You might think that visualizing success is highly dependent upon the strength of your imagination. After all, imagination is a good thing, right?
Most of you would say yes, of course. Why? Because everyone from Walt Disney to your third-grade teacher hammered into your head how awesome imagination is. And the truth is, using imagination in the right way is critical if you want to create the life you want. But what about the dark side of imagination?
What about when your imagination is conjuring up all kinds of horrible scenarios for you to consider? Or when it’s keeping you preoccupied with achieving fame and fortune while dirty dishes pile up in the sink?
If you want to know how to visualize success in a way that works, you’ve got to deal with your imagination. The truth is, imagination can lead to bad habits that hinder our best intentions when left unchecked. The secret is in learning how to use your imagination consciously…
Visualization: Imagination for Grown-Ups
There’s a name for the habit of conscious imagining. It’s called visualization (well, that’s how we make the distinction at Freedom Habits anyway). Simply put, visualizing success is the art of imagining on purpose and has two focuses: 1) goals, and 2) process.
But before we get into how to visualize success for great results, you need to know some things about what you’re up against. First, there’s a troublesome little quirk that evolutionary psychologists call negativity bias…
The Negative Nancy between Your Ears
Negativity bias is a biological tendency that keeps us on the lookout for danger, threat, and unwanted events. For most of human history it kept us safe from lions, tigers and bears (oh my)! To varying degrees, we’ve all got this bias hardwired into us. This is why when imagination is unconscious it often leads us to the lazy conclusion that something bad is going to happen. And we all know how worry can get out of hand…
We discover a stain on our shirt…which clearly means that the presentation we’re about to give will flop. Then the crappy presentation will lead to a demotion. Then we get depressed because nothing ever goes our way! We imagine the depression will lead to medication, dementia and dismissal.
The next thing we know we’re imagining disaster. How we’re going to survive side by side with the other homeless people underneath a neighborhood bridge!
OK, maybe you don’t give presentations. But you do have some kind of job…maybe some kids, a husband, wife, and friends you worry about. And yes, sometimes you worry a lot. And you often worry before there is anything to worry about. In other words, you’re making it up in your imagination. Why didn’t Walt Disney and your third-grade teacher warn you about that?!
OK, fine. Negativity bias can cause problems. So all we have to do is imagine good stuff and we’ll be set, right?
Well, not exactly…
Imagination Makes You Lazy
Recent science shows us that sitting around imagining an ideal future can actually handicap our motivation (doh!). It seems imagining a positive outcome alone can fool our neural circuits into thinking our goal has already happened. The result? Our brains don’t motivate us to make the efforts we need to make. In other words, we’re just fantasizing.
So, what’s a human to do? If imagining what could go wrong doesn’t help, and if imagining your ideal outcome doesn’t help, then what DOES help?
Balance Is Key
Well, my friend, the answer is that you do BOTH. You imagine a glorious outcome AND the things that could go wrong…but in proper measure, and in a specific and conscious way. Now, before you run away from the computer in exasperation, hear me out. Practicing the fine art of visualizing success can change your life forever…
Vividly imagining the outcome you want – more money, better health, a new job, etc. – is fun and is a great way to reach new heights. So, you should do it. But don’t stop there!
Here is a VERY important difference between mindfully visualizing and mindlessly imagining: when you visualize properly, you should keep much of your attention on the process of reaching your goal. You know, the actual steps you will take to reach it. This will bypass your mind’s tendency to get lazy. In fact, it will actually motivate you and your brain to take steps. Cool, huh?
Then, as you visualize success as a process, you’ll have the golden opportunity to give your negativity bias a job: to consciously visualize the potential obstacles you will encounter and the steps you will take to deal with them. You’ll literally be preparing your neural circuits to succeed rather than get dejected. Even cooler, huh?
Here’s a simple exercise you can do to pull all of this together.
The Visualization Success Recipe
Step One: Pick the Target
Identify a goal, wish or dream you have that you seldom allow yourself to imagine.
Pick something you usually dismiss by telling yourself it’s a pipe dream, that it could never happen. That you don’t have the skills or talent to make it come true. That you don’t have the right to wish for something so good. Dream big!
Let’s say you’re finally going to write that novel that’s in you, waiting to come out.
Step Two: List the Steps and the Obstacles
You don’t need to list all the steps, just the most obvious ones that come to mind. You can refine your plan over time.
Next to each step, list a potential obstacle that could get in the way of that step. For example, if you want to get that writing done, you’re going to need a regular routine in place and you might anticipate that you’ll be tired at night when it’s time to get to work.
Step Three: Visualize Success in Process
Visualize taking all the steps you need to take to achieve your goal. As you take these steps in your mind, imagine how you will deal with the obstacles that might arise.
Let’s say you start visualizing getting up a little earlier in the morning to write, how you’ll make that cup of coffee to get going, where you will sit while you work.
Imagine reaching your goal, say of writing three days a week, or every day, and make a commitment to stick with it until you have one chapter complete.
What to Expect
If you repeat this process over time, motivation will come easier and your goals will seem to move toward you (rather than you chasing after them).
Along the way, you may also experience the backlash of negativity bias that may reassert itself with a vengeance. Just remember what it is, a primitive neural loop whose job it is to protect you from being eaten by a tiger. Or from being left behind to starve by a nomadic traveling tribe. Or from freezing to death in the coming winter. That same voice will turn your writing project into the certainty that you will die of shame when the rejection letters start rolling in.
Just remember, you don’t have to stay glued to the negativity channel that your mind wants to convince you is the only station worth listening to. Instead, give Negative Nancy a job and get her visualizing how to overcome obstacles.
Or, you may hit a spell where you aren’t making much progress and are simply lost in an indulgent fantasy about your interview on Oprah after you sell your first million copies.
Remember: lack of progress is a telltale sign you’re not focused enough on process.
How You Will Benefit from Visualizing Goals and Process
Yes, imagination is a great thing, but not if you’re letting your imagination run WILD. At best, unchecked imagination preoccupies us with a result while potential challenges get ignored. At worst, imagination can fill us with a sense of fear and doom.
But the art of visualizing – when we envision both the goal and the process – arms us with a balanced approach that primes our mind for true success. Visualization keeps us grounded in our journey while keeping an eye on the goal.
And, lucky for us, visualization is an inherent human freedom that no one can stop us from practicing! Take that, Mr. Disney!
Do you have any insights, critiques or questions? We’re listening…post them in the comments section below!
To accomplish great things we must first dream, then visualize, then plan… believe… act!
Alfred A. Montapert
Go ahead – practice freedom.
Thanks for making the human race a little more free.