Visualisation describes the practice of trying to change one’s outer world through changing one’s inner world, or thoughts. This type of technique runs through many spiritual practices and self-help manuals and is advocated as a way of achieving exalted aims, such as focusing on world peace and others’ happiness, to improving one’s own lot in life through changing material circumstances or performance abilities.
What evidence is there to support the benefits of positive visualisation for yourself? If you spend a lot of time visualising yourself as slim if you are overweight, or not smoking if you are a smoker, or becoming the manager if you are a clerk, does this translate into reality? The answer, supported by a growing body of evidence, is no. For instance, in one study students were instructed to spend several minutes each day visualising getting high marks in a forthcoming exam. They ended up studying fewer hours and fared less well than students who were asked not to visualise themselves as performing particularly well. So while the students may have felt better about themselves (possibly even overconfident), the visualisation did not help them to achieve their goals. This finding has been supported by research in other fields including that of weight loss and career development – simply visualising something you want to achieve may make you feel good but it is largely ineffective in making it happen.
However, the good news is that other research shows that visualisation can be a very successful strategy provided it is interspersed with a healthy dose of realism, particularly an assessment of the problems that could be encountered along the way. People who balance visualisation with reality and visualise themselves actually taking or performing the practical steps needed to achieve their goals (such as training for a particular sport or practising a musical instrument), are much more successful than people who spend more of time either fantasising or dwelling on the difficulties in the way of achieving their goals. Interestingly people who visualise themselves from a third-person perspective are significantly more successful than those who visualise themselves from a first-person point of view.
Professor Wiseman, in his book :59 Seconds summarises the extensive research of research into what successfully motivates people to achieve their goals as requiring the following four key factors:
- Construct the right kind of plan (this sounds all too obvious but it’s surprising how many people fail to formulate a realistic map of how they hope to move from one situation to another. For example many people have a general wish to enjoy themselves more but it is only those who take concrete steps, like starting a new hobby or sport, putting aside two nights a week to spend with friends and so on, who succeed)
- Inform friends and family of your goals (people who don’t tell anyone their goals are more likely to abandon them at the first sign of difficulty)
- Focus on the benefits that will result from achieving your goals (many people tend to stay stuck on the negative results of not being able to change their situation)
- Reward yourself with each major step towards your goal (this can be something small but it must constitute something to look forward to and not be in conflict with your overall goal)
Wiseman advises that your overall goal should be broken down into a maximum of five smaller steps, each with concrete, realistic, measurable and time-based intermediate goals. It is important to work within realistic time frames – many people get discouraged and abandon plans because of unrealistic expectations regarding the speed of change. The process to achieving each sub-goal must be clearly thought out in practical terms. Keeping some sort of written record of your goals and all the different stages also boosts your chance of success.
Finally, for all of those people who suffer from procrastination (which is most of us at some time or another, especially if the task seems overwhelming and difficult or unpleasant), the solution is to make a start on the task, no matter how small. It seems that even a few minutes spent on a particular task that you are avoiding sets up a pattern of anxiety in the brain that can only be assuaged by actually finishing the task. So now that we understand exactly how to achieve our goals and deal with procrastination there is nothing to stop us fulfilling our dreams, harnessing our thought energy effectively and living a big life. I shall begin by spending at least a few minutes on the other article I have been putting off for weeks…….