Can visualization techniques help us see into the future?
I think they can.
Better, I think they can help us shape that future the way we want it to turn out. Done well, visualization techniques are a great tool for simulating future experiences before they happen so we can influence the outcomes. Here’s one way they helped me just last week, and several ways they can help you.
Awake With My Eyes Closed
I was lying in bed in a hotel room in Hawaii. My eyes were closed, but I was fully awake. It was the night before the Ironman Triathlon.
It’s hard to sleep on those nights before a big effort, so I was using the time to do some visualization exercises. It’s a good thing I did.
I had been mentally walking myself though the details of what I would do the next morning, step by step, when I realized I had forgotten something. Forty-five minutes before the starting gun, I like to chug one last bottle of energy drink, but I had neglected to get one ready. Missing that drink would be like starting a road trip with the gas tank half empty – not a good plan.
Practicing visualization techniques and discovering that omission may have saved my race. In fact, there are many benefits that come from improving our visualization skills
One of the things that visualization does is that it can actually stimulate the same brain regions that activate when we are really doing the thing we imagine – it becomes a kind of rehearsal. In fact, research also indicates that visualization techniques can boost confidence, enhance mood, help the healing process as well as have a positive effect on performance of cognitive and physical tasks.
We can use visualization as a powerful tool to improve performance on just about anything we put our minds to. How can we put it into action?
Start by making time to do it.
Five Visualization Techniques
Find a quiet space, relax, take a few deep breaths, and then try these different approaches to visualizing the success we seek.
1. Go to the theater. One technique Jack Canfield suggests is to imagine sitting in a movie theater. Let the lights go down and the movie start, and it’s us on screen executing everything perfectly. Go through the entire event, scene by scene, and in as much detail as possible. Where are we? Who else is there? What will happen first, second, and third?
And don’t forget to add in the audio – traffic, conversation, cheering. As we create the environment in our minds, and imagine ourselves performing well in it, we are rehearsing our brain to help make it so. We may also discover something left out that we need to correct.
2. Get on stage. As Jennice Vilhauer Ph.D. notes in her Psychology Today post, imagining the event through the eyes of someone else can work, but it can be even more effective if we mentally place ourselves in the scene. Where are we? How did we get there? What are we wearing? How will we stand or sit? What expression is on our face?
And don’t forget feelings; it’s even OK to acknowledge feeling a little anxious, but also visualize conquering those fears and performing well.
Think through every step from how we will enter the room or open the meeting, to how we’ll connect with the people around us. The mental rehearsal will help us do it the way we imagine on the day of the event.
3. Go to the set. Another approach is to actually go to the place where things will happen, put yourself physically in the position of what you plan to do, and walk through it. Look for visual cues that will help you stay on track.
The day before the race, I went down to the pier and spent a lot of time mentally rehearsing what I would do and when, all while walking through the physical layout of the area where we would transition from swim to bike, and later from bike to marathon. It worked; on race day my transition times were as fast as the winners in my age category (now I just have to work on running a little faster…)
Visualize the unexpected. As part of this process, it’s a good idea to imagine not just when everything is going perfectly, but also what to do when things start going wrong. Two parts to this, and the first is the most important.
4. How we will react. This is the emotional knee-jerk that comes from getting a Zag when we were expecting a Zig. What we don’t want to do is blow a gasket, or start spinning rapidly like the Tasmanian Devil. When that happens, our emotions take over, may infect others, and we lose the ability to think rationally to solve the problem.
Instead, we should expect that things might go wrong, so that if they do, we are mentally prepared – “I knew this was a possibility!” Talk yourself through how you’ll acknowledge, “Ok, this is a problem, but we can handle it.” Then think about staying calm in the crisis, taking a few deep breaths, smiling, and then pausing to think through your response.
5. How we will respond. Now that we’ve visualized how we will keep our cool, we can activate our thinking brain to visualize the next steps. Think about the back-up plans, alternate routes, and spare supplies and how we’ll get to them. Consider who to bring into the conversation, and how we’ll make decisions that minimize damage and maximize the chances of our success.
Out on the race course, I’ve seen professional triathletes have an emotional melt down and quit a race because they hadn’t planned for the possibility of a flat tire. And I’ve seen others who handled the same event with such grace that you hardly knew there was a problem before they were back in the race again. I’m sure a big part of the difference is how they used visualization techniques.
Visualization Techniques – The Takeaway
Back in the hotel in Hawaii, once I realized I had forgotten something significant, a quick text to my kids who were out and about solved the problem. When I got up at 3:30 the next morning, there was a bottle in the refrigerator waiting for me.
As a result of using visualization techniques, I slept better before the race and started the day with greater confidence, knowing I was as ready as I could be.
For whatever event you are preparing for, set aside some time for using some of these visualization techniques, and you’ll be that much closer to shaping the future that you desire.
To help with that, here’s a Visualization Cue Sheet to help you think through the process.