You have probably heard many times in your life about the concept of visualization. Typically the context is sports, or something physical: visualize the perfect golf swing, hitting the basket as time expires, etc. I’m here to tell you that visualization is far more versatile than this limited application.

I like to use visualization to reduce stress. How does visualization reduce stress? I’m one of those people who worries about forgetting things, not having enough time to fit everything in, missing a step in a long chain of things to do that have to get done really quickly, etc. And the worst part is when I have to wait to take any direct action on those things I’m worrying about. During those stressful times, I find that visualization is the absolute best stress reliever. Trying to calm my mind and forget about it usually just makes me more stressed, because then I feel irresponsible not trying to think of all possible contingencies up until the moment I can start. So instead I just visualize the scenario that stresses me out, with as many details as I can. This is far less taxing than trying to constantly come up with contingency plans. I also tend to think of a lot of things that might happen during the upcoming scenario that I hadn’t thought of previously, and so when it comes time to actually act, things proceed more smoothly. A lot of times when I do this, I come up with lots of things I can do to help myself before the event, so I whip out my handy-dandy iPhone and shoot myself an email or record a note to do those things.

One example where visualization can help is last-minute test preparation. When I was in school, most of the time I would study up until the last minute, to maximize the probability that I would study something that could help me on the exam. Towards the end of college, I instead started to visualize how things would go on the exam, and when the time came closer I would visualize every aspect of how I would enter the class, take the test, and how I would finish at the end. This was a far better method and tests no longer seemed so daunting. Another stressful example is visualizing difficult conversations you know you need to have with others such as your boss, significant other, etc. Visualizing these conversations instead of thinking about all possible ways it can go wrong will help you tremendously.

I also visualize to increase efficiency. Another great example is visualizing all the different things you have to do to get to the airport. This weekend we’re flying to a conference, and the DC metro decided this would be the best weekend to shut down our station. So we’re going to have to take a bus to a metro station, then the metro to the airport. Sounds relatively easy, and I’m sure it will be, but there are hundreds of things that could go awry when I think about this, and our margin for error is relatively slim since we have to be at the airport so early. So I can visualize how we’re gonna get from our apartment to the bus stop, how to get from the final bus stop to the metro station, the metro line we’re gonna take, etc.

Or, for a more mundane example, I will sometimes visualize all the different things I have to do when I’m getting ready for bed at night, or getting ready in the morning. I will visualize how I need to make sandwiches for lunch and which cereal I’m going to have and every other thing I need to do before I head out the door in the morning while I’m washing my face or taking a shower after first waking up, which makes me a lot more efficient in the morning. I know that 90% are probably saying, “man, that’s ridiculous! you visualize your morning routine?” Yep, I do. Give it a whirl, I think you’ll like it. And I bet you’ll find ways to increase your efficiency with these routines so that you can head out the door earlier or sleep later (whichever you like).

I also use visualization extensively for martial arts. At the Tae Kwon Do school I originally trained at, we would meditate both before and after class. Before class the meditation allowed the student to clear his or her mind of concerns not related to Tae Kwon Do, and focus on what he or she wanted to improve in the class. This visualization can involve, for example, imagining how his or her back-pivot kick will have better aim during the class. After the class, the meditation involves replaying all of the successful and not-so-successful events of the class in his or her mind to allow the lessons of the class to sink in more deeply.

I also highly recommend visualization when your are stuck in a meeting that is boring you to tears. This way you at least accomplish something. Try visualizing what you want to accomplish for the rest of the day, or about a problem you are trying to solve, etc.

The book “Made to Stick” by Chip and Dan Heath also has a lot of great material related to visualizations. Some of the highlights include:

  • When faced with problems, it is better to simulate in your head the events that led up to the problem as accurately as possible than to try imagining a better outcome. In this regard, positive thinking alone is not enough to get the job done. In a study that they discuss, it was revealed that people who visualized their problems thought more about what they could do to solve their problems and asked others for advice much more than those who did not visualize their problems.
  • Mental simulations can help you recover from phobias and other fears by imagining the scenarios where you start to become afraid and then applying relaxation techniques each time that fear is triggered, until you return to an equilibrium.
  • Mental rehearsal can help prevent yourself from relapsing into bad habits like smoking, overeating, etc. When you know you’ll be exposed to an environment where you’ll be tempted by something you know you shouldn’t do (like a party with lots of beer for an alcoholic), visualize how you are going to behave when you are directly exposed to something bad (like what you’ll say when someone offers you a cold one, etc.)
  • Mental simulation also allows you to build skills by rehearsing entire tasks from start to finish.

Now visualize giving yourself a big ol’ pat on the back for reading this entire article, and get that movie theater in your brain playing!

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