Visualizing what you want and identifying why you want it is necessary, but usually not sufficient for actually achieving goals. Getting clear and imagining what success looks, sounds, smells, and feels like is an essential part of motivation, setting the course, and recognizing when we’ve arrived; but it is only the first step.
The seminal work of Gabriele Oettingen, Rethinking Positive Thinking, explores the effect of visualization on the achievement of goals. Data from the extensive studies she conducted show that not only is visualization not enough, but relying on it too much can actually lower the likelihood of achieving the goal visualized. Not to worry, she also found that a technique she calls “Mental Contrasting,” when used in conjunction with visualization, dramatically increases the likelihood of goal achievement. Mental Contrasting is the process of imagining the obstacles to achieving a goal; that is, the obstacles to carrying out a step or steps in the action plan put together for the purpose of the achieving said goal. As an example, let’s start with a common goal: losing weight. Study participants who spent time imagining obstacles to sticking with a diet after they visualized themselves having reached their weight loss goal and all the benefits they would enjoy as their new svelte selves without also spending time imagining obstacles actually were less likely to reach their weight loss goals. In other words, those who visualized the desired result without also employing Mental Contrasting actually lowered their chances of losing weight. Oettingen’s data show that visualizers who fail to also use Mental Contrasting would have actually been more likely to be successful if they hadn’t visualized their goal achievement at all. It seems that the visualization is itself enough of a reward, and as such, not particularly motivating. On the other hand, participants who spent the same amount of time and energy visualizing weight loss success and then visualized things like off-plan food temptation in the face of stress and fatigue drastically increased their chances for success.
The research of Peter Gollwitzer (Oettingen’s husband) revealed a strategy for overcoming obstacles he calls “Implementation Intention.” Employing this technique makes the chances for successful goal achievement even more likely. Implementation intentions are proactive contingency plans. They usually take the form of if-then constructs. For example, if it is 8 a.m. and a week day, then I will write in my journal for one hour. Another example: if I am tempted to eat a piece of candy, then I will eat a piece of fruit or phone my sister for support. Implementation Intentions are pre-commitments; they are decisions made ahead of time and as such, don’t tend deplete willpower, which, as research has shown us, is finite.
Mental Contrasting and Implementation Intentions are complementary techniques that, when used together, make goal achievement almost inevitable. The process then becomes 1) Visualize the achievement of a goal as vividly as possible, magnifying the image and making it as sensorial as you can. 2) Create an action plan. 3) Employ Mental Contrasting by imagining the possible obstacles to executing your action plan. 4) Create implementation intentions to address those obstacles.
In a previous post titled “Hold Back to Leap Forward” I discuss the importance of imagining big, inspirational goals, but creating and executing plans that move you toward your goal incrementally. Darren Hardy, former publisher of Success magazine, writes extensively about this in The Compound Effect. Small, incremental activities that support the achievement of a goal applied consistently over time works. The tortoise consistently beats the hare. Here’s one more tip to add to the recipe of goal achievement: once a goal has been defined and an action plan established it is better to focus on the process (each step in the action plan) than the result. This helps prevent discouragement and often its result, giving up. Defining success as executing an action plan and rewarding that execution helps us keep on keeping on. Indeed, such persistence is typically what our biggest goals require.
Make the most of your efforts. Take advantage of the wisdom born of extensive research. In summary, to succeed in reaching your goals: 1) clearly define your goal and choose something that inspires and excites you; 2) visualize your desired results; 3) create an action plan that is incremental; 4) employ Mental Contrasting; 5) develop some Implementation Intentions to overcome the obstacles you identified as part of Mental Contrasting; and 6) focus on the process itself and reward yourself for executing your action plan.