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Visualization: Seeing is Believing … Not Necessarily Achieving

2011 December 27
by Marquita Herald

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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18 Responses
  1. June 8, 2013

    Visualization can be very powerful if done correctly. I think the problem most people have is not just the visualizing process, its more getting in tune with a abundance frequency.
    Jeromey recently posted..How to Do Meditation: Three Simple Meditation Techniques For BeginnersMy Profile

  2. July 20, 2012

    Before, when I used to play a lot of basketball, I visualize the ball going inside the ring, and it works almost all the time. I don’t know if it’s just skill, talent or practice but I really think it does work a lot for me. I don’t know if it works to a lot of people.

  3. February 10, 2012

    This was a really fascinating read! I’ve never been too sure what people mean when they say visualization, but now I do. And to me it makes sense that merely visualizing the end result would not have as profound of an impact as visualizing the process itself. By visualizing the process you are picturing yourself doing what needs to be done, so you already have the idea that you can accomplish your goal. Thanks for posting this, it was very interesting!

  4. Jason Homes
    February 6, 2012

    Personally, I believe that visualization do help people gain more confidence on what they do and have faith on their capabilities that they can accomplish what they want to achieve.

  5. January 5, 2012

    Hi Marty,

    thank you for providing this indepth, interesting information.

    I love the way you supply the research results as well as what we can do to get the most out of visualisation by including visualising action – the process.

    A few years ago I saw Denis Waitley speak live and he talked about how a group of muscles fires when we visulalise exercise. This was fascinating to me.
    Now you confirmed this again with your great article.

    Much appreciated!
    Yorinda recently posted..How to Include Music with your vision boardMy Profile

  6. December 29, 2011

    What an interesting post. I do think visualization works, for me it’s more so when we concentrate on the steps and the goals than the outcome we want to achieve. I say this because sometimes what we think we want is quite the opposite and I therefore tend to let the universe do it’s magic, I believe it knows what is best for me :)

    Visualize and have faith :)

    Beth Hewitt recently posted..Create a WordPress Sales PageMy Profile

  7. Vernon permalink
    December 29, 2011

    I do agree on this point but some of the this will not lead to total success. But doing some steps or process may lead you to success. Putting some goals or other strategies will make you more productive enough. Thanks for the great discussion here. Hope I may add some point of view for a better discussion on the topic.

    Vernon recently posted..How To Get A GirlfriendMy Profile

  8. December 28, 2011

    When you visualize the positive outcome of achieving your goal, the feeling that you acquire from using your imagination usually drives you to become more eager to attain your goal. That intensifying feeling inside leads you to act towards achieving your goal. This is the power of visualization. It helps you to turn your vision into reality.
    Candice Michelle recently posted..Fab DefenseMy Profile

  9. December 28, 2011

    BRAVO Marquita! When you say “to some extent” that sums it all up. Yes, I have found people that are disillusioned when they think they are visualizing something and it doesn’t happen EXACTLY they way they want. I practice this very often for years, and yes, it works for me. The message I often tell my clients is that it does take practice. You must be in a quiet state of mind, with no distractions, also you must practice it so you can really make that connection. Most importantly I believe that one must be OPEN to the outcome. Sometimes we visualize something and something bigger comes along. Being open to what you are trying to pull into your life can lead to things better than expected. Thanks so much for explaining what this is really all about.
    Donna Merrill recently posted..Power Person | Living Your Life In PowerMy Profile

    • December 29, 2011

      Hey Donna, excellent point about remaining open to the outcome! In fact one of the best examples of that I can think of is how fixated we can become on meeting Mr/Ms Right who fits our precise visiion – to the exclusion of someone who may be far better for us. Thanks for your insightful contribution!

  10. December 28, 2011

    An important factor for any successful business owner or even achieving personal goals as well. Visualization is what helps me to stay focused. I have to actually put my vision on my white board (I use all the time). Also mind maps helps for me to transfer the vision onto paper and it helps me to accomplish what I set out to do. Thank you Marty for sharing your very wise and encouraging advice. It truly is a great reminder to keep to that vision!
    Lynn Brown recently posted..Measuring Your Social Media ROI for Facebook and TwitterMy Profile

  11. Patricia Gozlan
    December 28, 2011

    Hi Marquita,

    What a nice and complete article on visualization- this is one the” manifestation tools” I most like because it permits us throught creativity and imagination to achieve our golas without necessarily worrying about the process.

    Visualization mixed with energy work and an action plan can bring beautiful results as you describe in your blog post.

  12. Ben permalink
    December 28, 2011

    Hi Marty,

    I’ve found visualization to be the key to helping me start my business. Perhaps the BEST benefit is that visualizion helps me get over anxiety.

    As a budding entreprenuer I not only get to be CEO, but “Chief Bottle Washer” too. There are simply too many things to do, and I can’t be good at all of them. They have to be done though.

    When I’m facing a difficult task (that’s business related) -something I’m not comfortable doing- I find a little meditation and visualization helps me get-over my anxiety and push through to get the job done.

    I found the breakdown of athlete vs. self-help visualization quite interesting. If I recall from “Think and Grow Rich” Mr. Hill advocates both types, but without the scientific back-up!

    Thanks again for a great post Marty!
    Ben recently posted..Dec 15, Myofascial Pain Syndrome: Chronic Muscle PainMy Profile

    • December 28, 2011

      Hey Ben, thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts and contribute to the conversation! You are so right, Napoleon Hill was way ahead of his time which is why he continues to inspire us all these years later :-)

  13. Steve-Personal Success Factors
    December 28, 2011

    Marquita, I recently read some research on this very point. Visualizing the actual steps needed to accomplish the goal is the most effective way to visualize. Thanks so much for this encouragement! I’ll be using this strategy and I go to work on my 2012 life fulfillment targets (a reframe on the word ‘goals’ :)
    Steve-Personal Success Factors recently posted..Live Life To The Full!My Profile

    • December 28, 2011

      Welcome back Steve, thanks so much for contributing to the conversation. Hey, I really like your reframe with “targets” … it’s provides a much better visual – and speaking of. I was aware of the study, but it wasn’t until I started researching for the article that I began to fully appreciate the findings and implications. So, yes I have also adjusted my strategy for the new year!

  14. December 28, 2011

    I agree with the title, but while it’s totally true that vizualization does not always lead to success, it’s also true you can’t achieve your goal without it.
    It’s a necessary step in the process to success.
    Stan recently posted..Medela Pump in Style Advanced Breast Pump ReviewMy Profile

    • December 28, 2011

      Hey Stan, thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts. I agree with you, visualization makes a huge difference … I believe the research points out that both types of visualization are helpful, but chances of succeeding are far greater when we focus on visualizing the process rather than only the end result.

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