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Kathy Whelan

Posted on January 22, 2020

The start of a new decade inspires me, and perhaps it will you, to think beyond this year. Taking time to create a clear, detailed vision of a “future self” several years from now can make a big difference in reaching goals and becoming who you’ve always wanted to be.

In fact, this is how my clients and I begin our coaching together. Designing a vision helps put short-term health goals in a broader, more meaningful context. By reminding us of why our striving matters, a vision provides motivation. Seeing ourselves vividly as we would like to be gives us hope for the envisioned future and adds to our confidence.

Highly successful actors and athletes have long used this powerful technique to achieve their best performances. Brain science accounts for its effectiveness, as Frank Niles, Ph.D. explains:

According to research using brain imagery, visualization works because neurons in our brains, those electrically excitable cells that transmit information, interpret imagery as equivalent to real-life action. When we visualize an act, the brain generates an impulse that tells our neurons to “perform” the movement. This creates a new neural pathway . . . that primes our body to act in a way consistent [with] what we imagined.

Whether we see ourselves running a race, running a company or challenging ourselves another way, we are readying our brain for the changes that will bring our vision to life.

A vision should be as full as possible, using many senses. If you see yourself as a chef, imagine how your food looks, smells and tastes. If you’re a musician, hear your music. Ask yourself questions like these: Where am I? Who is there with me? What am I doing? How do I feel? What excites me about this and why? How does it connect to what matters most to me? Expressing your vision in the present tense makes it seem more real.

Visualization should not be confused with wishful thinking or fantasizing. Since this is a technique for turning an imagined state into a real one, it has to have something to do with what’s actually possible. And yet we shouldn’t let current reality hold us back too much. I recently watched an excellent documentary about a tiny, gutsy woman with big dreams. In the 1980s, Cathy Corison wanted to be a Napa Valley winemaker. Everyone told her it was impossible for a woman to do that. She thought, “Watch me,” and went on to found Corison Winery.

Sometimes a vision starts with what you don’t want to be. Oprah Winfrey tells of observing her grandmother and vowing to create a very different life for herself. Oprah’s vision evolved over the years as she realized her natural talents and the kind of life they made possible.

Once you have created a vision that inspires you, focus on the choices and actions that will get you there. Without a clear plan – the “how” that follows the “what” – a vision can dissolve quickly. A plan needs to incorporate goals and action steps that are SMART: specific, measurable, actionable, realistic and timed.

When you’re ready to take action, envision yourself doing the things you plan to do before you do them. If you see yourself becoming a non-smoker, picture yourself taking a walk instead of a cigarette break at lunchtime. Remember the brain science: Visualizing such a step opens up a neural pathway that sets the body up to take the imagined actions. These pathways grow stronger through repetition over time, so the more often we revisit our vision and repeat the actions that support it, the closer we get.

Find a way to keep your vision in mind. If you’re a visual type, a photograph might be a good reminder, or a soundtrack if you’re more auditory by nature. Some people are more tactile and prefer an object. Whatever it is, use your reminder to hold your vision close.

If you’re like me, you may feel a little anxious about doing this exercise. Who knows what might come up and what you could be called upon to do? It’s normal to feel those jitters when you consider stepping outside your comfort zone. But I’m going to do it anyway. If not now, when? How about you?

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