We talked with business psychologist Dr. Frank Niles, an internationally known business psychologist with extensive experience building teams. Dr. Niles advises CEOs and leaders around the world in the areas of leadership development, business and brand strategy, and organizational transformation.
One of Dr. Niles’s particular passions is the practice of “visualization” and how it leads to business success. In our interview, Dr. Niles explained visualization, its possible benefits, and how to build this important mental muscle.
Visualization is the practice of using all five senses to imagine a desired outcome and the steps to get there. Based on your goals, it can come in a variety of forms.
Maybe it’s imagining the feeling of passing the finish line after a marathon, with the cheers ringing in your ears as the announcer shouts your name. Or it could be seeing yourself sitting down at your computer, typing out the words that will finish your debut novel.
Visualization is not just “dream it and you’ll be it,” but a practice backed by neuroscience. It works best when done repeatedly and in a focused manner, with a specific goal in mind.
There are two kinds of visualization. The first focuses on imagining the goal or end product in order to motivate and focus your efforts. The second is about visualizing the specific steps needed to get there.
Outcome Visualization “gives us the direction to focus upon.” It’s about staying motivated and keeping your internal compass pointed at your ultimate goal.
Imagine you’re training for a marathon. In order to visualize success and stay motivated, you might envision crossing the finish line within your goal time. You’ll visualize the sounds of the cheering crowds and how it feels to achieve victory.
Process Visualization is “when we visualize the different steps we have to go through to get to the ultimate outcome.”
For the marathon example, you might imagine parts of the race that will be particularly difficult. By envisioning these challenging moments in advance, you can plan your response and be more prepared to overcome them.
Process visualization can also help with planning. By working backward from your desired outcome, you can figure out the steps you need to take there.
With outcome visualization, if you want to run a marathon, you see yourself after completing every mile.
With process visualization, you might imagine your training goal today. Instead of focusing on the end result, you’ll see yourself putting your shoes on early in the morning and heading out for a 5-mile training run.
Dr. Niles described to us the neurological processes that make visualization work, sometimes as well as physical practice.
When we visualize, our neurons are “tricked” into interpreting imagery as real-life action. Essentially, our brains do not differentiate between sensory input and imagined sensory input.
Thanks to the principle of neuroplasticity, your brain is constantly building new pathways between neurons. New experiences become memories and habits. But the same thing happens with visualization. The image of a new experience can build a neural pathway, same as real world experiences.
If we take advantage of this, we can have more control over the neural pathways that build in our brains, which control our actions and habits. Research suggests we can even control fear responses in this way, or rewrite our response to traumatic triggers.
Dr. Niles explains it like this: “Visualization primes our body to act in a way that’s consistent with what we imagined.”
Dr. Niles says there is great hope for building this skill! You can absolutely develop it with practice.
The best thing to do is practice every day. He suggests tying it into something else you do in the morning, “like a meditation practice.” Not only will this improve your visualization skills, but it’s a great chance to start the day with positivity.
Dr. Niles broke down the visualization process, if you’re a beginner and need an idea of how to get started:
If it makes it easier for you, you can also visualize in a third person perspective. Perhaps you imagine watching from the crowd as you cross the finish line at the marathon.
The important thing is to practice daily, or as often as you can. “The more we do visualization in the morning or as part of a daily meditative practice, the more comfortable we will become at leaning into the skill that we've developed whenever we are facing a new challenge or wanting to achieve a new goal.”
Dr. Niles made sure to place an important caveat during our discussion of visualization.
Visualization must be coupled with action. It’s a way to prime yourself for success, not a guarantee of success on its own. “It’s a tool that has serious results when combined with other efforts.”
The visualization allows you to put intentions in place, but it has to be followed by the actions you envision. Additionally, whatever you can do to assist your dreams, beyond what you visualize, will of course help the process of reaching your goals.
Dr. Niles uses the example of Tiger Woods when talking about combining visualization with action. “Tiger Woods uses visualization in his career, but he also puts in a ton of work, both in his short game and his long game, and he also works with coaches.”
Visualization is a powerful tool in your toolbox, but don’t let it be your only tool. After all, who expects to build a beautiful deck with just a wrench?
This is not to downplay the power of visualization. Dr. Niles has seen it work in a number of organizations, and makes it clear that if you bring visualization to the everyday lives of your employees, you’ll see improvements for your bottom line.
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