Do you visualize yourself reaching a goal? Has it helped you in the past? If you’re like me, visualizing yourself achieving a goal doesn’t work that well. Yet, according to the self-help literature, if we actively see ourselves having reached the goal, we will be more likely to achieve it. But, the sports psychology literature emphasizes that we should visualize the process we need to reach the goal. Who's right? Should we visualize having achieved the goal or the process or steps we need to take?
Well, it turns out that visualizing the achievement of a goal is not the way to go. In fact, when we visualize an outcome, we’re substituting the fantasy of success for real progress. And visualizing the end goal rather than the steps we need to take to reach that goal can lead to overwhelm and discouragement, especially if the goal is large. And it encourages us to think in all-or-nothing terms rather than breaking it down into manageable steps.
If you want success in achieving your goals, you should visualize the steps you need to take toward that goal.
Taylor, Pham, Rivkin, & Armor (1998) looked at whether it was better to visualize having achieved a goal (called outcome visualization) or visualize the process, or steps, needed to achieve a goal (called process visualization). In their study, they divided students into 3 groups. Group 1 was asked to visualize the specific process of studying for the exam (process visualization). This included visualizing themselves sitting at their desks, studying the chapters, turning off the television, turning down invitations to go out, etc. Group 2 was asked to visualize seeing themselves standing in front of the board where the list of grades was posted and seeing that they had received an A on the exam (outcome visualization). Group 3 (the control group) was given no instructions. Groups 1 and 2 practiced their visualizations for 5 minutes a day.
The results were that Group 1 (the process visualization group) started studying earlier, they studied for more hours, and their exam grade was 8 points higher than Group 3 (the control group) and 6 points higher than Group 2 (the outcome visualization group). They also tested this further with similar results. So the message is clear: if you have a goal you want to reach, it’s better to visualize yourself taking the necessary steps to achieve that goal rather than visualizing yourself reaching that goal.
Visualizing the steps reduces anxiety and increases motivation
How specifically did visualizing the process help students achieve better grades? Visualizing the process reduced their anxiety and this improved their performance. It also helped them plan their study strategy and this, in turn, helped them to maintain their motivation. The outcome visualization group focused on the joy they would feel at receiving the A, but failed to study more, and this actually reduced their motivation.
How you can use visualization
How do you visualize? Has it helped you or your clients?