Many a self-help book touts the power of positive visualization to help you achieve your goals. However, recent research shows that a common type of visualization often advocated in these books can actually keep you from achieving your goals.
In one study done at UCLA, one group of students was encouraged to visualize getting a great grade on their upcoming final exam. Another group was not asked to visualize. Both groups logged their study hours and exam results. The group that did positive visualization got the worst grades and studied for fewer hours.
Similar results have been found in many domains including weight loss, finding a romantic partner and quitting smoking.
Why should fantasizing about a great future be such a hindrance?
It may be that when people fantasize about things going perfectly that they are then ill-prepared to deal with setbacks. And since you’ve actually experienced success in your mind you are less motivated to get success in the real world.
However, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Haven’t we all heard of athletes that practice visualization and gotten great results?
It turns out that there are at least two types of visualization that helps improve both motivation and performance.
One is called Mental Contrasting which I wrote about in another post.
Another is called process oriented visualization.
In the same study I mentioned above there was a group of students that imagined studying for their upcoming exam. That group of students spent the most hours studying, had the least pre-exam anxiety and got the highest grades.
So if you want to achieve your goals, don’t visualize success. Instead, visualize yourself taking the actions that will produce success. You’ll be much more likely to put in the hours it takes to reach your goal.
In fact, that’s what great athletes do. They don’t visualize the celebration at the end of the game. They visualize the process of shooting in basketball, the process of hitting the ball in baseball or the process of catching the ball in football. Visualizing how to properly do these specific skills is what helps boost their performance.
What do you think of this research? Will you start visualizing the actions needed to achieve your goals like many great athletes do? Please leave a comment below.
Lien B. Pham, Shelley E. Taylor (1999) From Thought to Action: Effects of Process-Versus Outcome-Based Mental Simulations on Performance