Visualization, or the art of using all the senses to create a mental movie of what you want to happen, has long been a tool for improving sports performance. Brian Nielsson, an avid kayaker since age 13, discovered the tool as one of his first competitions approached. In preparation for his 500-meter K1 race, he relaxed and then pictured how he would execute the race, with all its attendant feelings, and win. “At the start of the race, I wasn’t even nervous,” he says. “The race played out exactly as I’d seen it in my head.”
Now a former world kayak champion, an entrepreneur, and the founder and board chairman of mobile-solution supplier HandStep, Nielsson still counts visualization, sometimes known as mental rehearsal or guided imagery, as one of the most important tools in his success toolkit. Numerous research studies support mental rehearsal’s enhancement of performance and motivation, according to the online journal of sport psychology, Athletic Insight, and others. For example, research shows that golfers who use imagery techniques practice more, set higher goals for themselves, have more realistic expectations and are better at sticking to their training programs. Beyond that, studies also suggest that visualization can increase “flow,” or the positive mental state marked by a lack of self-consciousness and a union with the task at hand. In sports psychology research, flow has been associated with peak performance. Think of a time when you were so completely absorbed and focused on what you were doing that your self-awareness and worry melted away, and compare that with an occasion where you were worried about your performance or were self-conscious. Quite likely, your performance was much better in the first situation—and with no greater output of effort.
Imagery techniques are increasingly used in fields outside of sports, such as medicine. The concept still seems curiously absent from corporate America, despite the need for innovation (which requires vision) and despite the frenetic pace of change (layoffs, mergers and so on) that leaves many an employee feeling adrift and helpless.
“For some reason visualization is a concept that many business folks tend to dismiss, perhaps due to the preponderance of left-brain thinking in business,” says Thomas Koulopoulos, founder of innovation consultancy Delphi Group. (Left-brain activity is popularly associated with analysis and logic rather than creativity.) Koulopoulos, who leads some clients in visualization exercises, says that the increasing speed of change in the business world is one factor that will quash the prejudice against a practice some may deem touchy-feely. “As uncertainty increases, the time to respond decreases,” he says. In this tumultuous environment you must use visualization “to establish a clear end state that will guide all of the unforeseen decisions that have to be made; so many of the tactical operations involved in achieving that end state will be completely unpredictable.” Or as Mark Twain said, “You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”
“Visualization helps people get clearer about aims and objectives,” says social psychologist and author Stephen Kraus, president of Next Level Sciences, a success consultancy. In other words, visualization quite literally fosters people’s ability to develop a clear vision, both in terms of end states and products. “People with clear nonconflicting goals accomplish more and are healthier,” he says. In his book Psychological Foundations of Success, he says vision is a cornerstone of success and points to the words of Harvard marketing guru Ted Levitt, who says, “The future belongs to people who see possibilities before they become obvious.” Ambivalence in particular is deadly to achieving success; a clear vision, crucial. And visualization offers a way to break through ambivalence. In the face of failure or rejection, belief in vision is “what gets people over the hump and gets them to take action,” says Kraus.
Nielsson agrees. Staying true to his vision is key to developing new products, he says, although it isn’t always easy. He calls on visualization to guide and focus him on his goals, help create the response he wants in those around him and keep faith that his company’s new products will be welcomed by the public. So far, so good. HandStep recently expanded from Denmark into the United Kingdom, and Nielsson foresees more European expansion.
A Starter Guide to Creative Visualization
Situations for which you can use visualization include preparing to give a stellar presentation, seeing the steps necessary to completing a successful project and creating a path to innovation. Here’s a quick primer on how to imagine winning in the mental theater for more success in the business arena.
Part I: Guiding Imagery
- Find a quiet spot, and allow yourself to relax. First, concentrate on your breathing. Then imagine your shoulders, neck and other stress points becoming heavy and relaxed. Allow your mind to clear of worries. Visualization works best alone and away from noise, says Kraus. If possible, carve out enough time to do it properly.
Create a detailed vision of what you want to achieve. See, hear and feel what you want to happen in all its detail. “Visualization is an aim you want to achieve,” says Nielsson. That said, it’s important to envision the process and not just the product, says Kraus. A simple example is a salesperson envisioning not just getting a sale, but all the steps it took to make the sale.
Nielsson, for example, imagines with all his senses all of the people he is meeting with and how they will act. He also uses the technique to try to see where the market is developing. “I’m picking up from everywhere what is happening in the market; then I try to visualize what will happen next. Often I’ll see things a long time before they happen,” he says. He’s not talking about some supernatural power, but rather attention. In the rush of daily life, so much can escape our attention. Visualization is a means of allowing yourself the space to capture those impressions in a usable way.
- Let go of obstacles. To create a positive vision, let go of fear of failing and all the reasons your goal can’t work. Imagining how you might deal with obstacles is a separate exercise. Just as you should keep brainstorming sessions separated from the evaluation of ideas, to create a vision you first need to give room to the positive mental imagery and the feelings it evokes before you move on to less positive imaginings. Koulopoulos asks clients who have difficulty with this to think backwards: “That is, to first visualize the end state in terms of its core characteristics, attributes and achievements.” He says the technique is simple in concept but difficult to apply in practice. This is because many people will come up with all of the obstacles rather than the result. To combat that, create the detailed scenario of the end state without regard to anticipated or unanticipated obstacles, he recommends. This means working backward from the end state to fill in the steps, technologies, behaviors, organizational issues and so on that would need to be in place to achieve the goal.
Part II: Using Your Vision
- Think win-win. You can’t use visualization to achieve what you want without regard for others, says Nielsson. “You need to know where you want to end up and what your limits are, but it is much better to come to mutual understanding and agreement.” Many people have a goal and just go for it, he says, and sometimes they get what they want but in the process alienate the people around them.
- Listen and pay attention. In the end, visualization and its results are all about focused attention—slowing down long enough to see and create possibility, as well as becoming more attuned to what those around you are feeling and thinking. In fact, Nielsson considers a natural outgrowth of visualization to be empathy. Empathy itself is the understanding of another’s situation, feelings and motives—a state not possible without attention.
Develop this personal tool, and see yourself getting more successful.