Plan for the good and the bad

“The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.“

Most people have heard of visualisation, the practice of imagining yourself in a future situation and seeing everything going the way you planned it. Sportspeople use it to imagine when they score the winning goal, gymnasts the perfect routine and businesspeople use it to see themselves give a perfect presentation.

Studies of the brain have shown that visualising on its own can produce the same mental instructions as actions. Mental imagery affects many cognitive processes in the brain such as motor control, attention, perception, planning, and memory. There is plenty of evidence that the brain can train itself for actual performance during visualization practice. It is also accepted that mental visualisation practice can enhance motivation, increase confidence, self-efficacy, improve motor performance, prime your brain for success, and increase states of flow: all relevant to maintaining a habit and along with it an increase your levels of happiness, health and wellbeing.

A study published on the National Library of Medicine indicates that visualization 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.

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 their muscle size.

However, there is another side to visualisation that isn’t so 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 and then formulating plans for how to cope. This could range from meeting unsavoury people at the swimming pool, to your family suffering serious illness, 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, it is actually very therapeutic. When you visualise what could go wrong on the way towards your goals, you naturally create multiple contingency plans, it gives you more confidence in your ability to overcome the setbacks that life often throws up and by doing so reduces stress levels, anxiety and fear.

Professor Gabriele Oettingen is reputedly the leading expert in the field of visualisation. Her research shows that visualising positive fantasies by themselves isn’t always beneficial and it is actually better to practice negative visualisation mixed together with positive visualisation, just as the Stoics taught thousands of years ago.

"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.”

With positive and negative visualisation, you plan obstacles that can get in your way, from an urgent visit to the vet, to a pandemic virus that closes down schools and countries. When you have more contingency plans in mind, you become less fragile and can take on more good stress because the dangers normally associated with taking on larger goals is reduced.

  • If x happens, I will do y
  • If a happens, I will do b
  • If I miss one day of exercise, I will make up for it the next day
  • If I have to work overtime, I will go to the gym early tomorrow morning
  • If I start drinking alcohol again, I will immediately phone Alcoholics Anonymous

Visualising your future and how you want it to turn out, including foreseeing and planning how to overcome any potential distractions and disasters that may happen along the way is key to balancing the Motivation Equation.

“Prior Planning and Preparation Prevents P*** Poor Performance”

Guided Visualisation

You can choose from 2 options for your visualisation practice. Option 1) you can use the recorded audio that will guide you through a positive and negative visualisation practice. (there is a link to the audio at the below) Option 2) you can read the instructions here and acquaint yourself with the visualisation process before you begin your practice The most important point to remember is that visualisation is a personal experience and different for everyone. Some of the instructions may seem strange to you, and some may not work for you as described. For instance, you may be asked to visualise something but simply can’t do it. Some people get 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 something doesn’t seem to work for you the way it is described in these instructions, then figure out a way that works for you and play along as best you can. There are 7 parts to this visualisation practice:
  • Relaxation
  • Visualisation practice
  • Setting your future timeline
  • Special Event future scene setting
  • Obstacle planning A-Z
  • Visual filmography
  • Return
Before you begin, take some time to think of a habit, situation 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, write a book or win a tennis match. Throughout the instructions, your habit, situation or goal will be referred to as your ‘Special Event’.

Visualise

Access the visualisation audio
(IMPORTANT: only listen to this audio when you can relax. Do not listen to it whilst driving or operating machinery)
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  • Find more meaning in your life
  • Feel happier and more joyful
  • Build better relationships with people
  • Engage in life more
  • Set clearer goals on a daily basis
  • Make better progress towards your goals

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