We all want to be better at the things that we do, right?
Well, the general advice for improving at anything involves mostly learning, practice, coaching and time.
But there is another factor that many of us overlook and that is the mind.
I’ve always been a firm believer in the power of the mind.
Not the Napoleon-Hill-think-and-grow-rich type of bullsh*t that is spouted and peddled by so many of the now ubiquitous, self-proclaimed motivational and leadership ‘gurus’ out there.
You know, the ones who claim they can make you rich and successful if you buy their books and courses?
The ones who have only become rich and successful by selling other people systems to get rich and successful, rather than actually applying the so-called principles they preach to achieve success in another (genuine) area of business.
No not them.
I’m talking about the self-belief cultivated by elite sportsmen and women to gain that crucial edge over their competitors, when the difference between winning and losing is fractions of seconds or inches.
Olympic champions. Record-holders. Winners. The best of the very best.
The self-belief and vision generated by top business people and leaders – the people who actually achieve stuff.
I’m talking about something that many of these high-achievers have in common, which is the use of a mental rehearsal technique known as visualization.
And what’s great about visualization is: it’s a technique anyone can use.
Yep – that includes you!
What is Visualization?
Visualization is basically mental imagery. There is nothing spiritual or fantastic or other-worldly about it. We are all capable of doing it, but very few of us ever bother to use it or at least, use it effectively.
The principle behind it is that visualizing a desired outcome provides the opportunity to see and feel the possibility of it happening in the future. This can help motivate you to achieve that goal.
Muhammad Ali, arguably the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time, was known to have used a type of visualization technique he termed “Future History”, where he would create vivid images of himself at the end of fight having just won.
In the late 1970s/early ‘80s, Soviet athletes started using visualisation in preparation for major competition and this was about the time sports psychology started becoming more popular in the West.
These days, visualization is considered to be fairly ‘mainstream’ and used as an important part of training by many elite sports men and women globally.
Track and field athletes, bobsledders, basketball players, skiers, golfers, tennis players, gymnasts – you name the sport and I can guarantee you can find that the top-performers use some form of visualization technique to help them get that competitive edge.
It has not only been used by successful elite athletes – professional public speakers and business people have also been getting in on the act for a very long time too.
Visualization can create confidence in executing tasks and focus in achieving your goals. It can enable us to rehearse situations in our mind whenever we choose. So you can practise even when you’re not physically practising.
How Does Visualization Actually Work?
The sub-conscious mind is very open to suggestion, especially when thoughts are repeated often and consistently.
Research shows that visualization works because mental imagery impacts many of the cognitive processes in the brain, so when you imagine going through an activity, the brain sends electrical signals comparable to when you are actually doing that activity in real life.
The brain doesn’t know the difference between the reality and imagination and so neural pathways are built in the same way as when you actually do that activity.
For example, a basketball player visualizing a successful three-point shot over and over, is building the neural pathways required to successfully take that shot, so when he comes to actually make that shot for real, the brain is already prepared for it and so this should improve the chances of the body completing that shot successfully, because the mind has already done it thousands of times over.
Ok, so elite athletes use this, but what about those of us that are not elite athletes? What if we’re not trying to score three-pointers on the buzzer? How can visualization enhance our lives?
Well, in addition to elite athletes, many businessmen and professional speakers use visualisation to help them become successful or deliver awesome presentations. It has also been used therapeutically to help people cope with psychological diagnoses such as anxiety and depression.
Essentially, visualization is a technique that can be used by all of us.
It’s all about the connection between the mind and the body, the connection between our thoughts and our behaviours.
It’s about rehearsing success. It’s about laying down that ‘Future History’ that Muhammad Ali talked about in the form of new neural pathways in your brain, which prepares the body to act in a way that is consistent with how we imagined it.
If you have a goal – and it can be any kind of goal, from earning more money, to nailing an interview, or losing weight, quitting smoking, overcoming a fear or bench-pressing twice your own body weight – visualizing success can help you achieve that goal.
Be clear though, visualization is not the “just-think-it-and-it-will-happen” bullsh*t mentioned earlier.
No, this is something that needs to be used in conjunction with actual activity. So, if your goal is to lose weight, no amount of picturing a new, lithe and toned you is ever going to make your body change if all you do the rest of the day is sit around on the sofa in your underpants, eating pizza and donuts.
It needs to be a combination of action plus visualization.
How to Practise Visualization
Here is a simple visualization drill you can do to get you started. Of course, you can use this technique to visualise success in almost any task, discipline or activity, but let’s start with delivering an up-coming presentation – how would you go about using visualization to help you nail it?
Ok, so let’s lay it out in steps.
Before you get started, it is best to make sure that you are in a place (both mentally and physically) where you are calm, relaxed and free from distractions. Although you can do this exercise anywhere, you will find it is easier and more effective if you are in a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed.
Step #1. Establish your goal
Let’s use a work-related example. You’ve been asked to deliver a presentation to your company about a new strategy to grow sales in your region. The strategy is sound and you want to deliver it in a clear, charismatic and convincing way. The more specific this can be, the better.
The goals also need to be realistic. Your oratory skills are probably not on a par with Malcolm X, so don’t set your sights on matching him. Instead, focus on delivering the absolute best you can do. Be true to yourself and if you are generally a more reserved person, don’t try to be over-the-top animated, crazy and funny.
Think more along the lines of being the best possible version of you that you can be.
To move back to a sporting analogy, if you are a tennis player and you are trying to visualize your next match and crushing your opponent, it is no good picturing yourself as Peter Federer or Serena Williams, because you are not setting standards that are in line with your reality.
Instead, you need to focus on the aspects you can make happen, like the best serves you’ve ever hit and the most accurate backhand.
Step #2. Play it in your mind
You need to create a detailed, sensually-rich image of that goal already attained. In other words, create a mental “scene” of your desired outcome as if you can already do it and visualize it as happening right now. And it needs to be as real as what’s currently around you.
If you can’t do this easily, you need to keep practising. The brutal reality is, if you cannot picture yourself achieving a goal, the chances are you won’t.
Ensure that you visualize from the first-person perspective and not from a spectator’s point of view or like a movie. It has to be reality seen through your own eyes.
This is an important point. Remember, you are inhabiting the visualized state and you are mentally rehearsing your future, not watching somebody else’s.
So, you’ve delivered the best presentation you’ve ever delivered. You were articulate. You were amusing. You were captivating and charismatic.
You simply crushed it.
In your imagination, what do you see? Maybe people nodding appreciatively and admiringly. Is your boss smiling? Colleagues offering fist-bumps? Are you being inundated with congratulatory text messages? Of course not – all good presenters know to turn off their phones before they start!
What can you smell? Your cologne? Coffee? The scent of the fragrances used in the building?
What can you touch? Do you feel a laser pointer in your hand? Is it metal or plastic? A microphone? Your notes?
What else can you see in the picture?
What do you hear? Applause and cheering? Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best” blaring through the speakers?
Anyway, you get the idea. Include as many sensual details as you can and create the scene exactly as you wish it to play out.
It might help to write down these things first, so that you have a clearer picture of what you want the end result to look like.
Step #3. Do it again and again. And again.
Aristotle (apparently) said that we are what we repeatedly do. So repetition is your friend and will help you to add power to your visualization. Experiencing the scene you create in your mind several times a day from morning until night will help to blend the experience into your everyday reality and your brain will ultimately begin to treat it as reality.
The beauty of visualization is that you can practise and repeat any time, wherever you are. And you can do this safely, without the fear of failure in the real world. Made a mistake during the visualisation? Simply stop and re-imagine it successfully!
By correcting mistakes during visualization, you’re programming your mind to help you overcome any obstacles fluidly and as an accepted part of the process of success down the line.
Step #4. Positive Energy
You need to be positive and open to believing this is going to work. It’s a bit like hypnosis – if you resist it, it won’t work. You can also boost this with positive statements, postive emotions and affirmations.
Remove any negativity or doubt in your mind.
The results need to be in a positive setting, rather than a negative one. For example, thinking in terms like, “I don’t want to be fat” or “I don’t want to be poor” or “I don’t wan’t to stumble over my words” is not effective. Instead you need to focus on positive statements like “I am slim” and “I am financially secure” and “I enunciate clearly.”
When you’re doing this, you should suspend disbelief and reinforce experiencing the feeling that what you desire is real, good, possible and enjoyable as it is already happening in the moment – right here. Right now.
Step #5. Put in the work
As mentioned earlier, visualization doesn’t guarantee success and it certainly isn’t a substitute for real-life rehearsal, so you need to put in the work too. Apologies to all those looking for shortcuts to success. The reality is that there aren’t many of them, I’m afraid.
If you’re goal is to deliver 30 minutes of pure oratory awesomeness in a presentation, you need to practise and rehearse. Learn the slides, learn your lines, practise the delivery and work on your posture and body language. This, in conjunction with the mental rehearsal of visualization, will give you the best chance of achieving the desired outcome.
But relying on visualization alone is unlikely to produce the results you desire. (Although, having said that, there are some studies suggesting that visualization alone can produce some improvement.)
Consistency of practice is also an important factor to consider. Doing 10 minutes’ visualization once and forgetting about it will achieve nothing. Likewise, if you try to do it several times a day, every day, you might get burned out and bored with it. To begin with, try a couple of times a day, 3-4 times a week and see how you go with that. Aim for consistent quality, rather than quantity.
As you are probably aware, the mind is an incredibly powerful tool and whether you are conscious of it or not, your thoughts do shape your reality. Visualization requires some discipline, practice and tenacity, but it is a proven technique that can help you achieve your goals in life. Go give it a try!
Have you had any successes with visualization? If so, we’d love to hear your experiences!