The Truth About Vizualization and Goal Achievement

Scroll down ↓


Ever wonder what the real deal is with visualization?

Whether you call it visualizing, simulating, vision-boarding or something else, the technique has been the talk of the personal-development town for years.

Problem is, many proponents:

  • Overlay a metaphysical basis for it, leaving all who do not buy into the woo-factor skeptics, and
  • Focus exclusively on something called “outcome” visualization that’s been shown in university studies to be less effective than the rarely discussed “process” visualization.

Time for a bit of debunking and pulling back the curtain on how to do it right…

[The following is excerpted and slightly adapted from the book, Career Renegade: How to Make a Great Living Doing What You Love]

Simple fact, without clarity and belief, there is no action.

If you don’t know where you are going, you don’t know what actions to take.  Even if you do know where you want to go, but don’t believe you can get there, you still won’t act.  And, without action, there is no accomplishment.

Clarity allows you to create vivid mental simulations.

Repeating those simulations leads to belief.  And belief fuels action. Repeatedly visualizing a deeply sought after goal, seeing, feeling, hearing yourself accomplish this goal, over and over, has a profound effect. It conditions you slowly away from self-doubt and disbelief and moves you increasingly toward belief.

And, the more you believe, the more likely you are to act.

When you believe something, even marginally, you begin to do a thousand little things differently. You talk to people you’d normally avoid. You ask questions you’d have been too shy to ask. You help people you’d normally ignore. You dress a little better. You interact with more confidence. You carry yourself differently.

You invest time, energy, hours and funds in yourself and others without really noticing how differently you are presenting yourself to the world. To those who come in contact with you, you are different. And the net result of those dozens of microscopic changes in your behavior, in a daily basis is two-fold:

  • People perceive you differently – they become responsive because they read in you a sense of confidence, commitment and raw-energy that they want to participate in.
  • All the little actions begin to add up – the thousands of nearly imperceptible changes in behavior and modest actions taken on a consistent, daily basis, begin to yield results that take you a step closer to your visualized goal.

Is it better to visualize the goal or visualize the steps?

The approach to visualization or mental simulation most often offered is something called outcome simulation.

It asks you to create a vivid picture of a specific outcome, as if it has already happened.  Maybe it’s crossing the finish line at a race, owning your dream house, toppling a government, getting an A on an exam or doing your dream job for a living.  Outcome simulation can be an effective tool.  But, for many people, especially when it comes to the early-days of a career-revolution, outcome is not the most powerful tool in the visualization arsenal.

Indeed, there is a different approach to visualization that had been shown in a number of published studies to be significantly more powerful.  It’s called process simulation and, true to its name, it focuses on visualizing not the outcome or goal, but the steps and actions needed to get there.

In 1998, researchers divided 84 college students in three groups.  Over a one-week period, for five-minutes each day, students in the process simulation group visualized the actions and steps needed to complete a specified project.  At the same time, students in the outcome simulation group visualized themselves having successfully completed the project.  Students in a third control group did neither.

The results were eye-opening:

  • Compared to the control group, students in both the process and the outcome groups were more likely to begin the project on time.  So, both process and outcome simulation got people acting earlier than no simulation.
  • The students who visualized themselves having successfully completed the project were significantly more likely to complete it on time.
  • The students who visualized the steps needed to complete the project, though, were more likely than both other groups to finish on time and they generally considered the assignment easier than students in the other groups.  (Taylor, S.E., Pham, L.B., Rivkin, I.D., & Armor, D.A. (1998). Harnessing the imagination: Mental simulation, self-regulation, and coping. American Psychologist, 53, 429-439).

In a series of additional studies by Pham and Taylor on undergraduate students in 1997 and 1999, students who engaged in daily process simulation in anticipation of an exam started studying earlier than those who simply visualized getting an A.  And, with more study, not surprisingly, the process simulation group scored an average of 8 points better on the exam than the outcome simulation group, who simply visualized getting an A.

How do we apply this knowledge to your career renegade journey?

Every career renegade journey unfolds in two phases.

The beginning phase involves quite a bit of research, information gathering and planning.  It’s the research and development or R&D phase.  The R&D phase prepares you for the second, more-active phase, aggressive pursuit of a specific career-goal.

During the R&D phase, it is nearly impossible to create an effective outcome simulation, because you don’t yet know where you are going.

This is where process visualization can really shine…

Because your driving force is to act daily in an effort to gather the information needed to establish and go after an ultimate goal.  Process simulation fuels these daily actions.  It drives you to carry out these daily steps and makes you more likely to start earlier, be more consistent and experience these tasks as being less work.

At the beginning of each week in your R&D phase, write out a list of three to five daily actions that will help take you closer to your ultimate career renegade goal.  At this point, many of these actions will be about getting enough information to figure out and test whether that goal is feasible.  Write these actions down, then every day, for five minutes, find a quiet place, sit or lie down and visualize yourself with as much clarity as possible taking those steps and engaging in those actions.

Once you have gathered enough information and established enough knowledge to know, with a great degree of clarity, exactly what you’d like to accomplish, and done the research to be confident that it’s attainment is possible, then it’s time to add outcome simulation to your daily renegade mindset practices.

Outcome visualization comes in many forms.

You can create a visualization or vision board, attaching images that represent what you career and life will look and feel like once you’ve achieved your goal.  You can write a vivid description or record the description as an audio file.  Whatever expression you choose, don’t replace your process simulation with outcome simulation, do them both every day.

This daily dual simulation will go a long way toward cultivating the mindset needed to believe in your ability to pull off your career-evolution and then take the actions needed to make it happen.

[The above was excerpted and adapted from Career Renegade: How to Make a Great Living Doing What You Love].

Join our Email List for Weekly Updates

And join this amazing community of makers and doers. You know you wanna...

52 responses

52 responses to “The Truth About Vizualization and Goal Achievement”

  1. I love how down to earth and tell it like it is you are (read that sentence out loud three times really fast). And yet hopeful. I am going to do a process visioning for writing my novel – yeah!

  2. Dianna Lopez says:

    An excellent post. It is great to have the distinction between outcome visioning and process visioning in print. Thank you for clarifying the difference. I will share this post!

    Also, I like the “woo -factor” comment, as I am one who falls into the category of not being able to relate to visualization as a metaphysical thing. For me, it is more of a practical thing – if it works, use it.

  3. Process visualization is effective, UNLESS:

    You don’t know the correct process. In which case you can spend a lot of effort learning the wrong way. After that, trying to unlearn it may take even longer than if you had made mistakes along the way using just outcome visualization.

  4. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Jen & Dianna – Thanks! Just trying to demystify a bit and make great tools accessible to people who don’t want to jump to far down the rabbit hole, lol!

    @ Travis – Great point, which is why a powerful early-stage approach to process visualization is to visualize then act on the daily steps that will allow you to explore and hone in on the most effective steps/process for your specific desired outcome. Sounds a bit circular at first, but it’s actually not at all.

  5. […] Scot @unmarketing on Twitter [and here] pointed me to a great article by  @jonathanfields titled The Truth About Vizualization and Goal Achievement. […]

  6. WDF says:

    Damn … that was a fine description of the process. Thanks.

  7. […] Original post by Awake At The Wheel | Crossroads of Work & Play […]

  8. Great post. I’ve certainly heard a little bit about visualization, but this post provided me with a lot more information that was great. Thanks so much!

  9. Hey Jonathan, I can’t begin to tell you how refreshing I find this article. OK, admittedly I’m a “woo-factor skeptic.” Like the book, this article is scientifically sound and totally actionable. The woo-factor may appeal to the unrealistic dreamer, but I prefer a higher degree of reality which you always manage to deliver. Thank you!

  10. Outcome visualization never works for me because having a great imagination I develop the outcome too fully and end up not wanting to continue because according to my emotions I’ve already done it and not had to work – why would I want ruin the feeling by applying hard work?

    I’m much better visualizing the process a little piece at the time, which keeps me excited, motivated and away from the temptation to enjoy the imagined accolades. 😉

  11. Leah says:

    Thank you for talking about the process visualization. I hadn’t thought of that before and it makes a lot of sense. I’ll be giving it a try!

  12. Randy Zeitman says:

    Alex, is what you just described ‘paralysis by analysis’?

    But, to the article, I don’t like when people distinguish ‘process’ and ‘outcome’… why not ‘little goals’ and ‘big goals’?

    Isn’t every step in the process an outcome? (Isn’t creating every sentence a process and when I’m done I’ve achieved the goal?)

    The problem is that for most ‘process’ doesn’t equal achievement…it doesn’t really mean anything until you meet the goal.

    Of course the people that both focused on little and big goals did the best… they exercised perspective…when on the little goal they got focused and myopic and then they stopped, stuck the head out of the sand, looked around, put that puzzle piece down, saw a little bit of the bigger picture, rested, got motivated, and then took a breath and stuck their head down again and kept burrowing!

    Fantastic article…this a one great blog.

  13. Sean says:

    Excellent post!

    This is a very minds-eye opening process. We have been told in our lives to always visualize the end, to keep our eye on the prize, look where we want to see ourselves. That is all well and good but it leaves out the most important part of the whole endeavor….the process to achieve those goals.

    This is my first exposure to the idea of visualizing the steps, or the process, involved in achieving goals. I will definitely be incorporating this into my life.

    As Randy just brought up “paralysis by analysis” is definitely where I get caught up in many of my pursuits. I am an expert at thinking about and visualizing the end result so much that I never actually get anything done!

  14. David Eckoff says:

    Great concepts, I like that mix of process and outcome visualization.

    Here’s a tip, something that I have found has worked really well for me:

    In addition to what Jonathan suggests (finding a quiet place to sit or lie down and visualize yourself with as much clarity as possible taking those steps and engaging in those actions)…

    Try this:

    When you work out what do you think about? If you’re exercising for 30-45 minutes, give yourself a mental workout too, by doing some process/outcome visualization during part of that time. It’s great use of the time, and I find that linking this to activity is helpful, too.

    Works wonders for me, if you give it a try, I’d love to hear how it works for you!


    PS… Only do that if it is safe (if your exercise of choice is running outdoors, don’t run into oncoming traffic while you’re doing process visualization)! This is best for walking; and indoor exercise like treadmill, elliptical trainer, etc.

  15. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Sean – The cool thing is that you can do them both and, in doing so, move forward that much faster

    @ David – You couldn’t have told me not to visualize my future while trail running BEFORE I broke my foot doing it? LOL!

  16. I had never heard of this research, and I’m so glad I read your post today. I have heard of having process goals, but never of doing a visualization for them. I of course also used outcome visualization. This information is really useful, I’m going to start doing it immediately!

  17. Process always outranks product. The object transforms under our gaze. In our Yoga on and off the mat. Finding a job. Creating a career Making work. Ovid said it: life is in flux. Thanks for for the reminder.

  18. Lesley Phillips says:

    This is great! Now I know that what’s been going on throughout my life is NOT simply an over-active imagination at work, but the process of actualizing my dream(s). Actually, I think its easier for us right-brainers; visualization comes easily.

    Alex, perhaps rather than “paralysis by analysis” that Randy suggests you may experience, maybe your process is a perfect example that it is not the destination but rather the journey that matters.

    Thanks, Jonathan. I’ll come back to visit here more often. And I’ll tell my friends too.

  19. Hugh says:

    I wonder if process visualization is simply a series of outcome visiualizations?

  20. FrugalNYC says:

    Great piece and very good advice.
    Must bookmark and tweet 🙂

  21. @Randy
    I get trapped by analysis paralysis as well, but that’s when I start planning too much, putting more importance on creating the perfect plan than actually getting work done. 😉

    I could see how the process could be called little outcomes because each time we do a small task we feel a victory of sorts. I think it’s a case of semantics – and how we may all be speaking English but still be speaking different languages (ie, my words mean something different than the same words do for you).

  22. I’ve recently started practicing process visualization, in addition to outcome visualization, and it’s increased my productivity immensely.

    This is a great post and you’ve offered some good, solid advice.

  23. Joe Jacobi says:

    Great post, Jonathan. Visualization was a huge part of my whitewater racing career with USA Canoe/Kayak. While I’m certain that nearly every athlete who walks into an Olympic Opening Ceremony dreams or visualizes themselves standing on the Olympic medal podium, I never found it to be a productive visualization. Paddling the whitewater Olympic whitewater venue was complicated enough. So that was our visualization objective.

    Months prior to the 1992 Olympic race and long before I knew the “slalom gate positions” that would comprise the Olympic whitewater race on the rapids, I’d fall asleep visualizing hundreds of possible course designs and our canoe maneuvering through the whitewater to complete the course well – the necessary strokes, set-ups, balance/edging – all the little things that made good canoeing work on the venue where I wanted to be good.

    It ALWAYS comes down to process. Good processes generate good results. For me, visualization is a key part of a good process.

  24. Donna says:

    I found this post because of @zenhabits tweet. What an awesome article! Thanks so much! I believe “vision-boarding” is amazing. It really has produced some great outcomes for me. The idea of “process stimulation” along with “outcome stimulation” is powerful! Definitely going to put these ideas to good use! Thank you!

  25. Kelly says:

    I also found this via @zenhabbits tweet.

    My current job isn’t challenging enough or interesting engough for me, so I’ve been trying to make a move at work. I’ve been doing a lot of visualizing by accident, lol. Often when I get really fed up with whatever lame task I’m doing I think about what I’d rather be doing and how I might get there. The ideas resulting from this seem to correspond to your exploratory phase. That lead to some specific actions and what may be a future position for me (keeping my fingers crossed). Lately I’ve been thinking about the position that I’m trying to move into. It seems like things have slowly been moving my way.

  26. […] was reading the post “The Truth About Vizualization and Goal Achievement” on Awake at the wheel […]

  27. […] The Truth About Vizualization and Goal Achievement […]

  28. Very good post indeed … have written a post on the same topic at :

    Pls let me know your feedback on it

  29. I really like this emphasis on process simulation as opposed to outcome simulation.

    You outlined what believing in yourself accomplishes, very well.

  30. […] Vibe Coach, Genius Catalyst (be sure to sign up for Michael’s newsletter-killer content), Jonathan Fields, and Escape from Cubicle Nation. Trust me. At least one of these blogs will offer you a […]

  31. Leigh says:

    I loved this – visualization is so powerful and for so many purposes. It helps me beyond belief when I’m doing a long run and going uphill. And when business is challenging, it keeps me focused on the road ahead.

  32. […] The Truth About Vizualization and Goal Achievement Visualization doesn’t matter unless it leads you to action. (@ awake at the wheel) […]

  33. Just wrote another post on creative visualization and I remembered your this wonderful post. Thought of sharing the link…

    Naresh Singh

  34. […] The Truth About Vizualization and Goal Achievement Visualization doesn’t matter unless it leads you to action. (@ awake at the wheel) […]

  35. […] The Truth About Vizualization and Goal Achievement Visualization doesn’t matter unless it leads you to action. (@ awake at the wheel) […]

  36. It is true, you need to clarify first what you want, and then act for it. However, I dont think people perceive you differently. It is more charisma, than just your visualization.

  37. Kim says:

    Awesome post!

    I come from an NLP background, and have definitely found it important to utilise both outcome & process visualizations.

    The outcome I use for the bigger picture, and the process to aid me in achieving all the steps it takes to get there and so I am ultimately ready/equipped to handle the outcome when it arrives.

    I’ve also had fantastic & somewhat spooky results with my vision board which hangs in my office. It’s been uncanny – I guess the power of visuals seeded upon the unconscious mind.

  38. Dahlia says:

    Visualization is very important. In my opinion it should be focused on goals. People are more eager to act and do what it takes when they have a clear picture of the goal in their heads. If they see what they like they’ll grab it!

  39. Richard says:

    visualisation for the people whose has type of the visual learning and understanding is really important because they will more understand easily with visual look .. 🙂

  40. Blissmonger says:

    Occasionally we reconnect with the knowing part of ourselves when we create vision boards, set impassioned goals and fervently repeat affirmations. These graphic organizers are like tuning forks of the soul. They serve as engaging deja vu souvenirs of how great we think we’ll feel when those requests materialize, which is the real reason we want anything—how good we think we’ll feel when it comes to pass.

    But we don’t need to put together collages or craft mission statements or speak audible words for our orders of what we want to appear. Our souls collect them for us and keep them safe. The question to be asking is: those beliefs that we marinate in, day in and day out—are they working for you, or against you?

  41. The cool thing about visualization or imagery is that your brain doesn’t know the difference between the real experience and an imagined experience. If you don’t believe this, try imagining biting into a nice juicy ripe lemon. If your imagery is vivid enough you will salivate – even though no lemon is present. The other great thing is that the more we imagine something the more we build new neural nets (brain connections) to support this image making it easier to think postiive thoughts and to take positive actions which will lead to positive outcomes. For something that is relatively easy, you get a lot of back for your buck so to speak.

  42. Karen says:

    I recently read a fascinating article on visualization written by Douglas Vermeeren. Most are considering him the modern day Napoleon Hill, because of his studies with more than 400 of the greatest top achievers in the world. His studies are particularly interesting because he presents some fascinating insights on how top achievers treat visualization when it comes to goal setting and goal achievement.

    Here are some of the most interesting points:

    -visualization must include the process not just the final event.
    – Visualization must be emotionally charged.
    -Visualization is more effective with detailed realism
    -When the mind rehearses an experience it is more confident when performing in the same experience in reality. (A mental investment has been made)
    -With continuous visualization the participants report a significant increase in belief in the ability to succeed and an increased desire to attain the visualized outcome.
    -The visualization process enables the participants to solve challenges and grasp concepts 40% faster than those who did not.
    -Those who visualized were also able to complete tasks 30-40% more effectively on the first effort.
    -People who visualized were able to create positive habits and break down negative addictions in a shorter time frame than those who did not practice visualization.

    Several of these insights and others from a study on goal setters are to be featured in an upcoming book with Jay Conrad Levinson entitled “Guerrilla Achiever.”

    Other works of Vermeeren’s include the movie The Opus which most people consider the sequel to The Secret. It is definitley worth checking out and has some particularly interesting insights about visualization from people like Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, Joe Vitale, John Demartini and others.

  43. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Karen – Thanks for the info on Douglas Vermeeren. Curious if you have any cites to the actual research. I’m a numbers person, so I’d love to see the experimental protocols and outcomes.

  44. […] This post was Twitted by mitchlipon […]

  45. […] This post was Twitted by pryankaa […]

  46. Rob says:

    These insights are the most useful insights I’ve had with regards to visualisation since learning about the ‘art’ of visualisation! Thanks for the direction and with such clarity, Jonathan. I’m going to apply this approach to process visualisation immediately to my daily practice.

    I’m with Kim – I find vision boards incredibly spooky and found the importance of keeping such tools fresh and updated paramount.

    I have also found that visualisations with a strong emotion (that includes ‘non-belief’ interestingly) are almost guaranteed. e.g. ‘I would like to achieve x’ with a strong emotion or energy behind it that says ‘but I’m not sure I will’ actually creates resistance and circumstances that sure enough ‘not sure I will’ is what happens.

    Understanding the process of visualising the process (!) in the way described here will really help to overcome and improve this for me as follows:

    i) Small steps feel far more achievable and realistic

    ii) Small steps can be rewarded with increased energy/emotion behind them rather than the ‘whole’ energy being used purely on visualising the outcome alone

    I’ll be interested to see how my results improve and my initial feeling is that this approach will create a more fulfilling experience too.

    Whilst typing this I’ve just learned my copy of Career Renegade has been dispatched, look forward to the read – more so now!

  47. […] The truth about visualization and goal achievement – Link. […]

  48. […] Definitive Guide to Sticking to Your New Year’s Resolutions. The Truth About Vizualization and Goal Achievement. There is nothing you need to do, be, have, get, change, practice, or learn in order to be happy, […]

  49. […] tuesday 5th january 2010 By crossfitcrew Leave a Comment Categories: WOD (Workout of The Day) 5 Rounds for time of: 1/1.5 pood KB 1 arm thruster, 5/arm* 50 Double unders *Penalty of 10m cross crawl push ups (done at end off session) if you don’t achieve 5reps at a time on each arm. Post your time and training notes to comments Some truths about visualisation and goal setting […]

  50. Charlotte McKinnon says:

    This is a great post. I saw above a post in regards to Guerrilla Achiever. I really liked the unique ideas in Guerrilla Achiever by Douglas Vermeeren. He is the author of the new Guerrilla book book with Jay Levinson, Guerrilla Achiever. Our school received an advance copy. I think it is probably one of the best books for achievement and goal setting. The book is really unique in tools and lessons that are shared for achievement. I think it is probably the best book written on achievement and some of the lessons in the book I have never heard or seen elsewhere. Whereas other materials are full of hyped up promises about doing the impossible. This book delivers. It really gives a new fresh look on achievement. I highly recommend it to all and it is useful for people of all age

  51. Jon Hepid says:

    Thanks for sharing that study on the difference in process visualization vs outcome visualization. I hadn’t seen that one before.

    Thinking back I’ve done a bit of both, although I must say more of it has been outcome driven. But that’ll change now.

  52. Wonderfully explained, Jonathan.

    I particularly liked the pointer: “Whatever expression you choose, don’t replace your process simulation with outcome simulation, do them both every day.” I can see that this could be vital to the success of the strategy.

    I often use subconscious mind power by writing the six most important tasks for the next day, just before sleep. It sets my mind to work overnight, on aligning my day for achieving them. Whenever I remember to do this little exercise, those very 6 tasks always get done, somehow and as if by magic sometimes! 🙂 Though I’m just trying to distinguish if this is a process or an outcome visualization (outcome I guess, yet in my sleep I may be taking care of processes, unknowingly)!

    “The greatest achievement was at first and for a time a dream. The oak sleeps in the acorn. The bird waits in the egg. In the highest vision of a soul a waking angel stirs. Dreams are the seedlings of realities. Your circumstances may be disagreeable, but they shall not remain so if you only perceive an ideal and strive to reach it. You can’t travel within and stand still without. When you truly change within, these changes will be reflected (in time) in your outer world.” [From As A Man Thinketh So Is He” by James Allen]

    My own book was based on the premise of changing our life, habit by habit. It really is the only effective way to make profound, long-term changes for ourselves.