Visualization works if you work hard.
That’s the thing.
You can’t just visualize and go eat a sandwich.
Jim Carrey -
Are you able to stop for 30 minutes and truly visualize yourself on a typical day doing the things you love, enjoying the experiences you crave, surrounded by the people who matter? No? You’re not that creative? You say you have no imagination. I say, who writes your dreams?
Not sure what you want? More balance? Better job? Meaningful relationships? Most of us have a rough idea of what we want, but it stops there. When it comes to using our imagination to picture a meaningful life, most of us aim low. When things get bad enough, we may look for a new job or get out of a troublesome relationship. But, we get so caught up with daily responsibilities that we spend the majority of our time and energy yielding to those things that scream the loudest for our attention.
I worked with a woman on a committee who had struggled with cancer for the five years that I knew her. Finally she learned that the cancer had taken over her body and that she had only a few months to live. She was married with two young daughters and knew she wouldn’t be around to help them through the important stages of their lives. So she began videotaping messages about everything from puberty to their dad dating again. She didn’t have the benefit of time. Her diagnosis forced her to clarify what was most important. And, she devoted the remainder of her life to those things. The rest was superfluous. I would imagine that her advice to all of us would be—what are you waiting for?
Visualization became popular in the 1970s as a form of mental skills training to help Soviet athletes compete. Elite athletes in virtually every sport use it today to increase learning, develop problem-solving abilities, build confidence and improve performance. In sports psychology they call it guided imagery, visualization, mental skills training or emotional conditioning. Outside of the sports world, it’s often discounted as touchy-feely nonsense used by the new age or self-help industries.
It’s one thing to visualize the life you want and wait idly while the universe brings it to you. It’s another to be clear about your objectives, develop a plan to achieve them and use visualization to work through the steps you need to take to reach your goal. I’m reminded of joke about the man who for years prayed to God to win the lottery. Finally, God said to the man, “My son, please buy a ticket.”
Just because visualization has been misunderstood doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant outside of the sports world. Science has shown that there is a link between thoughts and behaviors. Also called the mind/body connection, if we visualize the steps we’ll take to accomplish something, when it comes time to act, we have an advantage. We’ve already played out the scenario. We know what we’ll do if we’re distracted. We have a plan in place for the unexpected. Because of our mental practice, our body responds by rote. We already have a mental blueprint of what we’ll do each day to get closer to our goal.
Every year my dear friend Susan Raffetto encourages me to be specific about my goals for the New Year. I learned early on that “happy and healthy” didn’t qualify as goals. She would force me to specifically identify exactly what I meant by happy and precisely what I meant by healthy. Over the years, she set the bar higher. I was asked to write down what actions I would take each day to get closer to my goal. And, she told me that my goals needed to be written down on an index card and displayed so that I would see them every day. At the end of every year, we would review our progress. This year, Susan took it a step further. On vacation with Susan, her daughter and son and law, she had us watch a video about the importance of goal setting while cutting out words and pictures from magazines that we felt best represented what we hoped to achieve.
It was an incredibly imaginative process. Certain words or pictures would catch my attention and I would clip them out. Then, I had to make sense of them. While Susan hoped to live near the beach some day, I realized that I need a healthy dose of city and the country. I give Susan credit for forcing me to creatively identify what’s important. By the end of the day, we had all identified the life we wanted along with the steps we planned to take to get there.
Instead of taping my index card at my desk, I now have it on the front cover of my journal. Every day, I review it. And, I ask myself what I need to do today to get closer to my goal and where I need improvement. I visualize the steps I’ll take (including dealing with potential distractions or set backs). This year, my goal has been to align my behavior with my beliefs. Visualizing situations that test my patience or trigger my nasty side along with a plan for diffusing my natural inclinations has been tremendously helpful.
Susan has never let up. Instead, she just keeps pushing me. Her words are always encouraging and her message is always hopeful. She’s the kind of friend we all wish for and the kind of friend I aspire to become. Of course, talk is cheap. I’ll need to write down exactly what I mean by ‘a friend I aspire to become’ and map out a plan to get there.
1. Have you been able to visualize the life you want?
2. Do you know what steps you need to take to achieve it?
3. Do you take the time each day to track your progress?
4. Do you have a Susan in your life? Are you willing to be a Susan to others?