Does visualizing your goals really work?

Does Visualising Your Goals Work Jpeg

We know the saying, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. But what is it that makes someone resilient? Is resilience a skill that we can learn or is it just something that some of us are born with? Why is it that visualization can actually prevent us from achieving our goals?

The conventional wisdom is that visualizing success is motivational and helps you to succeed. But studies have come back with conflicting results when this has been tested scientifically. It turns out that in some circumstances visualizing a successful outcome can actually be de-motivational.

This is because visualizing success might be a pleasant activity but the problem is that our brain fools us into thinking that we have actually achieved the outcome we wanted. Just visualizing success actually gives many of the rewards of the success itself. You have probably experienced this for yourself - that warm fuzzy feeling you get when thinking about something good in the future.

 Therefore we become less instead of more motivated.

But wait, what about the mixed results on visualization studies?

As it turns out there is a visualization technique that is extremely successful at helping us achieve our goals. This technique is analogous to contingency planning and works something like: Visualizing the difficult/ challenging aspects and obstructions and visualizing how we will overcome and circumvent these obstacles.

An example: One study involved patients recovering from hip replacement operations. The recovery period is long and painful and participants that adhere to the exercise regime have much better outcomes. But the exercises are painful. In the study the participants that were the most successful at sticking to the exercise regime were those that visualized what they would do when the pain became unbearable. Mostly this involved planning techniques such as: 

·       Stopping for a few minutes before trying again or,

·       Temporarily lowering intensity or,

·       Persisting for an extra 5 minutes.

Then when the participants encountered the difficult part of the exercise instead of having to rely on their willpower to continue going they could execute a pre-formulated plan of action.

What separates tough people from everyone else is that when things get difficult the tough carry on going when other people stop. Stopping is the surest way to fail. But the great news is that you can use the visualization technique above to make your backup plan. Then you will look like a tough guy by executing your contingency plan when the going gets tough.

One place where I’ve used this technique personally is to reducing my sugar intake. I’ve got a sweet tooth, which was fine until my metabolism slowed down. When I was twenty it didn’t matter what I ate – I couldn’t put on weight. But now I have to watch what I eat really carefully and my sweet tooth is a real problem.

I’m surrounded by temptation with cakes, biscuits and chocolates all around. Most of the day I can use a little bit of will power to ignore these but the most difficult part of the day for me is the mid afternoon slump. This is when it doesn’t matter what my weight loss goals are or what good intentions I set out with at the beginning of the day. The immediate urge to have something sweet becomes pretty much unbearable. Without diminishing what must be a very difficult problem, if you’ve ever tried to give up sweet foods then you will have sympathy for drug addicts because sugar is like the crack cocaine of food!

Resisting a sweet treat really just becomes an exercise in delay – at some point in the afternoon my willpower will run out and I’ll succumb. But what I do now is that I’ve got a simple plan. When I hit the slump and get the sugar cravings I have a cup of peppermint tea. It gives sufficient distraction and perks me up. And it works incredibly well, from having a chocolate bar almost every afternoon to almost none.

So what does this mean to you as a manager?

  • Firstly with your staff: When you talk about what they are going to do, spend a little time to ask them how they are going to do it. This is applicable for assigning and delegating work but also for performance based feedback and many other management techniques
  • Secondly with yourself: Being a professional manager requires that you constantly develop your own skills. Change is accelerating and standing still means being over taken. Most of us have good intentions to get better at something but the realities of life keep on interfering in our self-development. There’s always an interruption, something more important or not enough time. This is exactly the sort of problem that YOUR Power Hour TM was designed to solve – for the single most effective technique to ensure that you develop your skills, see this link: Your Power Hour


So in summary to be someone who is tough, all that you need is a contingency plan. When the going gets tough, the tough execute plan B.

A side note on why willpower alone is not sufficient.

Sometimes through sheer will power alone you can carry on going and break through obstacles. But did you know that your willpower is a limited resource?

Yes, willpower is important. Clearly we need willpower to follow the courses of action we set for ourselves. Yet, willpower alone is not sufficient to get us to form those habits.

According to psychologist Roy Baumeister, willpower is like a muscle and it gets fatigued when you use it over and over again. Every time you make a decision, it’s like doing another rep in the gym. And similar to how your muscles get tired at the end of a workout, the strength of your willpower fades as you make more decisions.

Think about a typical day. You use your willpower to get out of bed when your alarm goes off. Then you have to expend even more as you weigh the options between a healthy breakfast or just grabbing a muffin or fast-food on the way to work. You then have to deal with the traffic on the commute and use your willpower to keep from getting mad at the guy who just cut you off. Then at work you force yourself to take the first steps on that new project, while also trying to hold your tongue about a coworker who isn’t pulling their weight. And we haven’t even made it to lunch yet! Is it any wonder that we can’t sustain this every day?

This is why habits can’t be formed from brute force alone. You’ll fail if your method relies solely on your willpower. You’re human, and sooner or later, you’ll have a day where you’re feeling tired and lacking in energy. 

Going back to the study on patients recovering from hip replacement operations - it’s not unlimited willpower that leads to a speedy recovery. It’s about deciding how much willpower you have and then using planning techniques to create a balance.


How do you keep going to achieve your goals? Do you have any questions, comments or tips? Please share with us in the comments below.

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