In his book 59 Seconds, Think a Little Change a Lot, Richard Wiseman debunks many myths about how to be effective, institute change in your life, and achieve your goals. Wiseman is a professor of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom. He studied the scientific literature searching for journal articles that outlined experiments related to the ideas in many self help books to see exactly which ideas and techniques had any true value.
Early on in his book Wiseman explains an often referred to study done at Harvard University. In the study young men were asked if they had written down their goals for life, and then they were followed throughout their journey and their success levels were measured. Incredibly the 3% of students who had clearly written out their goals had become more wealthy and successful than the other 97% combined. This is a powerful story for visualization, goal setting, and writing out exactly what you want, but Wiseman explains that this study never happened. He went searching for the research and the actual scientific journal article from the study, only to find out that it was all just a popular myth.
Wiseman then decided to look into what goal setting and visualization practices had been scientifically shown to produce results. His findings for visualization are as follows:
“According to the researchers, visualizing the process of studying proved especially effective at reducing exam-related anxiety and helped students better plan and manage their workload. Subsequent research has shown that the same effect occurs in several different areas, with, for example, tennis players and golfers benefiting far more from imagining themselves training than winning.”
The first study mentioned in Wiseman’s quote involved college students and their testing and studying strategies. Psychologists Lien Pham and Shelly Taylor asked groups of students to either visualize themselves receiving a good grade on a test, or they asked them to visualize themselves studying so that they would get a good grade on the test. This who visualized themselves acing the exam studied less and received worse grades than those who pictured themselves working hard and studying well.
Wiseman continues to explain that visualization has been shown to be even more powerful when we view ourselves from the third person perspective, as if we were someone else watching our actions. Work by Lisa Libby at Ohio State University showed that individuals who viewed themselves going to the polls to vote were more likely to actually go vote if they pictured themselves from a third person perspective rather than from their own point of view.
The research seems to suggest that visualizing the process from a third person perspective as opposed to visualizing the outcome is more useful. We will all hit hurdles and need a certain amount of grit to persevere, and Wiseman’s research shows us how to incorporate that “grit” mindset. Visualization practices give us is the chance to imagine ourselves working hard to push past the obstacles and put in the effort necessary to reach our goals. Focusing on just the outcome may drive motivation, but when the outcome seems to shift or be out of reach we can become more depressed than motivated, and we are more likely to abandon our path. Looking ahead and picturing the hurdles and seeing ourselves press through the hard work is the secret to visualization that gives us the grit needed for success.