To visualize or not to visualize: What works?

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

  • One of the problems with to-do lists is that they are overly optimistic predictions of how long a task will take. This leads to planning too much in a day, and then feeling discouraged because we haven’t completed everything on our list. Visualizing the process or steps toward a goal helps us with more realistic planning and problem solving skills. And this, in turn, reduces our stress and increases our motivation.
  • One of the simple strategies you can use to improve your productivity is to create daily rituals and habits. By ritualizing daily tasks, you free your mind for more creative pursuits. Visualizing the steps needed to achieve a goal can help in defining these daily rituals and actions.
  • Just as for the students studying for an exam, visualizing the process can help you stick to your rituals and habits.
  • Not everyone is a visual thinker or learner. Whether you’re visual or not, writing down the steps has a number of benefits: when you write it down, you see yourself doing; it creates a call to action; and for visual thinkers, it creates another anchor.

How do you visualize? Has it helped you or your clients?

  • Hello, When dealing with a problem by coaching. We often ask our client if he has got a magic wand what is he able to do to deal with his problem . After reading this note, i think that the magic wand won’t work properly. It’ s better to ask the client what he will be doing step by step ( with the magic wand).


    • Clency, the magic wand technique is powerful because it allows you to imagine something beyond what you thought possible. So, it is a valuable, and possibly life transforming technique. However, once we settle on a goal, perhaps using the magic wand technique, we need to identify the steps we need to take to achieve that goal.

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