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Science of behaviour: How to visualise your goals

In the first article of our Science of behaviour series, we introduced you to one of the most common obstacles that prevents us from achieving our goals – the present bias.  

In this instalment, we’ll look at a technique that can help us to overcome this bias, a way to “trick” our brains into making us goal achievers.

While we might see goal pursuit as a single pass-or-fail endeavour, it’s almost always a long and gradual process (which, yes, means more opportunities to trip up and fail). Often, we blame our failures on a lack of skill, time, or even strength – in this piece, we’ll look at the real reason we don’t fulfil our goals, one that comes way before we even attempt to pursue them.

Luckily for us, behavioural scientists have spent time investigating the process of goal achievement in depth, and have identified ways in which our brains act up, as well as techniques to help us get to where we want.

Visualisation

While the scientific investigation of goal pursuit is something of a nascent topic, its first appearance as a point of interest dates back to ancient Greece.

“First, have a definite, clear practical ideal; a goal, an objective. Second, have the necessary means to achieve your ends; wisdom, money, materials, and methods. Third, adjust all your means to that end”. (Aristotle)

Let’s focus on the first part of Aristotle’s famous quote, which refers to what is nowadays known as goal visualisation.

Visualisation is the first necessary step towards achieving one’s goals. Put simply, it is the process of picturing a future goal in detail before attempting to pursue it.

Although it might seem simple, very few of us do this effectively. Most of us end the process right at the very start. The common idea of “See it, believe it, achieve it” – although great in principle – undermines the scientific techniques linking the “seeing” with the “achieving” of goals. In other words, this is easier said than done. 

How can we visualise our goals?

As we mentioned in our previous article, one of the main reasons that visualisation is hard work is our human predisposition to present bias – the tendency to focus on the here-and-now, often prioritising our immediate desires at the expense of our future needs.

Researchers argue that while successful athletes, politicians, and businessmen are known to be effective visualisers, anyone can become one. Here’s how:

Change your perspective

One of the main difficulties of goal visualisation lies in the fact that each one of us has different selves. In this particular context, we’re talking about the separation between our present and future self.

Researchers tell us that, because of our present bias, we tend to think of ourselves in the future as separate individuals and imagine our future lives from the position of the external spectator. Have you ever pictured yourself succeeding at something but watched on from the audience? This perspective lets us detach from our future emotions and discount their importance. 

By adopting a first-person perspective when envisioning your goals, you can overcome present bias and align your present feelings with your future ones. This will not only prepare your brain for future endurance but will also allow you to make your future closer to your present – both emotionally and practically.

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Details matter

Secondly, our imagined futures are often nebulous and have a tendency to change. Because of our present bias, our thoughts of the future tend to be heavily influenced by recent events, therefore they vary according to our current mood, needs and desires. This constant change is what prevents us from laying down a solid plan, leading to procrastination and a consequent loss of motivation.

Scientists suggest that, in order to prevent this from happening, when envisioning our future goals we need to be as specific as possible. We need to ask ourselves precise questions and imagine our key objectives in detail (it doesn’t matter whether these will one day reflect reality, but they will help you to achieve your wider goals).

A study conducted by the Behavioural Insights Team, for example, showed that individuals who were prompted to imagine their future selves in more detail were more likely to engage in early retirement planning and make a start in achieving their goals. 

By making your future salient, you can overcome your present bias and plan your future more effectively, getting that little bit closer to your goals.

Process vs outcome visualisation

Another reason visualisation is more difficult than we’d want it to be is that two kinds exist: outcome visualisation and process visualisation.

Outcome visualisation refers to picturing an end goal once it has been obtained. Process visualisation, on the other hand, has to do with imagining the steps that are necessary to reach the goal. 

Most of us will tend to only engage in outcome visualisation when asked to imagine our future goals. This often leads to us giving up or quitting during the process because the hard work is not yet familiar to us. 

Researchers claim that both outcome and process visualisation are necessary to have a high chance of goal achievement. A great example comes from a number of studies conducted on athletes. Successful swimmer Michael Phelps, for instance, has been found to visualise every step he needs to take in order to achieve victory before an important race. This includes envisioning specific solutions for when things go wrong. 

Combining process and outcome visualisation can help you overcome your present bias, allowing you to be prepared, focused and ready to achieve your ultimate goals.

Why does visualisation work?

There’s a reason our brains are hardwired to dream about the future, and it’s the same reason that effective visualisation is key to achieving our goals.

We’re all familiar with the saying “practice makes perfect”. Well, visualisation allows you to essentially practice towards your goals without having to deal with the concrete consequences of getting things wrong. 

Brain imaging studies have shown that, when individuals are asked to visualise specific actions, the same areas in the brain activate as would do if you were actually performing the action. Basically, our neurons (brain cells) interpret the pictures in our mind as though they are occurring in real life. Repeated activation of these neurons creates solid pathways ingrained in our memories, which are similar to those that derive from continuous practice. Furthermore, these are reinforced by salience and intense emotional valence.

Of course, visualisation alone will not make us professional athletes or successful businessmen. It will, however, enable us to start using our running shoes or get started on our next project – one of the hardest steps towards achieving your goals. Now that you know one of the secrets of success, are you ready to start visualising your future?

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