Setting smart goals is the key to feeling happy, healthy and financially secure, but that doesn’t mean achieving them is easy. Between defining specific goals, setting up a plan of action, and staying motivated, it’s no surprise that most of us have fallen short at one time or another. 

But if motivation is your biggest challenge in chasing your dreams – particularly long-term ones like saving for retirement – visualization may be the answer.  

“The evidence suggests our mind plays an important role on how we create an experience,” says registered psychotherapist Karolina Pasko. “What it does is prime your mind to be in an emotional state where you see only opportunities and open doors.”

How do visualizations work?

Visualizations work by triggering powerful emotions – which you already know if you’ve ever felt an emotional boost after a daydream, or felt that squirm of discomfort remembering an embarrassing experience. “The brain doesn’t know the difference between imagining something and actually doing it,” says Pasko. Some scientific evidence bears this out. In one study, researchers at New York University, London Business School, Stanford University and Ohio State University found that just showing people computer-generated images of their projected lives 20 to 30 years in the future was enough to increase how much they wanted to save for retirement. 

The trick for visualization, or mental imagery, is to use it to surround yourself with positive experiences and emotions, and to push away negative ones, Pasko says. “Visualizing those powerful outcomes can help your body and your brain to become responsive and conditioned to that result.”

What are the benefits of visualization?

Visualization can help you:

  • Stay motivated to reach your goals. Using visualization to experience the end result of your hard work – the runner’s high you’ll feel crossing the finish line after your race, the sense of adventure you’ll enjoy on your family vacation, the safety you’ll feel securing your family’s financial future – will help you maintain the resolve you need for the day-to-day work it takes to get there.  
  • Move on from previous failures or tough times. Mentally pushing negative memories behind you, until they’re barely visible in your mind’s eye, can help you feel refreshed and ready to take on new challenges.
  • Build your confidence from previous successes. Conversely, mentally drawing positive memories closer helps you relive the feelings of success and happiness associated with them.
  • Calm and quiet your mind to relieve anxiety. Visualizing peaceful and pleasant experiences – hiking through the mountains, chilling on the beach, relaxing into that final savasana in your favourite yoga class – can quiet anxieties and fears, and help you stay productive.  

4 tips to make visualization work for you

The best part of visualization? Anyone can do it. “There is no such thing as being bad at visualization,” says Pasko. We do it on an unconscious level any time we daydream, imagine an outcome or worry about the future.

That said, visualization can take some practice, and the more you do it the more effective it will be. Try these 4 visualization tips to make it work the best:

  • Engage all 5 senses. The more immersive and realistic you can make your visualization, the better it will work. If you’re visualizing a peaceful mountain hike, for instance, picture the small details – the weight of your pack on your shoulders, the subtle scent of the earth, the faint birdsong off in the distance – not just the obvious ones.
  • Make it a habit. Visualization works better the more you try it, so include it in your morning or night routine, recommends Pasko.
  • Involve your family. Visualization can be a great group exercise, particularly when you’re making financial goals that involve your whole family. Brainstorming vacation plans with your children, for instance, makes the excitement and joy easier to visualize later.
  • Consider consulting a professional. If you’re really struggling with visualization, consider talking to a psychotherapist who can develop personalized strategies with you. Additionally, a money coach or financial advisor can help you identify the best financial goals for you, and then you can use visualization to assist you in achieving them. 

Whether you’re working toward financial security for your young family, early retirement or another goal entirely – your first 5k or keeping your exercise resolutions, perhaps? – visualization can help you access the emotional hook you need to make your dreams a reality.