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The Power of Visualization

From better health to greater wealth, imagining your perfect future can make it real


by Janice Holly Booth

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Can vegetating on the couch give you a rockin’ bod? It isn’t quite as far-fetched as you might think. A recent study mapping out brain patterns in weightlifters found that the same patterns activated while lifting hundreds of pounds were similarly activated when the athletes only imagined lifting. And another study by the Cleveland Clinic actually discovered that people who carried out “virtual workouts” in their heads but otherwise remained inactive saw a 13.5 percent increase in muscle mass.  No, that’s not going to place you into ‘80s-era Schwarzenegger territory, but it’s not too shabby for collecting dust bunnies either. 

See also: Life's Slings and Arrows

The Competitor’s Secret Weapon

Elite athletes such as Tiger Woods and Muhammad Ali have been harnessing the power of visualization for decades. They’ve been trained by coaches to use highly detailed internal images and run-throughs of their entire performances, from warm ups to cool downs. Legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus once said, “I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp in-focus picture of it in my head.” And, according to myth, Ali imagined himself as “The Greatest” from the time he was a little kid, and we all know how that worked out.   

So can visualization do the same for you? Can you actually imagine yourself into a better life? You don’t need the prodigious skills (or highly destructive obsessive-compulsive behaviors) of a Tiger Woods to find out. Experts believe that visualization can work for just about everyone—but there’s a right way and a wrong way to conjure up the kind of mental pictures that will pay off.

The Right Way to Visualize

See also: The Willpower Myth

First, decide on a highly specific goal (this isn’t the time for sweeping platitudes like “be a better person”). See the goal in the present tense; hold a mental picture of it as if it is occurring to you in real time. Engage all your senses. Focus on the details: Who are you with? What emotions are you feeling? What do you hear? What do you smell? It’s those details that will fire you up and bring the visualization to life. Practice at night, to allow your unconscious mind to work its magic while you sleep, or in the morning, to set the tone for the day.

The Wrong Way to Visualize

Seeing the goal in the distant future means it will likely take you a lot longer to get there, if you get there at all. Embrace the present! And many make the mistake of visualizing failures or set-backs. Sure, the road to the life you want won’t always be smooth, but visualizing specific negative turns will most assuredly lead you to rutted thruways and dead ends—avoid those imaginary detours as much as you can. When doubts dim the picture, delete them. Hey, it’s your imagination, after all.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Strive for consistency: Ten minutes of focused visualization each day is more effective than a grueling two-hour-long session once a month in a sensory depravation tank. Effective daily visualization will program the subconscious brain like a self-guiding missile or a GPS, moving you inexorably toward your target. The key here is the specificity of the goal—the military wouldn’t fire a ballistic missile until they knew its exact target (um, right?), and you shouldn’t be shooting in the dark either. And you’re not alone if you think you have the attention span of a goldfish. Practicing yoga, meditation or deep breathing will help you become more disciplined and focused on the end game. 

See also: The Path to Transformation Starts By Becoming an Optimist

Reality Check

Visualization alone won’t make you a concert pianist if you’ve never learned how to tickle the ivories. If you’re visualizing a future that requires new skills or knowledge, get started on gaining those now. Every time you walk into a classroom (virtual or otherwise), conjure in your mind where that study will take you—to the top of a mountain, the bottom of the sea, the podium to collect your Nobel Peace Prize. Just remember what Jim Carrey–a famous visualizer—said about the process: “Visualization works if you work hard. That’s the thing. You can’t just visualize and go eat a sandwich.” Unless, of course, you’ve been visualizing the perfect one.

Photo Credits: Man: Gallerystock.Pond: Jeanette Stephenson/Gallerystock,Balls: Barry Makariou/Gallerystock