To Visualise or Not

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Do you visualise yourself achieving a goal? Has it helped you in the past? If you’re like me, visualising yourself achieving a goal doesn’t work that well. Yet, according to the self-help literature, if we actively see ourselves having reached the goal, we’ll be more likely to achieve it. But, the sports psychology literature emphasizes that we should visualise the steps we need to take to reach the goal. Who’s right? Should we visualize having achieved the goal or the process or steps we need to take?

Well, it turns out that visualizing the achievement of a goal is not the way to go. In fact, when we visualise an outcome, we’re substituting the fantasy of success for real progress. And visualising the end goal rather than the steps we need to take to reach that goal can lead to overwhelm and discouragement, especially if the goal is large. And it encourages us to think in all-or-nothing terms rather than breaking it down into manageable steps.

If you want success in achieving your goals, you should visualise the steps you need to take toward that goal.

Taylor, Pham, Rivkin, & Armor (1998) looked at whether it was better to visualize having achieved a goal (called outcome visualization) or visualize the process, or steps, needed to achieve a goal (called process visualization). In their study, they divided students into 3 groups. Group 1 was asked to visualize the specific process of studying for the exam (process visualization). This included visualising themselves sitting at their desks, studying the chapters, turning off the television, turning down invitations to go out, etc. Group 2 was asked to visualise seeing themselves standing in front of the board where the list of grades was posted and seeing that they had received an A on the exam (outcome visualisation). Group 3 (the control group) was given no instructions. Groups 1 and 2 practiced their visualizations for 5 minutes a day.

The results were that Group 1 (the process visualisation group) started studying earlier, they studied for more hours, and their exam grade was 8 points higher than Group 3 (the control group) and 6 points higher than Group 2 (the outcome visualisation group). They also tested this further with similar results. So the message is clear: if you have a goal you want to reach, it’s better to visualise yourself taking the necessary steps to achieve that goal rather than visualizing yourself reaching that goal.

Visualising the steps toward your goal reduces anxiety and increases motivation

How specifically did visualising the process help students achieve better grades? Visualizing the process reduced their anxiety and this improved their performance. It also helped them plan their study strategy and this, in turn, helped them to maintain their motivation. The outcome visualisation group focused on the joy they would feel at receiving the A, but failed to study more, and this actually reduced their motivation.

How you can use visualisation

  1. One of the problems with to-do lists are overly optimistic predictions of how long a task will take. This leads to planning too much in a day, and then feeling discouraged because we haven’t completed everything on our list. Visualising the process or steps toward a goal helps us with more realistic planning and problem solving skills. And this, in turn, reduces our stress and increases our motivation.
  2. One of the simple strategies you can use to improve your productivity is to create daily rituals and habits. By ritualizing daily tasks, you free your mind for more creative pursuits. Visualising the steps needed to achieve a goal can help in defining these daily rituals and actions.
  3. Just as for the students studying for an exam, visualising the process can help you stick to your rituals and habits.
  4. Not everyone is a visual thinker or learner. Whether you’re visual or not, writing down the steps has a number of benefits: when you write it down, you see yourself doing; it creates a call to action; and for visual thinkers, it creates another anchor.

Irena O'Brien

Dr. Irena O’Brien, PhD, is a business psychology and motivation expert, specializing in helping business owners get unstuck so they can live up to their potential and create the business and life they’ve always wanted. She comes to coaching from an eclectic background. Her first career was as a Chartered Accountant specializing in tax accounting. It was as a tax accountant, having constantly to research the tax law, that she discovered her passion for research. Fifteen years later, she went back to university and earned her PhD in Psychology, indulging her passion for research, and obtaining every scholarship she applied for. In all, she spent 15 years in neuroscience and academic research. Through mentoring aspiring researchers, she discovered her second passion: empowering individuals to take charge of their personal and professional growth. Irena is a true renaissance woman. As an Associate Certified Meta-Coach, she is a leader in transformational and developmental change. Her breadth of experience, following successful careers as a Chartered Accountant, research psychologist, and neuroscientist, has provided her with unique coaching skills: she is compassionately relentless about helping her clients dig deep to uncover what drives them and create a paradigm shift.

1 Comment

  1. Diego

    April 8, 2015 at 1:53 am

    Interesting article,Fear of rocjetien can be conquered. It does requires a little effort. I think a key component of mastering people skills is gaining the skill to more easily make conversation. Trouble thinking of things to say is one key reason shy folks are anxious around other people. Fortunately there are techniques that you can improve your conversational skills. An important way is to keep up with the news. Another way is to think up topics of conversation before entering the situation, such as a party. And, of course, showing interest in others is also important. It helps to truly listen to what the other person is saying.

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