Why Visualization Doesn't Work For Most People—& Alternative Mental Technique To Try

August 12, 2020

Visualizing your future is a very common suggestion given by empowerment coaches to those seeking advice on how to make things happen in their lives. The power of visualization has been touted for decades now and has been used to coach professional athletes to CEOs to those recovering from addictions towards success. However, psychologists explain that visualizing the future may not be the greatest advice for most people. 

It’s not that visualization doesn’t work: it often does for those who are motivated individuals. But for those of us who need to be guided or pushed in order to get things done, visualizing the future often becomes nothing more than a “fantasy” and can be a step backward—something that makes our goal ever harder to attain. 

If so many people aren’t having positive results from visualizing their future, why is it so heavily suggested? Well, when talking about the science behind it, Dr. Amy Palmer, a neuropsychologist and empowerment coach, writes that “mentally rehearsing and imagining movements shares the same brain mechanisms as actually doing these same movements.” So in terms of say, swimming, if you imagine specific details about the smells, feelings, etc involved in that process, your brain reacts as if you were actually swimming. 

Dr. Palmer continues on to say that our subconscious can process about 11 million bits of information per second but our conscious mind only 40–120 bits, filtering out unnecessary information for our safety and current interests. “By using visualization daily [keeping goals in the forefront of your mind], your brain will more readily allow any opportunities to meet your goals into your conscious awareness.” Meaning that you will be more likely to achieve your goals. 

But the benefits of the abundantly observant and creative subconscious mind are counterbalanced by another fact of our neurological process. In a Forbes article discussing a neuropsychological study on visualization by Kappes and Oettingen, David DiSalvo writes why the process ends up working against us instead of for us. He says, “Instead of mustering more energy to get “there,” we inadvertently trigger a relaxation response that mimics how we would feel if we’d actually reached the goal. Physiologically, we slide into our comfy shoes; blood pressure lowers, heart rate decreases, all is well in the success world of our mind’s making.” And so action is never taken to achieve our desired goal. 

I’ve experienced this is my own life when setting the goal of publishing a book of poetry. I imagined what it would be like to be a published author, to feel accomplished, purposeful, happy, etc. And for a minute there, I actually experienced those emotions, my goal seemed attainable—actually, my goal felt like it already happened. And according to the science above, now I know why. The funny thing is, I never worked on any more poetry; in fact, writing poems slipped almost completely out of my life. And I can’t help but wonder, was visualization to blame?

But hold on, I don’t want to, nor should you, discount visualization just yet. Visualization can still be a great tool to achieve goals, it just need to be approached differently. New York University social psychologist Gabriel Oettingen suggests using strategy developed from over twenty years of experience: WOOP (Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan). This strategy incorporates visualization throughout the first three steps. 

Wish

Visualize your goal. From a very early age I wanted to be a writer. Despite having this yearning for as long as I can remember, I never acted on it. So last year I finally decided it was time to get real about it. Last August, I declared to myself that my wish was to become a writer. 

Outcome

Visualize what it will be like to attain it. Get specific about what your life will be like, what emotions you will have and what kind of person you will be when you reach your goal. After I knew what I wanted—to become a writer—I imagined what it would feel like to land a writing job. To sit at my desk, research topics and write informative and compelling articles. It felt good. I felt accomplished, fulfilled, useful.

Obstacle

Determine what your biggest obstacle will be. For me, I figured standing out among many other amazing, aspiring writers would be my biggest road block. And I’ve got to say, it was very intimidating, in fact, it made me not want to try. I began belittling myself. What skill did I have? Who was I to write? What made me different from the rest?

Plan

Make a detailed plan of how you will overcome your obstacle. Planning how to overcome my obstacle came in the form of self-assurance and realizing my potential and what made me different. Over the years I’ve been constantly writing, and I enjoy the process, I enjoy what I write. So I told myself I have skill. Throughout my life I have overcome a lot of personal obstacles and have learned a lot along the way. So I told myself I have experience and knowledge to share. There’s a ton of people with skill and knowledge just like me, so I needed to figure out what made me different. My plan then was to target blogs and magazines that I had extensive experience with. Namely vegan websites and blogs about body-acceptance. Within a short period of time, I landed my first writing job—at Peaceful Dumpling. My wish came true. 

Though visualization can be more harmful than helpful, using it in an effective way with the WOOP technique can yield the positive results you’re after.  

Also see: How Trusting Your Intuition Leads To Better Decision Making, According To Science

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Photo: Sadiki, Reiner, Social Cut, Henderson, Winkler; Unsplash.

Nea Pantry
Nea is a vegan and gluten-free baker currently living in Bermuda. She is a huge vegan foodie, an aspiring writer and a lover of poetry. Traveling often, her goals are to seek out new cultures and experiences, to learn as much as she can and to spread the message of peace, love and kindness always.

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