June 18, 2024

Why visualisation is a lifeskill every young person needs to learn

4 min read

“So, what’s next?” is a question you get asked a lot in life. It starts when you’re finishing school. Those who go on to study further or take a gap year will hear it then, too. And you keep on hearing it: at work, at family gatherings and hanging out with friends.

When you have a plan for your life all figured out, the what’s next question can be innocuous small talk. But when you don’t, it can be a source of anxiety and sadness. You may feel like you’re drifting through life without purpose or direction, and maybe even like you’re being left behind as people around you forge careers, see the world, or get married and have kids. If you had an idea of what you thought your life might look like, but you’ve experienced a setback – like a breakup or losing your job – that little question can feel especially triggering.

Visualisation can help get you on track.

You have to see it

Visualisation, essentially, is forming a clear picture in your mind of what your desired outcome looks like. “You need to see it before you can do it; it’s as simple as that,” says Duncan Woods, human performance coach and executive coaching consultant to digital well-being platform, soSerene. “Knowing what you want is probably the most helpful framing that you can provide for yourself, and visualisation then becomes important for sustaining that vision and making it real.”

The reason visualisation is so powerful is because of how the brain works. “Studies have shown that the brain struggles to distinguish between visualised and actual experiences,” says Woods. So, when you form a vivid picture in your mind of what you want to create for yourself, your brain experiences that vision as reality – making it easier for you to figure out how to make it come true.

“Establishing what you are looking for and having a helpful practice to connect with it regularly is why visualisation is one of the most valuable personal growth techniques,” he adds.

How to use visualisation

Woods uses a technique called WOOP, developed by German psychologist Gabriele Oettingen. It comprises four steps:

  • Wish: Define what it is that you want. This becomes the basis for your visualisation.
  • Outcome: Connect with how it will feel and what it will mean to you if you could actually achieve your goal.
  • Obstacle: Pragmatically address any doubts or actual barriers that exist.
  • Plan: Build a plan that’s fuelled by a clearly defined wish, a strong connection with why that is important, and some frank troubleshooting around what is standing in the way.

He recommends starting with WOOP because filtering your goal through the different steps with discipline and focus allows you to strengthen your visualisation and troubleshoot it so that it moves from a wish into a real possibility. “Once you’ve gone through WOOP, start the visualising of both the end goal and outcome, and then see yourself doing the parts of the plan that you have created.”

Write your story

Humans make sense of the world through stories, and writing taps into your mind’s natural affinity for storytelling. So, if you struggle with visualisation, storytelling could help. “It can be very useful to use storytelling to craft the narrative in visualisations,” says Woods. “There is a lot of research that writing out goals results in a far higher success rate, so literally writing down your vision or even directing your day-to-day journalling toward that goal can be very helpful.”

He offers these tips to help you bring your visualisation to life through storytelling:

  • Start at the end: Imagine you have reached your goal and then document the journey you walked through life to get to that point.
  • Write in the third person: “It may feel strange, but one of the odd things about humans is that we seem to treat others with more care and respect than we do ourselves. So, directing your self-talk as if you were encouraging someone else will feel more useful and more constructive than letting the chatter in your head go unfiltered,” says Woods.
  • Keep at it: Like building any meaningful habit to improve your life, consistency and frequency are key. You won’t build a strong and supportive self-narrative by doing these exercises too few and far in between. A once-a-week check-in on your picture of success will go a long way to focusing the mind and in building a strong narrative.

You’ve got this!

“Although a really valuable skill to master, visualisation is something you are going to need to work at,” says Woods. To get it right, you need to learn how to remove yourself from the present – and all the thoughts and obstacles that may be holding you back – and insert yourself into an imaginary future where things have all worked out in the end.

If you’re naturally a daydreamer, now is your time to shine. But if you’re not, Woods recommends creating a quiet, undistracted environment (no digital devices!) and starting slowly. “Try and just focus on some big-picture images of what you are wanting and develop those as you go,” he says. “It does take focus, and some persistence to develop the habit, but it will certainly give you confidence in what you are doing and help keep you motivated to reach for your goals.”

Image credit: Freepik

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