To achieve success—getting fitter, healthier, more confident, or whatever—you need to create a picture of it in your mind, scientists say

By Mirel Ketchiff
December 31, 2016

You know that athletes use visualization to give themselves an edge and calm their nerves before a big competition. (Remember #PhelpsFace from the Olympics?) "When you imagine yourself performing a task, your muscles contract as though you're actually doing it. The contractions are so small, you can't feel them, but it's enough to strengthen your muscle memory," says Nicole Detling, Ph.D., an assistant professor of kinesiology and sport science at the University of Utah and a sports psychology consultant to Olympic athletes. In other words, when you mentally rehearse a tennis serve or a swimming stroke, you're essentially doing it physically as well. As evidence: People with wrist casts who visualized moving their immobilized muscles lost half as much strength as those who didn't imagine exercising, research in the Journal of Neurophysiology found.

Visualization can help hone your technique, too. Female basketball players who imagined themselves throwing perfect free throws just before a game wound up making 70 percent of their shots, while those who didn't sank 54 percent, a New Mexico State University study found. It can even rev motivation, according to research in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise. In the study, women who pictured themselves working out were significantly more driven to exercise than those who didn't. (And visualization is just one of 22 ways to stay motivated.)

And now experts are discovering that the perks of visualization go far beyond fitness. New research has verified its effectiveness for everyone, showing that the technique is extremely powerful at improving confidence, reducing stress, and boosting performance. That's because your brain responds to visualization the same way your muscles do, says Philip Post, Ph.D., the assistant professor of motor learning and sport psychology at New Mexico State University. "When you imagine yourself reacting a certain way to a certain event-like being calm and in control while giving a speech at a wedding-it strengthens the neuro- logical pathways you need to actually respond that way," he says. Once the big moment arrives, you've "done" it so many times mentally that you're much better prepared to keep your cool. Best of all, it takes just 10 minutes a day of visualization to start seeing the benefits, Detling says, and you could notice changes after just one session. We walk you through the important steps.

1. First You Need a Goal

Be sure that what you want to achieve is clear and measurable, then ask yourself exactly what you need to do to make it happen, Post says. If you want to run faster, the first step is to gradually increase your pace. If your goal is to deliver that great wedding speech, you might start by practicing in front of the mirror to get comfortable reciting it and build your confidence. Being specific about the actions you'll take to reach a goal lets you create a more targeted mental picture, which in turn activates the corresponding brain path- ways, leading to faster, stronger results, Post says. (You'll also need some grit, a.k.a. mental toughness-here's why and how to get it.)

2. Now Add On Layers

To begin, imagine yourself doing the action from start to finish-crossing the finish line with perfect form or reciting the speech to applause, for example. Then "layer" on your senses, Post says. What will you be seeing, hearing, and even smelling in real life? "You want to try to make the imagery process as functionally equivalent to the physical practice as possible in order to help activate the relevant brain regions to the greatest extent," he says. "If you'll be giving a speech, for instance, stand up as you're visualizing it-you can even put on the same outfit you'll be wearing on the big day."

3. Imagine How You'll Overcome Obstacles

Think about what challenges you'll face in real life. "Say to yourself, OK, I'm up there in front of the crowd-how do I feel? Maybe you're nervous and shaky. Imagine how you'll modify that response by taking a few deep breaths to slow your heart rate or smiling to reassure yourself," Post says. To run faster, picture your muscles feeling fatigued or sore toward the end of the race, then see yourself maintaining the correct form anyway. "What you're doing is creating a memory that's flexible enough to adapt to any circumstances," Post says.

4. Pair It with Practice

While studies show that visualization alone can positively influence performance, "the latest research suggests that combining imagery with actual practice is essential for it to make a substantial difference consistently," Post says. Do your running-speed work or give your speech to a small group of friends in addition to your mental practice routine. Then, when you're at the race's starting line or about to walk out in front of the wedding guests, take a few seconds to quickly cycle through your visualization for one last surge of confidence.

5. See Instant Success

Use these quick, in-the-moment guided visualization exercises to...

Relax: "Identify a place where you feel safe, comfortable, and calm, such as at the beach," says Nicole Detling, Ph.D. Visit that spot in your mind anytime you need to unwind. (On the verge of a meltdown? Also use these tips to calm down when you're about to freak out.)

Reduce Pain: Give the ache a shape, a color, or a name, like a balloon or a fire, Detling says. Then imagine yourself popping the balloon or dousing the fire with water. Taking control of it in your mind will help reduce it IRL.

Boost Motivation: If you're dragging your feet on the way to the gym, imagine yourself enjoying the perks of sticking to the routine for a few months, like better energy. Women who used this visualization technique, called approach imagery, were more enthusiastic, worked out more, and burned more calories than others, according to research in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine.