See It Happen to Make It Happen
Visualising yourself crossing the finishing line or acing that job interview might just be the key to unlocking all kinds of success.
This might blow your mind: Your brain lights up in a similar way whether you imagine yourself scoring the winning goal or you actually kick the ball in the net, and research demonstrates it. Which is why visualisation, a mental trick used by pro athletes, successful entrepreneurs and the coaches and mentors who support them, is a go-to performance enhancer.
Visualisation means creating distinctive, vivid scenes in your head. It can be used for relaxation—or to prep yourself to achieve an outcome. "When you develop an image in the brain, several areas become activated", explains Sheri Dewan, MD, a neurosurgeon at the Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital. First and foremost: your frontal lobe, which is responsible for learning, planning and executing on those plans. You also engage your occipital lobe, which helps you really see what you're thinking up. And then seeing the image on repeat essentially dulls your amygdala response (your amygdala is the fight-or-flight centre of the brain), which can lower anxiety and fear around the activity. Visual repetition also reinforces the motor pathway between your brain and your muscles as if you were actually doing it in real time, adds Angie Fifer, PhD, a certified mental-performance consultant in Pittsburgh and an executive board member for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. All of these mechanisms work together to boost your ability to perform your best in real life, says Dr Dewan.
That could explain why this mental exercise can be so effective and has captured the attention of researchers for so long. According to certified mental-performance consultant Alan Chu, PhD, an assistant professor and the chair of Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, one of the first visualisation studies was done in 1960. It split a high school basketball team into two groups: one focused just on physical training, and the other worked exclusively on visualising specific motor skills. After 14 days, the group that used visualisation was found to be nearly as adept at those skills as the players who concentrated solely on physical training were.
Visual repetition also reinforces the motor pathway between your brain and your muscles as if you were actually doing it in real time.
PhD, Certified Mental-Performance Consultant in Pittsburgh
Since then, there have been a slew of studies on the topic. One study in the Journal of Neurophysiology found that when people in wrist casts imagined themselves flexing their wrists, they lost 50 percent less strength than their non-visualising counterparts did after being immobilised for four weeks. Another revealed that folks who wanted to up their fruit intake and envisioned each step of the process (when, where and how they would buy, prepare and eat fruit) doubled their consumption. And a pilot study published in the Journal of Imagery Research in Sport and Physical Activity found that gymnasts who engaged in imagery techniques boosted their self-confidence. The list goes on.
How to Visualise Like a Boss
All that said, visualisation isn't as simple as closing your eyes (if only). Experts say there are best practices for making your mental work … work. Here's your guide:
1. Wake and create.
Right after waking up, do a five-minute "process visualisation". Envision all of the behaviours needed to achieve your goal, and write them down. Let's say you want to finally resolve a weeks-long conflict you've had going with a family member. See yourself texting to schedule a call, meditating or exercising to centre yourself before the call, calmly talking through what you want to say, and buying a card to send them afterwards. Then follow through and do exactly what you envisioned. This builds confidence and if practised consistently, tells your brain that you deserve success because you're behaving according to your plan, says Michael Ceely, a licensed psychotherapist and mental-performance coach in Berkeley, California. And doing the technique first thing in the morning ensures your mind has time to register your visual plan before you act it out in real life, says Ceely.
It's also a handy step to master before you advance to more challenging visualisations (say, building your own business) that could feel scary or unrealistic from the get-go. "Learn to rewind your images and start again slowly" if they don't resonate with you, says Fifer. "Eventually, with practice, you will gain more control and ability to manipulate the images to exactly what you want to experience", she says.
2. Mine the details.
According to Chu, when you imagine every detail, scenario and emotion involved in achieving your goal, you're actually practising how to succeed with concrete actions rather than just casually thinking about achieving it. To do this well, consider as many of your five senses as possible and how they'd apply to your goal, says Anna Hennings, a mental-performance consultant in Austin.
If that's summiting a mountain, visualise the feel of the rocks you'll scramble over, the scent of the outdoors, the sight of the valley beneath you, the sound of the wind and the taste of the lunch you'll eat at the top. If your goal is to land a job at your dream company, picture the outfit you'd wear for your interview, the coffee you'd sip beforehand, the background music you'd listen to to make you less anxious, etc. By leaving nothing—OK, everything—to the imagination, your image can feel more real, says Chu.
3. Recall a peak performance.
Replaying a successful event can help you identify your strengths and the steps you took to make things happen so you're better equipped to repeat them, says Hennings. It can also help you tap into the energy and confidence from a previous win, which is particularly useful if you're facing self-doubt.
Don't have a trophy moment that feels similar to your current goal? No worries. Think back to a time when you felt completely calm, immensely excited or incredibly strong, then use that moment "to influence and drive your emotions and physiology in the present", says Hennings. For example, if you want to ace a virtual presentation but you've never done a live one in front of a huge class, rewind to a time when you managed to cool your nerves on the spot, like a first date. Or you could borrow from someone else's past performance, says Hennings. Closely observe someone else doing the task successfully, pinpoint what worked, then visualise yourself improving your craft based on what you learnt.
4. Picture the opposite of what you want.
If you ever lose motivation for something you're chasing, try a trick called negative visualisation. "Imagine what life would be like in the counter-factual, where you don't get to do that", says Laurie Santos, PhD, a psychology professor and the head of Silliman College at Yale University. See yourself suffering an injury that makes backpacking impossible, or losing your memory and no longer being able to write your novel. "Just that little mindset shift causes you to have so much appreciation", says Santos.
It's simple: We become complacent, often bored, as we get used to the same old things, even if we love them. But negative visualisation can break us out of that, she says. Next time you're struggling to lace up or start typing, picture losing the ability and you'll likely be excited to get after it, stat.
Keep in mind that while visualisation can help you cross the finishing line of a marathon, you'll need to train your endurance if you've never run long distances, says Chu. The same goes for learning the piano or cutting your plastic use: You still have to put in the work. After all, your ultimate goal is to achieve what you see so you can see all that you can achieve.