decorative collage on wall Photo by Andy Art on Unsplash

If you haven’t made your own vision board, you’ve at least seen one. Carefully cut and pasted, decorated with images of dreamy vacation spots, featuring phrases as inspiring as they are vague: Get fit! Be present. Self care. Travel!

I love a good collage, and vision boards can be gorgeous. Developing one can be a fun, tactile way to examine our priorities.

But vision boards lack the crucial detail to help us achieve our goals.

The downfall of the vision board is that its practical use stops at that high level of “vision.” What’s missing is the next key step: Action.

Getting fit is a popular goal. Hanging that reminder on the wall with a photo of the body you want to have is not exactly a workout plan. What does “fit” mean to you? Are you trying to look leaner, do ten pull-ups, or get off the couch more? What steps will it take to get there? Do you need to find a gym, research strength training plans, or learn about nutrition?

Can your dreamy visions actually be harmful?

Not only do vision boards fall short of the planning needed to progress toward our goals, but researchers have found they can even hurt that progress.

One study, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2011, found that fantasizing about an ideal future resulted in subjects putting less energy into achieving that future.

Another study at the University of California asked some students to visualize acing their midterms, and others to visualize the actual process of studying for those midterms. The students who imagined studying did a better job preparing for the exams, and scored higher grades than those who simply visualized the end result.

The danger lies in believing that you can make a list of goals or concepts and then sit back and watch them materialize. Looks like it’s time to start dreaming in outlines and checklists.

hand writing checklist in bullet journal

So my vision board isn’t enough — what now?

Other than challenging your belief in the law of attraction, what do I expect you to do?

Here’s one idea: Create your vision board on the cover of a notebook. Inside, take it a step further and brainstorm on each goal. Why did you include this word or image in your vision? If long-form journaling isn’t for you, just jot down notes or lists. If nothing comes to mind, maybe the topic at hand isn’t really a priority.

Ask yourself: Why did I choose “Travel” as part of my vision? Are there specific trips I’d like to take? What do I need to do to get there — save money? Research the destination? Renew my passport? Find a travel buddy?

As you form a more detailed idea of each goal, break it down into smaller pieces. Taking a cue from the studies mentioned earlier, visualize the step-by-step actions you can take. There are tons of popular planning systems out there that you can use — the key is to realistically break a big goal down in whatever way works for you.

Take action steps in your day-to-day life

Keep an eye out for clues about your real goals and priorities as they show up in your day-to-day life. Then you can look for small, practical solutions right then and there.

Take, for example, “Be present.” For many of us, being present crashes and burns when we compulsively pick up our phones — even when there’s another task to do or another human sitting right in front of us.

Catching myself in this act one day, I realized I needed a cue to think about what I was doing each time I picked up the phone. I found a lock screen image that reminded me to take a deep breath. It’s just enough to trigger me to consciously think about whether I need to use my phone. Spoiler alert: a lot of the time, I don’t.

woman's hands holding phone over laptop keyboard

Be honest and efficient with your goal collecting. When a priority occurs to you (“Ugh, there she goes on another trip. I really wish I could travel more!”), write it down. You don’t have to wait until the new year or right moon phase to get out your glue sticks and make it official. Take the next free time you have available to start making practical plans.

The best part is that now, if you’re inspired to add the word “Travel” to a beautiful collage, the word will carry much more meaning for you, and seeing it will trigger you to think about those real actions you’ve planned. Visualizing that process will make it all the more likely that you achieve your goal.