Visualization: How to Visualize & Why It's So Powerful
Visualization can completely change your level of performance, and it takes minimal effort or time investment. It can be transformative both for significant challenging peak events and in daily routine execution.
I approach visualization the way athletes do, to train my mind by (1) creating a “designed memory” of a challenging set of actions, and (2) building belief in a desired path or performance — belief and confidence that I am capable of doing it.
This is not a “Law of Attraction” vibrating energies kind of thing. This is conditioning my mind for peak performance — building a belief system and training for maximum effectiveness. This is about establishing clarity toward a desired outcome. If done well, creating a default path in the mind.
In this blog, we explore creating systems in our lives to perform better and achieve what matters most to each of us. And visualization is a standard part of my morning startup routine.
Visualization Built Upon Mental Representations
In the book “Peak, Secrets from the Science of Expertise”, Anders Ericsson details the concept of “Deliberate Practice” to acquire new skills at a high level. He describes the foundation of learning to perform better as our brain forming “mental representations”. I spoke in depth with Anders about this on my podcast a few years ago.
These mental representations separate an expert from a novice — the expert has built a full range of deeply embedded mental representations for any scenario. And when a scenario comes up, the expert loads the relevant pre-constructed mental representation in the mind and executes based on it. The expert seemingly instinctively knows how to handle the situation because of the pre-existing mental representation he can draw from.
These mental representations are built up by practice, by encountering similar situations and trying various approaches — then evaluating the outcomes and learning which approach serves the situation best.
These real-world experiences shape and create the mental representations, which are then stored in the mind and available as needed. Over time they fade, but regular practice keeps them fresh and ready to go.
The mental representation is partially constructed by the physical movement and activity (when the skill is physical) and partly through psychology, or how we perceive and processes the thoughts and experience in our mind.
How Visualization Works
When an athlete performs visualization before a challenging event, their mind is going through the psychology of the performance. The physical part is absent, but to the extent the athlete can reconstruct the thoughts and feelings of the performance, they can create a mental representation of the experience. This will surely be a weaker mental representation than physically doing it, but in the absence of that opportunity — or in order to practice mentally when traveling or not in a place where physical practice is possible — this is a form of mental practice. And it does form a degree of mental representations.
And these visualized mental representations can be drawn upon to perform and address real-world physical activities — whether it’s an Olympic high dive, a presentation at work, or any other type of challenging endeavor.
Of course, a visualization will be missing essential data that a real-world experience would have. So it could be misinformed and leave you with surprises in the actual activity. That’s why it's essential to work to construct as visceral and accurately informed visualization as possible.
Visualization does not tend to work for an activity you know nothing about and have never experienced. You must know it well enough to shape a tactile, visceral mental version. But the more you see an activity, the more you can train in it through visualization in addition to physical practice.
When done effectively, you are essentially creating a default path or expectation in your mind. This creates clarity in what you expect as you take on the real-world challenge. It can relax you and it can increase your performance in the activity.
How to Visualize for Big Events
Here is how I apply it in my life regularly. I'll give you two instances. First, for a big challenging event, then for mundane everyday routines.
Let’s say a big challenge is coming up, perhaps a speaking event in front of a large audience. I will collect all the details I can about the event — ideally visiting the space ahead of time if possible. Maybe watching other speakers at the event. Then the day before or the day of, I will close my eyes and mentally go through each stage of arriving at the venue, going to the designated meeting area, waiting to be introduced, walking on stage, greeting the audience, and then flowing into my presentation. I’ll go through the conclusion, and walking off stage, and completing the session.
I will make each step as visceral and tactile as possible. Think about room temperature, smells, sounds, energy levels, and anything else you would expect. Visualize delays or computer problems, or things going wrong. What kind of joke can I pull out then? I would draw on previous similar events and what the nervousness felt like and how I suppressed it — how I can do better at that this time.
Make it as real feeling as possible. And go through each little step along the way. Feel it, live it in your mind. Eyes closed, reconstruct the sights and sounds, and environment as fully as possible. Make things up if you need to to bring it to life.
This will form a reasonably strong mental representation that’s fresh from recent construction. If time permits, do it a few times.
How to Visualize to Succeed Daily
Or if there is no big challenge coming up soon, I will often visualize a successful day as I plan my day to come each morning. This is particularly helpful if I have lately been getting distracted easily.
I will walk through my morning routine, each step. I see myself planning my day and starting the first task, then taking a short break. Checking messages, responding. Then back to my priority task.
I pay particularly close attention to finishing and implementing transitions to my next priority after each task (seeing myself attacking each specific priority action for each day). These transitions are where I typically get distracted and pulled off track, so I visualize properly transitioning with more attention and care.
I watch myself flawlessly execute my day as planned, with no tangents or distractions or procrastination.
Visualization for Absolute Belief
The other way I use visualization is to create belief and reduce self-doubt.
To achieve anything ambitious, you have to believe it's possible. You have to believe you can do it.
Doubt is a killer. You will not stick through the challenge long enough if you don't believe you have a good chance of success.
Visualization helps you see yourself succeeding. You become a witness to your future success, and it builds belief and confidence. This will provide you with reserves when the going gets tough. It will be the beacon of light — a visualization of success that enables you to persevere.
We’ll continue in future essays to shape and build our self-identity to become the people we need to become to achieve the things we want to achieve.