Swimming pools were scarce on our Wyoming cattle ranch so I never learned how to swim. That didn’t pose a problem until I traveled to the Caribbean and wanted to scuba dive. Little did I know how I’d need to visualize success if I wanted to make that dive!
One of the requirements of scuba diving certification was to descend ten feet under water, take off my mask and mouthpiece, and put them back on again. What if I lost my mask? Since I couldn’t swim, I was afraid I would drown in those few moments underwater without oxygen.
The night before the test, I practiced how to visualize my success as I mimicked how I would take off the mask, hold it in my hand, replace it, and hold my breath. I visualized the sequence dozens of times. When it came time for my scuba dive certification, I performed the underwater portion exactly as I had visioned it.
I could visualize my success and point to solid science to explain why it worked. Achieving my goal was about more than work and discipline — it was also about physiology. When we learn how to visualize success, it takes a hazy idea and turns it into a clear goal. It’s more than a quick fix.
Here are 3 easy ways you can learn how to visualize your success:
1. Be very intentional with the way you talk to yourself
Researchers conclude that the way in which we talk to ourselves about stress and threatening situations influences our neurobiological response to it. When we’re confronted with an obstacle or roadblock, very often we respond with words rooted in anger, fear, or anxiety. For example, our response may be:
- “Oh my God, this is awful.”
- “I can’t do this.”
- “It’s more than I can handle.”
When we express these negative emotions, our body begins to release cortisol, a stress hormone. Your negative response does nothing but increase your stress levels.
Special Forces soldiers are trained to experience the same fear that they would experience if they were captured, interrogated, or tortured. Fear from those kinds of experiences causes cortisol to spike as much as in a patient undergoing heart surgery — about 20 times the normal rate.
Soldiers who successfully finish the training were found to have elevated levels of another hormone, neuropeptide Y, which is a natural relaxant.
Research estimates that we say 300-1,000 words to ourselves per minute. We learn how to visualize our success when we intentionally choose positive responses to our circumstances so we can override the emotional part of our limbic brain system that regulates anxiety.
How To Make It Work For You: Self-talk can shift the way you see your stressors. If you notice that you’ve expressed fear to yourself, “Oh my God, this is awful,” change your self-talk. Instead, visualize your success and say, “I know what to do here.” Your positive response will produce more neuropeptide Y.
2. Give your brain a detailed image of your goal
We learn how to visualize our success when we look at ourselves in a different way when confronted with a challenge. When we learn how to visualize our success, our brain stores that information as a victory. Our brain releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine. This is the chemical that becomes active when we encounter situations that are linked to rewards from the past.
Dopamine enables us to not only see rewards, but to move toward those rewards as well. This is the chemical that’s released whenever you think about your favorite meal, or open a new present.
A Harvard study has demonstrated that our brain cannot tell the difference between a visualized image of our success and reality. However, it can tell the difference between a visualized image of success and a fantasy.
Fantasies can actually lessen our chance for success because our brain looks at fantasies as a threat! If people fantasize about their future, they are less prepared and more stressed when things don’t workout they way they had hoped.
How To Make It Work For You: Visualize how you will succeed in various situations you might encounter in the future. Imagine how you will react and respond when criticized by a colleague. Predict your performance in the morning meeting. Rehearse your response to situations/conversation that might come up. Prepare for the hard questions that will come from your boss.
3. Write your goals on paper
If it’s difficult for you to visualize what success would look like for you, consider ways you could write your goals on paper. It’s often easier to communicate goals into words where you have quick access for on-the-go inspiration.
Pen and paper visuals can help us envision images of the bigger picture. Those cues help to better store and retrieve information because our brain is more of an image processor than word processor.
According to science, two things happen when we write things on paper. First, we store information that pertains to our goal in a place that is easy to access and review at any time.
Second, writing on paper improves the way our brain encodes the information. Encoding is the process by which the things we see and think travel to our brain’s hippocampus where it’s analyzed. The brain decides what gets stored in long-term memory and what is discarded. When we write our goals on paper, there is a much greater chance the details of our goals are remembered.
How To Make It Work For You: We’ve become so reliant upon our computers that we upload everything via our keyboard to Evernote. Look at a journal, or even a piece of paper, as a productivity tool. Write down your goal and prioritize next steps. When you prioritize, it forces the brain to interact with information rather than simply react to it. It also forces different parts of the brain (emotional and cerebral) to interact with each other.
I want to leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor. He talks about the power of visualization:
“There’s one reason why I’m here today. What kept me alive in a situation where others had given up hope and died was the dream that someday I’d be here telling you how I survived the concentration camps. I’ve never been here before. I’ve never seen any of you before. I’ve never given this speech before. But in my dreams I’ve stood before you in this room and said these words a thousand times.”