Any time is a good time to set and manage goals, but the beginning of a new year is often a trigger for people to assess where they’re heading.
We’ve all heard of “New Year’s resolutions,” perhaps you’ve even set some yourself. How successful were you in achieving them? The numbers for people “falling off the wagon” are telling - around 80% of resolutions have failed by February.
We know that the secret to making resolutions stick is not to make resolutions at all. Why? Resolutions tend to be ill-defined ideas such as “lose weight” or “work out more often.” They fail because there are no clear parameters, steps, or measurable outputs. The human brain is wired to prefer the same old routine, so it’s difficult to get results without a good plan.
Goal-setting is much more effective, particularly if those goals are clearly defined. Visualizing your way to those goals is a strategy that has been proven to be even more powerful. This is a great tool to add to your arsenal.
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Psychological research has shown that setting goals alone is not as effective as mentally rehearsing the actions you’ll take to achieve them. Mental rehearsal is a technique that has been used for many years by top athletes, but the application can work for non-sporting goals too.
According to one study, “... mental rehearsal can evoke sensory impressions that are more powerfully motivating than detached, abstract notions of ‘what it takes to succeed’ expressed in more conventional terms.”
In other words, if you mentally work through the sensory information that tells you you’re on track toward your goal, you can program your brain to succeed. What will you see, hear, feel, taste, or smell that indicates you’re on the right path?
The mind-body connection has been explored frequently in research, although it’s fair to say there is still a lot we don’t know. A study of healthy volunteers aimed to learn whether mental rehearsal made any difference in results for weight training. The results indicated that mental practices were almost as effective as physical practice, although doing both was more effective than either physical or mental training alone.
When people consider any kind of visualization, they often have a tendency to associate it with some kind of positive self-talk or creative techniques that make them feel good. The truth is, this misses the secret ingredient for how mental rehearsal helps to achieve goals (although I’m not saying that positive talk or self-belief don’t have value!). Research shows us that effective mental rehearsal primes the brain to take action.
Mental rehearsal is a type of “covert rehearsal” that triggers motor preparation in the brain, useful when you need to head into action to achieve your goals. This means that the neurons in your brain are active before you’ve even made a physical movement and this motor preparation brings benefits to our physical performance of an action.
The book The Psychology of Action extensively reviews different motivations and actions related to the successful achievement of goals. One aspect is how we make decisions based on potential risks or rewards that we picture:
“In a broad variety of events in everyday life, people exert substantial and very important control over what happens to them by exposing themselves - or not - to various possible outcomes. Often there is some opportunity to accept or refuse a challenge, which brings various contingencies with it. For example, a person may decide to apply to law school or not. Applying brings the chance that one may be able to embark on a profitable career, whereas not applying safeguards one against the risk of rejection.”
How you picture your goals has a powerful effect on real-life results. Considering the desired end goal is key. If you picture that positive outcome then contrast it with mental imagery of a different path, one that leads to consequences or conditions you’d like to avoid, research shows we feel more motivated toward making the right choices. You need to picture yourself taking necessary steps at every decision point to get the results that you’d like.
Further, a framework followed by goal-setting researchers indicates that stating the outcome in the positive is more effective. That means moving toward something you wish to have, rather than away from something you wish to avoid. The idea is to frame it so that the positive state is what’s on your mind, rather than the negative. For example, “I don’t want to be rejected” is framed as “I want to be accepted.”
We all face decision points in our lives - I’ve been through many and you have too. Decision points are pivotal moments in time when faced with a choice. For example, the moment before heading to bed when you get a hankering for a second bowl of ice cream, while working on a goal to cut back on sugar. Or let’s say you’ve just finished a long day at work. You’ve got fitness goals - do you opt to skip the gym on the way home due to being tired?
Part of the power of visualization or mental rehearsal is that you can plan in advance for these decision points. You know they’re coming - they happen to all of us. Picture yourself making the right decisions at those moments. Instead of caving to the ice cream, you brush your teeth and head to bed with a book. Instead of skipping the gym, you fortify yourself with a pre-workout drink, change into your gym clothes, and drive there immediately. By rehearsing in your mind for these decision points, you’ll follow through more often.
Imagining yourself doing something in the future prepares your mind to take action in the way you’ve imagined it. When you pair that with picturing yourself making the right decision and linking it to your desired future outcome, you can overcome one of the primary reasons why people fail at motivating themselves - temporal discounting.
Temporal discounting is the psychological phenomenon that makes pain or pleasure in the distant future seem less relevant than pain or pleasure that’s right here, in our faces at this moment. For example, people often abandon long-term plans in favor of more immediate reward in response to environmental cues or changes in their internal motivational state. They might want to cut back on sugar, but it’s difficult to say no in the moment when someone is offering a piece of cake. They might want to save for a deposit on a house, but the Black Friday sale, promising heavy discounts on a shiny new car is difficult to pass up.
When you picture each choice you make at a decision point as part of a path that leads to what you want (contrasting that with the outcome you don’t want), you can overcome some of the effects of temporal discounting. This is important because you will make the pain or pleasure seem more real and important now by visualizing the link between small, repeated decision points. Keep important long-term outcomes front of mind - that one piece of cake may not seem like a big deal right now, but if you take the cake at each decision point, your health or weight-loss goals may be pushed further away.
Download my tips here for effective visualization
If you’re working on goals for the New Year, you’re probably already familiar with common advice, such as making those goals clearly defined and actionable. It’s important to have a plan to get there, but that plan is more effective if you spend time visualizing your pathway.
Mental rehearsal primes your brain for taking the action you need to take. In the case of key decision points that come up along your path, that prior visualization can make a huge difference in helping to make the right decision. It helps you to see the link between what you do now and the achievement of that goal in the future.
Wishing you a happy and prosperous year! May you achieve the outcomes you desire.
Dr. Todd Snyder
Psychologist | Productivity Coach | Decision Consultant