There is fascinating research coming out on the powerful results achieved by visualization. The brain is a massively powerful organ but we actually understand very little about its full capacity. We do know that we can have a great deal of influence on outcomes when we utilize visualization techniques. In fact, studies show that subjects who visualized practicing a task such as playing piano or exercising a specific muscle, performed almost as well at those tasks as participants who actually practiced the skill or the exercise! Really cool, right? Huge implications for us on many levels as we learn more about how to fully utilize this technique. Many professional athletes already use visualization techniques to optimize their performance.
The idea that visualization helps us achieve goals has been around for a long time. We know that writing down goals is more effective than not, and things like vision boards have helped people start to understand what’s important to them so they can start to craft a vision for their goals.
The problem is that when we talk about visualization to achieve goals, we tend to focus on results. We envision ourselves landing that perfect job. We envision sitting in that chair, in our amazing office, with a beautiful house waiting at home- clean, of course. We envision the spoils of success and even the feelings of achievement. What we miss here is the HOW (and the WHY, but that’s another post).
WHY IT WORKS:
Visualization works because focused thinking (aka visualization) about doing a specific activity is almost as powerful as doing it. The catch here is that your brain needs to be focused on the ACTIVITY for it to actually practice it. It’s really about targeted learning. Vague goals, like all of a sudden having that perfect job, doesn’t give your brain anything tangible to go on. It doesn’t have any specific activity to practice.
We need to think smaller, and much more specific.
Those big goals (if we’re lucky and have clarity enough to see them. Watch this TED video if you aren’t) are wonderful and provide us with a north star to navigate. They are not however, a blueprint or (usually) immediately actionable. In fact, most of us are overwhelmed by the potential path forward to fully achieving our goals.
What IS actionable is that very next step. What do we have to get good or better at RIGHT NOW to get me closer to my goal or to the next step? This is one or two very specific skills or actions that need to happen to move forward.
BIG Disclaimer: I do believe that you ought to visualize results as well. Visualizing results has a different impact though. It helps you gain momentum on that mental shift required to pursue your goals. Keep doing it, but understand that you’ll need to also focus on the specific activities to get you there!
HOW TO MAKE IT WORK FOR YOU:
So, let’s say you have the big goal of eventually starting your own marketing consulting agency. You’re currently an Administrative Assistant for a small company that isn’t able (or willing) to help you grow your career. You’ve worked with the Marketing Manager for years, learned a ton and have developed a passion for Marketing. You’ve recognized that one of the things that currently holds you back is your discomfort with presenting new ideas, which you know will be a critical to landing your next role with a proper Marketing title. You also know that to be on the right track for entrepreneurship, you need to really focus on getting yourself organized. You lack the discipline right now to keep things in order and under control. Right now, you don’t feel in control enough to figure out the next steps to achieve your bigger goal.
Ok, so your next actionable steps are 1) getting comfortable communicating your ideas and 2) developing the discipline to get yourself organized.
Visualization of action 1 might look like this:
I stand up in front of the leadership team at my company, I’m not nervous at all and they all look at me in anticipation of the new marketing initiative I plan to present to the team. I start confidently and without hesitation, pausing at just the right moments as I engage them in the vision I have for the company. I glide through the entire presentation and answer some really challenging questions from the team gracefully, and I can see the buy-in growing. I envision how I will follow-up with the team and even how I will face and then respond to some potential objections and roadblocks. I get specific on the objections and visualize the specifics of how I will handle them. I don’t get flustered or stressed. I know it’s not personal and welcome the opportunity to talk about it.
Visualization of action 2 might look like this:
I wake up and get out of bed at the time I want to, make my bed and get ready for work. Before checking my email or social media (because I know they distract from my immediate objectives for the day and I’ve asked the few people who might need me for something urgent to text me if something comes up) I check in on the short list I created the evening before. It’s prioritized and I’m prepared with the specific detail I need to quickly get moving on those objectives. Distractions come up, but I stay focused and if needed, politely let others know that I’m happy to help them, but I have a few urgent priorities that I need to handle first. I’m not stressed out at all and know that I’ve built great systems into my day to manage everything that comes up. I check my email at 10am and half of the items have already resolved themselves and I quickly prioritize or file away all of the other items. I schedule time into my day for high level work and take measures to make sure I’m not interrupted during this time. I accomplish so much in this hour and am fully prepared to tie together and present my ideas. Finally, to wrap up my day and leave at my planned time, I write down my immediate priorities for the next morning and update my overall task and project plan. I leave for the day stress free and feeling energized by how much I’ve accomplished. I don’t need to worry about anything because I know It’s under control.
Yes, this is an idealized version of your experience and that’s the point! You create these specific experiences and allow your brain to start learning them, to start practicing them. Run through your visualizations every day in a quite space even if you aren’t able to tackle them in real life consistently. You’ll be doubling down on your initiative and accelerating your progress.
The potential here is endless. If you can get specific about your ideal behavior or action in a visualization, your brain can learn it and practice it. Visualize giving TED style talks, nailing the interview, speaking another language, dealing with conflict, managing your stress, networking effortlessly- you get the idea.
What are you about to get a whole lot better at?