One of the cornerstones of a fulfilling life is the presence of consistent progress toward interesting and exciting personal goals. Goals are different than dreams in that we are acting to achieve them, not simply wishing our lives were different. Instead of “someday”, the timeline is Spring, 2015.
Within the motivation industry, there are a lot of hokey methods for “success”, which while they may be beneficial, probably aren’t practiced by those role models who are actually making aggressive goals happen everyday.
Does visualizing your goals fall into the hokey category, or is there some truth behind this tactic?
Thoughts Lead to Action
As a therapist, I have utilized Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) pretty heavily. CBT is an empirically-based, evidence-heavy best practice. It relies on the basic premise that our thoughts lead to feelings, which then lead to action, in a constant cycle. Therefore, the focus of intervention is on reframing unproductive thoughts into ones that reinforce healthy emotional regulation and positive action.
I think it would be safe to conclude then that an injection of focused visualization on our target outcome would likely lead to increased emotional energy and positive action toward achieving the goal.
Another theory behind this mechanism is that visualizing our goals trains our brain to recognize opportunities within our environment. A very simplified example: When you buy a new car, you start seeing it EVERYWHERE. Suddenly, you notice that 20% of people on the freeway have your same vehicle. Your brain has been trained to recognize and look for your car.
The premise is that by creating a visual rather than just words on paper, your brain becomes acutely aware of opportunities to fulfill your goal, scanning the environment with that focus and passing over anything that doesn’t resonate. We’ve all probably experienced this phenomena. For example, once I set my sights on improving my speaking ability, I began to watch other speakers and take note of what they did well and not so well, rather than focusing on the information being presented. My goals had shifted.
One study has attempted to comprehensively debunk the concept of positive visualization. The researchers used control groups and had participants in the experimental group visualize their positive outcomes. The results? Within this set-up, those who visualized lost their urgency and energy toward achieving the goal; the visualization of having already accomplished the goal relaxed them, removing the need to take action (read more here).
However, many people have visualized their goals in a way that drove action. What’s do they do differently? Perhaps instead of fantasizing about already being or having your goal, visualization should be an action in and of itself, focused on giving dimension and direction to your goal.
My Personal Experience
I am very action-oriented, so I have not purposefully engaged in visualization much, although I would suggest that many of us naturally visualize our goals throughout our day. However, about three years ago, my spouse and I had a conversation about our dream home. Reflecting on the events that followed have piqued my interest in experimenting with visualization further.
We had been married for just over 2 years and it was the first time that we had really fleshed out what each of our dream homes would look like. We were astonished to discover that we both had the same goal: a rustic home in the woods on a decent-sized piece of property within 20-30 minutes of our family. However, we disagreed completely on how quickly we could make this goal a reality.
My spouse was sure we could find and purchase our dream home in a few years. I was set that it would clearly take at least a decade to save up enough to afford such a property on the premise that the only opportunities within 20-30 minutes of us were in the East benches of Salt Lake – where a small cottage on half an acre is over $500K.
The conversation still left us excited and I flipped over a scrap of paper and sketched out our dream home for fun. My spouse got into it and ended up throwing the sketch into a frame and hanging it up to remind us of our next step.
Lo and behold, less than 3 months later my spouse had found a property that fit our dream almost perfectly in the West benches: an affordable log home nestled in a small canyon 20 minutes from the valley. We closed about a month later, having realized a seemingly giant dream in just 4 months.
Finding our dream home NEVER would have happened if we hadn’t developed clarity of what the outcome looked like. My spouse was able to quickly recognize the opportunity to fulfill our goal when he saw it because he had a visualization.
My Conclusion: As long as you don’t drift into the realm of meditating on you as wildly successful for an hour every morning instead of taking action on high impact projects, what could it hurt? Take a few minutes and sketch out a picture of the fruition of your most important goal and put it up somewhere. Let us know what happens from it.