my part-time job at a dog training facility.
Anyone who is familiar with chronic fatigue syndrome, thyroid disease, adrenal problems, or other chronic disease knows that these conditions often plague an individual for decades, if not for the rest of their life.
I employed many tactics to overcome my health issues, but the bedrock was my aim to heal and belief in myself. I learned to do this by practicing visualization, and even when I was too mentally frayed to meditate, I would write down my fantasize with purpose and future me exercises as stories in a journal.
The result? I healed from a chronic condition in two years, instead of the 15 or more years that it often takes others.
Visualization is a free and easy practice that can have magnificent results for your life.
From improving motor skills such as shooting a target or perform sport skills, to pursuing goals, and even becoming your ideal version of yourself, use of mental imagery is a powerful way to optimize your life
As ever, thank you for reading and good luck on your life journey.