Visualizing Success: Picture the Journey, Not the Destination

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What are you doing to set yourself up for success?

There are plenty of pieces of personal and career advice floating around the web that promise to put you ahead in achieving your goals. Good goal setting, expanding your network, even manifesting your destiny – but does the more meditative tactic work? 

If you’re wary of the power of visualizing success, you’re not alone. If it was possible to envision the perfect future and make it happen, we’d all be doing it to no avail. The reality is that it takes a bit more than a wild imagination to make your dreams come true, but researchers are discovering that the mind, especially visualization, can play a role in achieving goals – you just have to go about it in the correct way.

Research and the fantasies of the future

Researchers Heather Kappes and Gabriele Oettingen are two of the most renowned psychologists to study visualization. In the early 90s, over the course of four experiments, they found that there are some important caveats to this strategy.

Notably, the two say that it’s more likely that picturing your end goal, especially if it requires some heavy lifting and effort, will be ineffective and even counterproductive in some instances. 

“Generally speaking, energy facilitates the accomplishment of difficult tasks. The present four studies indicate that positive fantasies about an idealized future diminish energy, which should hamper achievement on such tasks,” the duo write in their findings. “Although it is tempting to believe that simple positive visions can engender actual success, this belief is not always justified.”  

They go on to say that “positive fantasies will sap job-seekers of the energy to pound the pavement, and drain the lovelorn of the energy to approach the one they like.” 

You probably won’t land your dream job by poring over the details in your mind. The reason, they say, is because doing so allows people to be more willing to exert less effort to pursue their visualization.

While Kappes and Oettingen call for more research to explain why, they did find that visualizing success for lower-effort tasks does sometimes work. Returning a postcard, they say for example, doesn’t require the same amount of energy that landing a dream job does. Visualizing that success and taking the steps to complete it might be a better use of the tactic. 

The effectiveness of visualizing success can be considered on a spectrum. While it won’t work for everything, it might for some things. The challenge is figuring out which goals are appropriate for the strategy.

The research duo says visualizing can be particularly helpful when you need to ratchet down your energy levels to achieve a goal.

On a day that seems to be dragging or you feel more anxious than usual, you might want to implement a little bit of visualization to get through replying to emails or crossing off the few administrative tasks on your to-do list. 

These are items that are relatively low risk, so thinking about finishing them, rather than feeding the negative thoughts that are preventing you from moving ahead, may muster enough energy to finish them.

Focus on the process

While Kappes and Oettingen conclude that visualizing achievement might not be your best bet, you shouldn’t write off the strategy altogether on your big goals. The power of manifestation is real – you just need to be specific and mindful of the process. This way you won’t end up robbing yourself of the energy to see through to the end.

Neuroscientist and executive coach Tara Swart, MD, tells CNBC that vision boards can be a positive way to properly visualize success. 

“You would be surprised how many high-powered executives secretly have action or vision boards at home or saved on their computers,” she says. Oprah, Katy Perry, and other highly successful people have admitted it’s worked for them.

These action boards — the term Swart prefers — emit inspiration and action and can propel you forward in a way that’s much more effective than imagination alone. 

“The process reduces the (physiological) fear response to any new situation or person, making you more likely to take healthy risks, collaborate, and embrace opportunity,” Swart says.

If you find a goal overwhelming or you have anxieties about the journey, an action board can help you think critically about creating a plan. It’s not just a visual representation of your goal, it’s a tool that forces you to consider your real desires, your actions, and the resources needed to get across the finish line. 

Motivate the right way

The line between motivation and energy can be thin. You want to give your brain enough space to dream about success, but not so much thinking time that you live in the fantasy without taking any real world steps.

In one study by Kappes and Oettingen, the duo divided 40 students into two groups. In the first group, the students were told to imagine everything in their upcoming week going really well. They wrote down positive thoughts and daydreams. The other group was also told to imagine their upcoming week, but weren’t instructed to focus their daydreaming around positive or negative thoughts. 

Seven days later, the first group, which focused only on positive thoughts, reported having an overall worse week. They reported having less control and difficulty managing time. The researchers concluded that it might have been the lack of focusing on realistic outcomes that led the first group to have a worse week. 

Instead of focusing on what might actually happen, they set expectations too high. 

The same idea can happen when designing goals and failing to account for fallbacks and challenges – which are a very normal part of the process! Daydreaming about the perfect outcome diminishes connection with reality and can set even the best planner up for failure. 

Their results may also point back to their original point: If you’re only focusing on the positives, you’re sapping energy from the get go. 

Instead, visualize the process. Think about moving through the steps it takes to realize your achievement and use Swart’s action board method to motivate yourself. In the end, creating structure will keep you on track and moving forward.

Written by Kara Mason

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