Visualization: Seeing is Believing … Not Necessarily Achieving
I do not rush into actual work. When I get a new idea, I start at once building it up in my imagination, and make improvements and operate the device in my mind. When I have gone so far as to embody everything in my invention, every possible improvement I can think of, and when I see no fault anywhere, I put into concrete form the final product of my brain. ~Nikola Tesla, Physicist and Electrical Engineer
To make your dreams come true, visualize your goals as already complete in full color and in the most vivid details you can muster, and then allow yourself to f-e-e-l (fuel your emotions) it and you will “attract” your goals to you … or so the advice goes from self-help experts.
I admit I have mixed feelings about the practice of visualizing goals. On the one hand, I’ve seen so many people take verbatim the if you think it you will attract it message only to end up frustrated and disillusioned when nothing appeared. On the other hand, as I sit here typing this article, there is a vision board on the wall behind my laptop with images of my goals.
It’s doubtful that even the most hardened skeptic would argue with the fact that before we can truly believe in a goal, we first must have an idea of what it looks like. This is where visualization comes in. In its most basic form, visualization is simply creating a mental image of a future event. When we visualize our desired outcome, we begin to “see” the possibility of achieving it. Through visualization, we catch a glimpse of something we want to have happen, obtain or achieve; and when this happens, theoretically we then become motivated and prepared to pursue our goal.
The good news: Visualization does work … to some extent
A very common line of reasoning used in many self-help books is that visualization has been proven to work scientifically. To be honest, when I researched the subject I discovered they were telling the truth.
Science has indeed shown that visualization does work to some extent, primarily in the field of sports psychology. Some studies have shown things like athletes who visualized shooting free throws did just as well as those who actually practiced. Others showed that by visualizing weight training, some athletes gained muscle mass—not as much as those who actually did the training, but they did gain muscle mass. Golf greats Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus have both used visualization, as have many others.
The real question is what is it that athletes are actually visualizing?
Studies show that visualization increases athletic performance by improving motivation, coordination and concentration. It also aids in relaxation and helps reduce fear and anxiety. In the words of one researcher, “visualization helps the athlete just do it and do it with confidence, poise, and perfection.”
If you actually read the research studies it becomes clear that what the athletes are visualizing is the actions not results.
Former NBA great Jerry West is a great example of how this works. Known for hitting shots at the buzzer, he acquired the nickname “Mr. Clutch.” When asked what accounted for his ability to make the big shots, West explained that he had rehearsed making those same shots countless times in his mind.
Does this really differ from typical self-help advice?
To find out I dove into a Google search and checked out 15 random articles about visualization, including a few by well known motivational experts. Of those 15 articles, thirteen never said a word about focusing on the actual steps it takes to achieve a goal … typically the advice jumped from create the goal to visualizing the outcome as vividly as you can.
So, there now appears to be two different approaches to visualization: The motivational self-help approach (visualize results) and the athletic approach (visualizing actions that lead to results). So, which one works?
What do the scientists say?
Shelley Taylor, Ph.D., a psychologist at UCLA, undertook an experiment that illustrates the difference in the typical motivational self-help approach vs. the athletic approach to visualization.
In an experiment, Taylor took students who were studying for an exam and broke them up into two groups (I’ll call them the Self-Help group and the Athlete group). She asked the Self-Help group to visualize the happiness they will receive at getting an A on the test. In other words, they were to visualize the result of getting an A and “fuel their emotions” as is often described in self-help publications.
She asked the Athlete group to visualize sitting in a library studying their textbooks and going over lecture notes.
Which group did better?
The Athlete group not only performed better on the test, but also achieved success with lower levels of stress and anxiety.
Visualizing only the desired outcome does not work.
At the conclusion of the study, Taylor expressed doubts about the Self-Help style of visualization and felt that it can actually move you farther away from your goals. Taylor says, “First of all, it separates the goal from what you need to do to get it. And second, it enables you to enjoy the feeling of being successful without actually having achieved anything. That takes away the power of the goal” … and can even make you complacent, less prepared to work hard or take risks to get what you already have in your daydreams.”
What to do instead …
You don’t have to be an athlete to benefit from visualization. The key to remember is that there are two types of visualization, each of which serves a distinct purpose and outcome.
The first method is outcome visualization and involves envisioning yourself achieving your goal. This method still holds value because you need that initial image in your mind of what it is you want to achieve in order to fuel your emotions to take you to the next step.
The second type of visualization is process visualization. It involves envisioning each of the actions necessary to achieve the outcome you want.
Focusing on not just completing, but mastering each of the steps you need to achieve your goal is what will set you up to succeed!
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