“The great secret about goals and visions is not the future they describe but the change in the present they engender.”
~ David Allen
Most people have heard of visualization: the practice of imagining yourself in a future situation and seeing everything going the way you plan it. Sports people use it to imagine when they score the winning goal, gymnasts the perfect routine, and business people might use it to see themselves give a perfect presentation.
Recent research shows that mental imagery can affect many cognitive processes in the brain, including motor control, memory, motivation, confidence, and self-efficacy. Even the physical body can be influenced by visualisation. A study from the National Library of Medicine shows that visualisation increased the white blood cell count in medical patients diagnosed with cancer, AIDS, viral infections, and other medical problems associated with a depressed white blood cell count over a 90-day period. And Guang Yue, an exercise psychologist from Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio, notes in his research paper, “From Mental Power To Muscle Power: Gaining Strength By Using The Mind”, that participants who just imagined performing an exercise not only increased their strength by up to 36%, but also increased their muscle size.
There is another side to visualisation that isn’t as well known and that is ‘Negative’ visualisation, which can be traced back to the ancient Greek Stoics. It involves the practice of visualising events going wrong in life, as they often do, and then imagining how you would cope with the situation if they did. This could range from meeting unsavoury people at the swimming pool, to losing your job, and even your own death.
“When you are going to perform an act, remind yourself what kind of things the act may involve. When going to the swimming pool, reflect on what may happen at the pool: some will splash the water, some will push against one another, others will abuse one another, and others will steal. Thusly you have mentally prepared yourself to undertake the act, and you can say to yourself: I now intend to bathe, and am prepared to maintain my will in a virtuous manner, having warned myself of what may occur.”
Although it may not seem pleasant to imagine something going wrong, research shows it is actually very therapeutic and creates resilience, what the experts now refer to as an ‘anti-fragile’ attitude. When you visualise what could go wrong on the way towards your goals, you naturally create multiple contingency plans. This gives you more confidence in your ability to overcome the setbacks that life often throws at you and by doing so reduces stress levels, anxiety, and fear.
Professor Gabriele Oettingen is reputedly the leading expert in the field of visualization, and her research shows that visualising positive fantasies by themselves isn’t always beneficial. Her award winning work proves that it is better to practice a mix of both negative visualisation and positive visualisation together.
“We’ve seen that the principle of ‘Dream it. Wish it. Do it.’ does not hold true, and now we know why: in dreaming it, you undercut the energy you need to do it. You put yourself in a temporary state of bliss, calmness—and lethargy.”
“By fooling our brains into thinking we’re already successful, we lose motivation and energy to do what it takes to actually become successful.”
~ Gabriele Oettingen
When you practice both positive and negative visualisation you will naturally plan for the obstacles that can get in the way of your habits and goals, from an urgent visit to the vet, to a pandemic virus that closes down schools and countries. And when you have more contingency plans in mind, you become less of a victim of circumstance, which in turn builds your self-efficacy and allows you to manage more of the good stress associated with taking on more challenging goals.
Therefore, visualisation should be practiced in the following way, “if ‘a’ happens, I will do ‘b’, and if ‘x’ happens, I will do ‘y’”. This might be, If I miss one day of exercise because I had to work late, I will take an extra long walk the next day. If my presentation doesn’t go to plan, I will forgive myself, make notes of how I can improve, and then look for a course on line that teaches presentation skills. If I start drinking alcohol again, I will immediately phone Alcoholics Anonymous. If I overeat, I will read my Reasons To Succeed the same evening and work on the emotion that led me to break my diet.
“The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.“
~ Robert Burns
This exercise will help you foresee and plan potential distractions and disasters that may (probably will) occur along the journey towards achieving your goals so you can design a better future. The guided audio will add weight to the Expectation element of the Motivation Equation and reduce the Impulsiveness.
This visualization exercise utilises a guided audio recording . You can access the audio here:
You can choose from two options for your visualisation practice:
Option 1) you can listen to the prerecorded guided audio recording of the script which you can access here:
Option 2) you can read the script out loud, or record it using your mobile phone
The most important point to remember is that visualisation is a personal experience and different for everyone. Some people may experience a sensation of something rather than actually seeing it in their mind’s eye. For instance, you may be asked to visualise something, but simply can’t do it, or only experience a feeling or a sense of something rather than an actual image. That’s OK. There is no right or wrong way to visualise. There is only your way, and that is usually the best way.
If at any point you feel you don’t want to continue with the exercise, simply come back to the here and now and open your eyes again.
The more you practice this exercise the better you will become and the stronger the effect you can achieve.
There are 7 parts to this visualisation practice:
- Visualisation practice
- Visualise future events
- Visualise your Special Event
- Visualise obstacles
- Visual your desired outcome
Before you begin, take some time to think of a situation, habit or goal that you want to experience happening exactly the way that you want it to. This could be you choosing to live a healthy lifestyle, be more assertive at work, or win a tennis match. Throughout the instructions, your situation, habit, or goal will be referred to as your ‘Special Event’.
Now go ahead and have a quick test run at visualising your Special Event the way you would like it to occur. It is best if you can experience the moment as if you are in your own body looking through your own eyes, as if you are actually there and it is actually happening to you and not watching yourself as it happens.
Use this in a place and situation where you can relax completely without any outside noises or intrusions.
Never listen to this audio whilst driving or operating machinery.
Hello, and welcome to the guided audio.
Let your eyes close and as you do take in three nice deep breaths and let them out slowly.
With each breath you let out, begin to feel your body relaxing more and more.
With each breath you take thereafter, start to feel your body letting go of any stresses and strains.
Your mind may be busy with thoughts, and that is ok, your mind will start to slow down and you should begin to notice you start to feel much calmer.
I’m going to slowly count backwards from 3, 2, 1.
As I count, I want you to visualise the numbers in your mind, or just get a sense for the numbers as I call them out. As you imagine the numbers, imagine the muscles in your body starting to relax and let go.
You can imagine the numbers in any way you like. You can imagine them as big as you like or as small as you like, as plain or as extravagant as you like.
Let’s begin. Imagine the number 3. And then as you breathe out, imagine the number 3 slowly starts to disappear until it is gone completely.
Now imagine the number 2 in your mind. And then imagine the number 2 starts to disappear. And now imagine the number 1. And then watch it as it slowly disappears.
It’s not important if you are relaxed or not right now, and it does not matter if you still have thoughts in your mind either. You’ve probably had all those thoughts many times before and for the moment you can just accept them as they are.
The next step is just a simple warm up exercise to practice your visualisation skills. It’s also a powerful mindfulness exercise. You can practice each step individually and come back to these instructions to read them again if you forget the process during the exercise.
Now begin to imagine or get a sense of yourself where you are right now.
Notice the darkness or light in your eyes.
Feel what is beneath you.
Notice your chest moving as you breathe.
Become aware of the sounds you can hear, what you can smell and even the taste in your mouth.
Now, imagine you are standing in the room next door to you. You may not be able to imagine it clearly, and it may be that you just get a ‘sense’ that you are there, but just give it a go and see or feel what happens.
Now, from there, next door, imagine that you can see yourself as you sit or lay where you are right now practicing this exercise. Just imagine you are sitting next door right now, and from there you can see or get a sense of yourself sitting or lying down here, so to speak.
In your mind, you will probably fluctuate from imagining yourself there and then here and back and forth.
- Now, come back to your own body here and now again and become aware of what you can hear, feel, taste, smell, and see, even if it is just the light through your eyelids.
And now imagine yourself next door again, and from there imagine again what you look like as you sit or lay where you are right now, and then go back and forth seeing yourself there and then here.
- Come back here again to where you sit or lay right now.
This time, imagine yourself high above where you are right now. You can go as high as you like. Above the ceiling, above the roof, into the sky or beyond, and imagine or get a sense of what it is like up there. You can even go so high that you can picture the entire planet earth far down below you.
From there, become aware of what you can hear, feel, taste, smell, and see from that position.
It might not be clear, you might not hear anything, or taste, or smell anything, but try as best as you can to get a feel for it and see, hear, feel, smell, and taste it all as best as you can.
Try to practice moving from one place to another in your mind. Imagine yourself next door, then high up above you, then in your own body right where you sit or lay down right now, and then go back and forth between them.
Now come back to here again in your own body where you sit or lay right now.
Take in three nice deep breaths and let them out slowly. With each breath you let out, begin to feel your body relax more and more. With each breath thereafter, start to feel your body let go of any stress and strain.
Now, visualise again the number 3 in your mind and then imagine the number 3 starts to disappear until it is gone completely. Then imagine the number 2 in your mind starts to disappear until it has completely disappeared. Then, do the same with the number 1.
OK, imagine yourself waking up tomorrow morning. Imagine yourself as you sit up and pull the covers back and get out of bed. As you do, get a sense of where that appears to take place around you or where you imagine it happening. Is it in front of you, behind you, to the side, or maybe even above or below you? And as you hold that thought, think of a few other events that you know will take place a few hours later and then a few days later and place those events in your mind around you as well. Then imagine something that will happen in the next few weeks or months after that and include moments like your next birthday and holidays. As you do, you should get a sense of where they are in relation to each other.
Now, think about your chosen Special Event and place it in amongst the events that you have visualised at just about where you think it will happen, and as you do, become mindful of all the other events that happen before, during and after your Special Event.
OK, now begin to float back and forth seeing all the events that you imagine happening in the future laid out below you. You can see your Special Event. Take some time to watch how it takes place in detail. Are there people there? How do they act? How are you breathing? What are you saying to yourself? Are there any details that you think are important? Try to learn as much as you can about the Special Event as possible.
Now float down into your special event and view it from your personal perspective, through your own eyes as if you are there while it is happening. Once again, from here, try to make the event as real as possible and notice as much as you can about this situation.
Ask yourself, what needs to happen in your life to reach this event?
What do you need to do to reach this event?
What do you need to change in your life to reach this event?
What obstacles do you have to overcome along the way and what plans can you invent to overcome those obstacles.
Just like a movie director, create each scene in your mind exactly the way you want it to happen.
Now, float up high above these events and come back to where you are here and now.
From here work your way through your events again, and along the way check that you have learned as much as you can and you are happy with the visualisation work you have done today. This is always a work in progress, so you will want to come back and work on adding events and visualising more plans in the future.
OK, float back to where you are in the here and now, float down into your body, take a deep breath and count with me from 1 to 3 and open your eyes wide. 1, 2, 3, eyes open wide, feeling fresh and awake.
You can practice this exercise as if you are in the event and visualise it through your own eyes as if it is actually happening to you, or you can visualise the events as you float above your timeline. Treat it like a movie played out below you, but you are the director and can dictate exactly how you want each scene to unfold.
It may take some time to go through each obstacle and visualise multiple plans to overcome them on the way towards your Special Event destination, however, this part of the visualisation is the most important.
As mentioned earlier, the clearer you have your contingency plans formulated, the more confident you will be with reaching your goals, which in turn will increase your level of Expectation. Your visualisation here could include elements from other exercises, like milestones from your goals and counters to your excuses.
After you have completed the visualisation, it is time to check your work.
Float up again where you are here and now. Now quickly work your way along the events until your Special Event and along the way check that you haven’t missed anything and you are happy with the visualisation work you have done today. This is always a work in progress, so you will want to come back and work on adding events and visualising more alternative plans for a brighter future.
“Prior Planning and Preparation Prevents P*** Poor Performance.”
~ SAS Motto