When many people think about improving their performance in a given area, they often focus on the benefits of putting in more effort. Whether it’s logging more hours, doing more research, or practicing that presentation just one more time, good old-fashioned hard work is often seen as the key to getting ahead.
Now, I’m certainly not going to advise you to start slacking off, but I would like to encourage you to consider adding one more practice into your repertoire for getting ahead. Instead of focusing all of your efforts on more work – consider sitting back, using your imagination, and visualizing.
Most of us are familiar with athletes or other celebrities who have used visualization to give them a competitive edge. Here are just a few examples:
“I always visualize the run before I do it. By the time I get to the start gate, I’ve run that race 100 times already in my head, picturing how I’ll take the turns.” – Lindsey Vonn, World Cup Winning Skier
“I think my imagination has always kept me going. I just imagined myself collecting awards. I just imagined myself getting big parts. That’s part of my inner magic. If I can see myself doing it, I can do it.” – Idris Elba OBE, Actor, Singer & Producer
Here’s a video of Bianca Andreescu, the Canadian teenager who won the 2019 US Open. In it, she talks about the critical role that visualization played in her tennis success.
The fact is, the mind is a powerful thing. Consider the placebo effect. This is the scientific phenomenon in which some people are able to heal from physical illnesses, simply because they believe that they are being treated with an active substance. In reality, however, they are being given the equivalent of a sugar pill. While many researchers have perceived this effect as an annoyance that they have to account for in their study design, others, like psychologist Ellen Langer, have seen it as something that, if harnessed, could help people in important ways.
As an example, in her book, Mindfulness, Langer described her “Counterclockwise” experiment in which she took a sample of men in their 70s and 80s to a monastery, and for a week, immersed them in an environment from their youth. In addition to having them stay in a place that was decorated with furniture and electronics characteristic of that time, they were asked to pretend they were young men, and she had them watch tv shows from that time, read magazines, listen to music, and discuss issues that would have been current events in their younger days. The following week, she took another sample of men of the same age and told them to focus on being in the present. She also had both groups of men complete a variety of physical and cognitive tasks before and after the week.
The result? Both groups of men showed an improvement in the physical and cognitive measures; however, those in the imagining group showed a significantly greater improvement. Their height, flexibility, memory, vision, hearing, and performance on intelligence tests all got better. Imagining they were younger for a mere week, seemed to turn back the clock on their aging.
Other research has shown the impact of visualization on the brain: In one study, participants were randomly assigned to three groups. The members of one group were asked to play a sequence of notes on the piano every day for 5 days. The second group was told to simply imagine themselves playing the notes, whereas the third group, which was used as a control, was told to do neither. After five days, researchers found that the portion of the motor cortex associated with finger movement looked almost identical in the first two groups, whereas the control group’s brains had not changed across the course of the study. In other words, the brain response to visualization was the same as if the person had gone through the experience.
A fascinating example of the power of the mind is recounted in an article from Wired, about a man named Nagle, who was disabled from the neck down. Thanks to the wires connected to his scalp, he was able to navigate technology with his mind – changing TV channels, opening and reading email, and moving a cursor on a computer. Another small study found that subjects were able to increase their physical strength by visualizing themselves contracting their muscles. While the strength gains were not quite as impressive as those who actually performed the exercises physically, the subjects did show a significant improvement compared to a control group.
Whether you have an upcoming event that you’re nervous about, want to make sure you’re ultra-prepared for a meeting, or want to get comfortable feeling as though you’re ready for the job you want, you might want to experiment with taking some time to visualize.
Ready to get started and give it a try? Here are some tips for getting the most out of your visualization efforts.
Tips for Visualizing
1. Calm your body
Start by getting yourself in a relaxed state. You might want to put on some peaceful music and take some deep breaths from your abdomen. Give yourself a few moments to detach yourself from any stresses or responsibilities with which you’re currently dealing. Focus on your breathing, and the present.
2. Engage your senses
The key to visualizing is to make your vision as real as possible. Therefore, as you’re picturing your desired scene in your mind’s eye, use all of your senses. For example, if you were visualizing yourself relaxing on the beach, you would imagine what you would see in front of you – the vastness of the ocean, birds flying overhead, maybe a young child in front of you building a sandcastle. Imagine the feel of the sand under your fingertips and the wind rustling through your hair. You could imagine the smell of the ocean and the sounds you would hear – like birds chirping and the tides coming in. What smells would you notice? The salt in the air? Perhaps a food truck nearby?
3. Engage your emotions
Imagine the outcome of the visualization going exactly as you would want it to go. How would you feel? Revel in that. What would people around you be doing? Would they be applauding? Congratulating you? Or, would you simply be experiencing an intense feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment at the end.
4. Do it regularly
Engage your visualization regularly, if even for just a few moments each day. If you’re someone who has a hard time visualizing, then keep at it! The more you practice, the more comfortable you’ll become with it. In the piano study, it’s unlikely that imagining the sequence of notes one time would have made a difference, but the consistency of engaging in the visualization was what had an impact on the subject’s brains.
Making visualization a regular part of your routine will help you to build your confidence, learn new skills, and give you practice embodying the goals you hope to achieve.