Today we’re going to talk about how to visualize for results. Really. Backed by decades of scientific research and discussed in the book Rethinking Positive Thinking by Professor Gabrielle Oettingen. The technique has been applied to everything from drinking self-regulation to getting over regret.
When you were a kid, didn’t you just love the idea that you could think of something and it would magically happen? You would bounce down the street, thinking about how good an ice cream cone would be, and one would appear in your hand. You’d scrunch up your face and think hard about how great it would be if your friends were around, and amazingly, they would appear! You’d wish that the old chemical factory would explode in the middle of the night so you could take a day off of school. That one probably didn’t come true because everyone who works there was wishing really hard that the factory wouldn’t explode so they could keep their jobs. They were very selfish.
Then, you grew up, hit puberty, and became a teenager. You spent hours each day wishing for … certain things. (At least you did if you were a boy; I can’t speak for girls.) In fact, you did almost nothing except wish for … certain things. And they didn’t happen. They didn’t happen so much that there’s an entire genre of comedy about teenagers who are wishing hard, but it’s just not happening.
Wishing doesn’t make things happen by magic. It does make things happen by motivation.
But our wishes never seem to make things magically happen. So, in spite of this tremendous disconfirming evidence, why do we continue to believe that we’ll be able to wish and make it so?
Because while wishing doesn’t make things happen by magic, it does make things happen by motivation. But only if you do it right. You have to feel the desire, and then show your brain that your current situation is the only thing standing between you and your wishes. Then add in a little more prep and your brain will start driving you relentlessly toward your goals.
There are four simple steps to harnessing the power of visualization for real. They spell WOOP: Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. Oettingen recommends doing the steps very lightly. Let your answers circulate in your conscious and unconscious minds. And summarize each answer in six words or less.
Step 1: Wish
What is your wish?
First, identify what you want. Like a puppy. Or an autographed picture of Justin Bieber. Or a mansion.
Step 2: Outcome
What is the best outcome of your wish?
In sports, it’s common to hear advice about how visualizing the desired result improves performance. This might be true, but consider the context: you’re visualizing how you want your body to perform. That’s how you learn to use your body in the first place. You watch people and imitate. So it makes sense that visualizing a physical activity is something your brain can translate into performance.
For other things, the connection isn’t so direct. Sitting on your couch visualizing a mansion while you eat delicious Oreo ice cream bonbons isn’t going to get you a mansion, though it might get you an extra-large waistline.
Sitting on your couch visualizing a mansion while you eat delicious Oreo ice cream bonbons isn’t going to get you a mansion, though it might get you an extra-large waistline.
But visualizing a mansion may motivate you to want the mansion. And wanting is the first step towards making it happen.
To amp up the motivation, visualize the ways your life would be better when you reach your goal. With a mansion, you can have glorious parties! Fabulous balls! You can have your own armory, and a walk-in closet full of mismatched glass slippers. Or a walk-in freezer chock full of Oreo ice cream cakes! Are you pumped, yet? Great!
Visualize in the third person
When you visualize what you want, do not feel the way you would feel if you had it. The 2006 sensation The Secret was a book about visualization. The Secret says to visualize what you want and feel how you’d feel if you had it. But Oettingen researched that. It doesn’t work. If you do that, your brain feels as if you already have what you want … and you stop being motivated to get it! Visualize your mansion so you feel like you really, really want it, not so you feel like you have it.
Step 3: Obstacle
What is your main inner obstacle?
Now you’re motivated and psyched to get your mansion. But look around—you don’t have the mansion yet! Why not? Step two is to identify your greatest obstacle to achieving your goal.
You might identify an external obstacle. Maybe Capitalist Moneybags bought up all the mansions in town and has paid off politicians so no new mansions can be built. That’s an external obstacle.
You want to identify the biggest obstacle that’s under your control. Capitalist Moneybags isn’t under your control—at least not until you come up with some good blackmail material—but your reaction to Capitalist Moneybags is. If you give up trying for your mansion, that’s your obstacle—you give up when you don’t see an obvious solution.
Maybe your inner obstacle is negative self-talk. When you see Moneybags’s mansion, you think, “I don’t deserve that” or “I’m not the kind of person who lives in mansions.” Your obstacle could also be some behavior you take, like deciding to eat bonbons and watch Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous instead of searching real estate listings for slightly-used, pre-owned mansions.
Step 4: Plan a way around the obstacle.
Now that you know the obstacle, spend a few minutes brainstorming ways you could get around it. If you give up too easily, one way around the obstacle might be to check in with a friend for permission to quit before throwing in the towel. If the obstacle is identity—you just don’t think of yourself as someone who could have a mansion—then the plan could be to change that thinking. You could start imagining yourself living in a mansion, deserving to live in a mansion, and being the kind of person who lives in mansions.
Since the obstacle is an internal obstacle or some obstacle that’s under your control, the way past the obstacle will often also be under your control. But your solution might also include enlisting other people’s help, or arranging your physical environment so you’re sitting in front of real estate listings instead of sitting in front of Netflix.
Check in with yourself again
Now that you’ve contrasted the amazing, awesome, desirable world of your goal with the evil, horrible world of your obstacle and figured out a way around the obstacle, check in with your feelings. You may find that confronting your obstacle has opened your eyes: you don’t really want to do what it would take to get a mansion. You’re perfectly happy with a 1-bedroom apartment and an extra-large freezer full of bonbons. Great! You’ve learned something important about yourself. Change your goal.
You may find that confronting your obstacle has opened your eyes. Great! You’ve learned something important about yourself. Change your goal.
But you may find that confronting your obstacle has made you more determined than ever to go for it. So, now put the icing on the cake.
State your plan as an Implementation Intention
Lock your motivation into place by setting an implementation intention. Create a simple statement that identifies how you’ll know you’ve hit your obstacle, and what you’ll do when you do.
IF I reach for the bonbons, THEN I will spend five minutes browsing listing on Mansions ‘R’ Us before indulging in the delicious oreo goodness
Or in six-words-or-less format,
IF reaching for bonbons, THEN five minutes on mansions
You can even put a kitchen timer on your desk and set it to five minutes. When it’s time to do your real estate browsing, even your physical environment is set up to make it super-easy.
Repeat your implementation intention out loud a few times and let it settle in. And that’s it! Either you’ll find yourself losing interest in your goal, or you’ll find yourself starting to take action.
Visualization won’t cause the universe to give you what you want, but it sure may motivate you to pursue what you want. Professor Oettingen shows us how: First, visualize the fabulous consequences of getting what you wish. Then, identify the obstacle you can control. Find one way around the obstacle. Then make it into an IF/THEN and say it out loud. With these four easy steps, the next time you want the chemical factory to explode, you won’t have to rely on magical thinking. Instead, you can take matters into your own hands.
Did you know that visualization can also help you level up your parenting skills? QDT's Mighty Mommy has details.
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