As part of one of my recent freelance projects, I read an interesting survey about how women and men differ when it comes to setting and achieving goals.
You can read the full report at Leadership IQ. For this post, I’m zeroing in on one result that sort of surprised me. The survey showed that in general, while women tend to feel more emotional attachment to their goals than men do (a good thing when it comes to personal motivation), women are not as good at envisioning their goals.
Of course there are always exceptions, but the survey found that more men than women imagined themselves achieving their goals—essentially playing movies in their minds—and created drawings, charts, and other visual representations to help them picture how they were going to get there.
That’s a good thing, because visualization increases the likelihood of success. In fact, when you look at the studies, you could say that visualization is the key to achieving your writing goals in 2018.
Yet many of us—no matter our gender—don’t feel very comfortable with visualization. Just how do you do it, and what are you supposed to focus on? Turns out there is a “right way” to use the power of visualization.
The Brain Responds to Imaginary Situations Like Real Life
According to the survey mentioned above, those who can very vividly describe or picture their goals are between 1.2 and 1.4 times more likely to accomplish them than those who struggle to visualize.
Whether you use visualization techniques or not, you already know how powerful they can be, because you’re a reader. You know that when you’re in the middle of a good book, you can actually feel like you’re going through the motions the characters are going through. You’ve experienced reading or even writing a stressful chapter, and feeling worn out afterward.
Studies have found that when people read, their brains respond in ways similar to how they would in real life. In 2006, for example, researchers found that when participants read the words “perfume” and “coffee,” the part of their brains linked to smell lit up, as if they were really sensing perfume and coffee.
A few years later, researchers found that phrases like “velvet voice” and “leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex in the brain, while “pleasing voice” and “strong hands” did not. (A good note for creating strong descriptions, as well!)
Words describing action also affect us physically. A study out of France found that when participants read about a character grasping an object or kicking a ball, brain scans revealed activity in the motor cortex—the same area that coordinates body movement.
Even more fascinating—the area stimulated was concentrated in the area responsible for arm or leg movement, respectively.
The brain, apparently, responds to imaginary characters and situations similarly to how it responds to real ones. That’s why visualization works.
Visualization Can Improve Performance
A number of experiments have shown that people can use the power of visualization to help themselves succeed. In one oft-referred to study, Australian psychologist Alan Richardson divided basketball players into three groups:
- The first group practiced free throws every day for 20 days.
- The second group made free throws on the first day and the 20th.
- The third group also made free throws on the first day and the 20th day, but in between, they spent 20 minutes every day visualizing free throws. If they missed, they “practiced” getting the next shot right, focusing on their movements and follow-through.
No surprise that the group that practiced every day improved by 24 percent. The second group that threw only twice didn’t improve at all. The third group, however, who hadn’t practiced any more than the second—but who had visualized their practice—improved by 23 percent, almost as much as the first group.
Other studies have found similar results. In one, volunteers were asked to imagine flexing their biceps as hard as possible. After a few weeks of visualizing it, the subjects actually showed a 13.5 percent increase in strength!
It’s not just athletes that use this power, though. Public speakers, visionary leaders, musicians, and painters use it as well. You can too, but you do need to be careful to approach it the right way.
5 Tips to Harness the Positive Power of Visualization
The key is to visualize the process as well as the end goal, and to add as many details as you can. Richardson wrote in his study that to truly experience the power of visualization, the visualizer must feel and see what she is doing—feel the ball in your hand, hear it bounce, smell the dirt and sweat in the gym, hear the fans shouting, and see the ball go through the hoop.
Visualizing only the end goal—you holding your published book in your hands, for instance—can actually work against you. Some studies have found that when people imagined “fantasies of success,” they actually experienced a drain in energy that made it less likely they would achieve their goals.
In other words, if all you picture is your finished book all polished and perfect, you may actually lose the energy you need to make that dream come true. The brain is tricked into believing you’ve already achieved that goal, so you can relax now—not the result you want.
Instead, to truly harness the power of visualization, try these five tips:
- Imagine the process. Seeing everything finished and done may sap your energy. Instead, picture the journey you’re going to take. Visualize it like you might visualize a European vacation. If you were going to travel, you’d see yourself landing in London, enjoying the sites there, then taking the plane to France, and to Germany, and to Switzerland, picturing the different sites and sounds in each location. In a similar way, you can visualize each step you’ll need to take to market your books this year, say, or create a new collection of your short stories. Break it down into each “leg” of the journey and imagine each one as vividly as you can.
- Add in as many details as possible. Let’s say you’re goal is to finish your book and find a publisher for it. Conjure up all the details of your daily writing practice, as well as your weekly research on publishers, your query letters, your synopsis creation, your process of submitting to one publisher and then the next. See yourself doing each one of these tasks. Imagine how you will do it, which computer you will use, where you will be sitting (or standing), what time of day or night you will do it, etc. This will empower your brain to take action when you’re ready.
- Practice visualization for 5-10 minutes every day. See your visualization as a type of meditation. Schedule 5-10 minutes to work on it each day. During that time, sit somewhere comfortable, close your eyes, and see yourself taking each of the steps you’ll need to take. This can be particularly effective if you visualize yourself achieving the step you need to take that day, and then visualize the next step after that.
- Make a visual representation of the process. Map out the process in a chart, list, table, or some other visual representation. Create a collage, Excel document, process sheet, or sketch out the journey in a sort of board-game fashion. Give yourself as many actual visual tools representing your process as possible.
- Always see yourself succeeding. Don’t be surprised if while you’re visualizing, you see yourself failing. It’s common, but it can be disturbing, and you definitely don’t want to rehearse failing, even in your imagination. If this happens to you, ask yourself what you can do to boost your confidence. Usually increasing your practice does the trick. In other words, take more action toward your goal. Work with an editor. Submit to more contests. Get more feedback. Take a class. The more steps you take and the more you succeed, the more confident you’ll feel. Meanwhile, continue your visualization. Practice seeing the process and your eventual success and gradually, you get better at it.
Do you use visualization as part of your goal-setting process?
(From now until the February 2018, click here to get your free “Start the Year Off Right” bundle, including your free guide, “How to Meaningful and Motivating Writing Goals,” the “Goals for Productive Writers Worksheet,” and two free chapters of Overwhelmed Writer Rescue.)
Colleen M. Story is the author of Overwhelmed Writer Rescue: Boost Productivity, Improve Time Management, and Replenish the Creator Within—a motivational read full of practical, personalized solutions to help writers escape the tyranny of the to-do list and nurture the genius within. Discover your unique time personality and personal motivational style, and learn how to keep self-doubt, perfectionism, and workaholism from stealing your writing time. Available at all common book retailers.
Colleen is also a novelist and has worked in the creative writing industry for over twenty years. She is the founder of Writing and Wellness. For more information, please see her author website, or follow her on Twitter (@colleen_m_story).
Annie Murphy Paul, “Your Brain on Fiction,” New York Times, March 17, 2012.
Keith Randolph, “Sports Visualizations,” Llewellyn Encyclopedia, May 15, 2002.
Rick Maese, “For Olympians, seeing (in their minds) is believing (it can happen),” The Washington Post, July 28, 2016.
David DeSalvo, “Visualize Success if You Want to Fail,” Forbes, July 8, 2011.
Heather Barry Kappes and Gabriel Oettingen, “Positive fantasies about idealized futures sap energy,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, July 2011; 47(4):719-729.