A 5-step guide to using visualization to reach your goals with less effort

by | Sep 6, 2022

In this month’s blog, I’m going to share a powerful mental technique with you known as “visualization”. In psychology, visualization is simply the process of creating a visual image in your mind. When used properly, this technique can give you an advantage in reaching nearly any of your personal and professional goals, and can help you overcome any challenges you’re facing.

I think this is one of the techniques every human being should know about. One, because it’s relatively easy and everyone has access to it; and two, because we don’t use our natural visualization capacity properly and this creates big mental and emotional challenges in our lives. This is a technique used by some of the most successful people in attaining more confidence, mental resilience, and momentum towards their goals. This is why I want you to know about it and use it strategically to improve your personal and professional outcomes.

Why visualization is important:

The reason it’s important to strategically use visualization is because of 3 important facts about your brain and how it works:

1) A big portion of your day is already spent imagining your future

Our ability to imagine our lives and our future is an amazing capacity that we all have as human beings. We naturally visualize and represent things in our mind in our daily lives. Research has shown that imagining our future consumes about 1/3rd of our waking time. This means about 33% of your day is spent imagining the future. This is what allows you to better evaluate, plan, prepare, and have a level of control in your life. This also means, what you feel, think, and behave at any given moment is significantly shaped by how you’ve pictured your future.

2) Your brain reacts to your imagination very similar to how it reacts to your reality

It might seem strange at first, but your brain does not have much of a distinction between your imagination and your reality. This is why when you worry about a possible negative event happening in the future, by for example thinking that you’re not going to be able to meet a deadline, your body goes into a stress response. Here, the exact same hormones (adrenalin and cortisol) are released, your pupils dilate, your heart beats faster, and your muscles tense up. Nothing has happened yet in real life, but you feel anxious and quickly look at your calendar to confirm the deadline and go through countless sleepless nights working day-and-night to meet it. In sum, what you imagined as possibly happening (missing a deadline) directed your body’s reaction, your thoughts, your emotions, and your behaviour.

This is really important to know because often times, when we’re not careful, we tend to imagine negative possible scenarios in our minds. This creates many challenges for us mentally, emotionally, and performance wise. From leading to depression and anxiety, to constant stress, and maladaptive coping behaviours that are counterproductive to the kind of life we want to live. Can you relate? When experiencing anxiety for example, often times we’re rehearsing feared scenarios that can possibly happen in the future that rarely serve us, and often times debilitate us from taking the right course of action and from feeling our best.

3) Your brain strives for familiarity

Another important thing to know about your brain is that it tries to reproduce what it already knows – things that are familiar to you, things you’ve seen before, and what you believe to be true. This is partly why children often grow up to be like their parents, even if they didn’t like a particular behaviour/habit. This is also partly why it’s so hard to go beyond our comfort zone or break patterns. What you see helps shape what you believe, and on a subconscious level, they both weigh heavily in directing your behaviour.

All this to say, your imagination and your ability to visualize your future already plays a huge role in your life. And it’s great news for you! Why? Because this means that you can strategically use it to improve the outcomes in your life. In fact, this is what many successful people do to overcome their challenges, reach their biggest goals, and enhance how they feel to get more out of life.

Who has used visualization to reach high levels of success?

In sports, visualization has been used as a powerful technique to enhance performance for decades. Muhammad Ali famously said “If my mind can conceive it and my heart can believe it – then I can achieve it”. But he’s not the only one who used visualization to his advantage.

Michael Phelps who holds the all-time records for Olympic gold medals, has been using the power of visualization since he was a teenager to prepare for his success. Emily Cook, is another three-time Olympian (amongst many more), who has used visualization to help with her performance.

Aside from sports, it was Oprah Winfrey who said “Anything you can imagine, you can create.” She’s a big advocate of using visualization to reach goals, and attributes her success partly to the consistent practice of it.

Arnold Schwarzenegger also used visualization to achieve how he wanted to look. Later on, he used the same technique to succeed in politics and acting. Other highly successful and influential people include Albert Einstein, Walt Disney, and Will Smith who have also took advantage of the visualization technique.

Whether in sports, business, innovation, politics, entertainment, or in personal success, many people have leveraged this amazing human ability we have to their advantage.

Personally, the power of visualization has helped me overcome some of my own biggest challenges and has created positive outcomes in nearly every aspect of my life. For example, it’s helped me build more confidence when going into important meetings and during presentations. I simply imagine beforehand having an amazing meeting. I envision myself being confident and giving lots of value to people. I have also used visualization to help overcome my PTSD and learn to relax. It’s helped me get higher paying contracts, and it’s even helped me change my relationship patterns.

What the scientific research has found on the visualization technique

Decades of research has shown that visualization impacts cognitive and psychomotor processes in the brain. A meta-analysis, which is a study that combines the result of other studies on the topic, found that using mental practice has a significant and relatively large benefit to your performance. They also interestingly found that using “internal” imagery produced a larger effect than the use of “external” imagery. This means that using mental images through visualizing things in your mind can be superior to other forms of imagery in increasing your performance.

Another study in the journal of Neuropsychologia found that imagining to move certain parts of your body almost trains the muscles as much as the actual movement. Although overall studies of mental practice effects have shown that physical practice is often superior to mental practice on motor skill, research suggests that mental practice produces superior learning compared with no practice at all, and the combination of mental and physical practice appears to be maximally effective for honing skills and making progress.

Given these findings, and its successful use in sports, the medical context, the military, and with police officers, it is not surprising that visualization techniques have also been shown to be effective in other professions and areas of life as well. It is increasingly being used by mental health workers, companies, entrepreneurs, and high achievers wishing to make the most of their time and energy.

For example, research has also shown that visualization, can also help improve your problem-solving capabilities. This is done by creating mental images of the event in detail.

Visualization has also been used to improve mental health outcomes and enhance emotions. A meta-analysis combining 63 experimental studies from different research areas found that imagining the future has a moderate to strong impact on how you feel. Interestingly, they also found that visualizing your future has a stronger influence on your emotions compared to remembering the past.

This is great news as we don’t have control over our past, but we do have control over how we envision our future. Visualization is used in the advancement of clinical applications for mental health outcomes, and recommended by experts for improving mental and emotional well-being.

Overall, the positive benefits of using a visualization technique can include:

  • improving psychological readiness and mindset
  • enhancing performance
  • improving motor function
  • enhancing motivation
  • improving problem-solving capacity
  • enhance learning
  • increasing confidence
  • improving mental health
  • increasing positive emotions like happiness, and reducing uncomfortable emotions like anxiety
  • improving coping strategies in difficult situations

But you won’t fully understand the benefits unless you try it for yourself!

5-step guide to using visualization to reach your goals

There are many ways to use visualization to your benefit. I will share with you an easy, yet highly effective method below.

Step 1: Begin by identifying a specific goal that’s important to you. It can be personal or professional.

Step 2: Take a moment to relax. Loosen your forehead, jaw, neck, and shoulders. Take a few deep belly breaths to get yourself into a calm state. You don’t want to visualize when feeling anxious or stressed. Try to be in an emotionally positive state (for example, calm, happy, grateful) as much as possible because this when your brain is ready to learn, and partly what it will use to recreate the situation.

If you’ve tried visualization in the past but have not gotten the results you’ve hoped for, this may be step you missed.

Step 3: Visualize the situation in as much detail as possible. Engage all of your senses from a first-person perspective. This means visually imagine the situation, what it would look like, feel like (physically and emotionally), smell like. What do you hear? Try to engage all of your senses and play it like a movie in your mind. You may even want to physically touch and put yourself in those situations (for example, writing yourself a cheque for a certain amount, lock hands with yourself when envisioning yourself holding hands with your future partner, or rent your desired car and feel into it as if it’s yours). Feel into the emotions and engage all of your senses.

The trick is to imagine the situation in the present moment, as if it’s already happened/happening.

Step 4: Rehearse the situation in your mind exactly as you want it to unfold. Imagine the successful process and positive outcome you want. For example in feeling confident, prepared, relaxed, and in control, and really allow yourself to feel it. Refrain from language that’s avoidant (for example, “I don’t feel insecure” or “I don’t feel stressed”). Imagine yourself executing the desired behaviour in detail, the way you would want it to unfold. What are you doing? What are you saying? How are you feeling? Allow yourself to feel the positive emotions that come with it. It’s in the feeling that you will gain the most out of the visualization technique. Eliminate any doubts that arise as you successfully accomplish the goal in your mind. Relax into it and enjoy the ride.

Step 5: Repeat this practice consistently and frequently. You may choose to write down, and even voice record your experience. Make sure that you do this in present tense. For example, “I feel so confident giving a presentation in front of 10,000 people”, or “I feel calm and really enjoying myself on this date”. And through positive language, meaning focusing on what you want, instead of what you don’t want to happen. Use your visualization daily. If you choose to voice record, it makes it extra convenient to replay every night before you go to sleep for better results.

Advanced tip: mental practice sessions of less than 1 minute or between 10 and 15 minutes have been shown to produce larger effects than sessions of 3-5 minutes. So use these timeframes to your advantage!

Do not underestimate this exercise. Be patient and give it time. You will be amazed how much less effort, time and energy it will take to attain your goals. In addition to doing the actual work it takes to achieve your goal, this exercise will help you have the right mindset and momentum to succeed. It will help you overcome some of the mental and emotional barriers that can naturally occurs through your past experiences, your fears, and in doing things that are new and uncomfortable.

Make sure to incorporate strategic visualization into any important goal you have, and towards any mental challenges you may be facing in reaching your goal.

Let me know how it goes! I’m happy to hear from you. If you have any questions or comments, let me know in the comment section below.

With lots of love,

Leyla Bagheri
Leyla Bagheri
Founder of LB Well-Being Performance Inc.
Well-Being and Performance Coach
Psychology Research Advisor

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