A blonde woman, Kasey Jo Orvidas, PH.D., standing on a balcony. Text over image says visualization is bullshit...(if you don't also visualize the obstacles)

Make Goal Visualization Work for You

mindset Jun 23, 2020

So many people on social media are talking about visualization to achieve your goals. They say things like, "Visualize your destiny, and you'll achieve it." 

These creative visualization techniques are often attributed to Tony Robbins, who claims, "By taking charge of his mindset and emotions, he cultivates a positive state, which greatly increases the odds that he will experience happiness, success and fulfillment throughout his day."

While that sounds nice and easy, achieving your goals isn't as easy as practicing a few visualization techniques and doing a bit of mental imagery. It takes more than "positive energy" to achieve your goals, so let's set this straight using research. ⁣

I speak a lot about the power of thought and envisioning your desired reality, but the idea of visualizing your future can be taken too far if not practiced correctly.⁣ In fact, some research shows that positive thinking can actually do more harm than good. 

In this blog post, I'll go over what visualization is, where visualization techniques fall short, and how you can make your visualization practice effective for improving your health and fitness or achieving other goals.

What is Goal Visualization?

Visualization is a mental technique or practice in which you create detailed mental imagery or scenarios of yourself achieving your goals. It's a process where you use your imagination to vividly picture yourself successfully accomplishing the objectives you've set for yourself.

People in various fields, including personal development, sports psychology, and self-improvement, claim to use the power of visualization to help them clarify their goals, increase motivation, and increase the likelihood of achieving their goals.

You've likely heard that Olympic athletes and business leaders use visualization and vision boards to imagine and realize success throughout their lives. Some people consider visualization a great tool to reduce anxiety, stay motivated, and increase confidence to help them achieve their goals.

But thinking about something like making free throws, for example, doesn't mean you'll ever be able to make free throws if you don't put in the work.

How Outcome Visualization Works

Focus, think, daydream, and brainstorm about all the amazing things you're capable of.⁣ See your desired outcome in your head.

Envision yourself landing that promotion, winning that show, doubling your business revenue, and navigating parties without food anxiety.⁣ All this visualization might lower your blood pressure and feelings of worry (Kappes & Oettingen, 2011)⁣, but it's not optimal in pursuit of your goals.⁣

Positive visualization alone can put your body in a lower energy state and essentially "trick" you into thinking you've already achieved your goal.⁣ You'll feel like you've done all the hard work and can relax.⁣

But that's not exactly helpful when we still need to freaking do the thing. You still need to put in the work to get the promotion, win the show, double your business revenue, and navigate parties without food anxiety. 

There's a lot of work to be done! ⁣We need ENERGY, not RELAXATION.

Energy underlies the investment of effort (Brehm & Self, 1989).⁣ In other words, the level of motivation and enthusiasm someone has for a particular endeavor is influenced by the amount of energy or internal resources they can bring to bear on that task.

If we're already relaxed because we tricked our brains into thinking that we've done the hard work, then we won't have the energy or motivation it takes to put in the action to pursue that goal.

Rather than just visualizing our desired outcome, we need to create a game plan with action steps to get us to the finish line. We need energy and focus to make real progress. Otherwise, we'll be sitting around stumped as to why nothing has changed after weeks or months of visualization.

Research Studies on the Visualization Process

Another issue with relying on visualization techniques to achieve goals is that imagining a perfect outcome isn't realistic simply because life isn't perfect, and we experience speedbumps along the way. ⁣

Across numerous studies, we see that when people mentally simulate, imagine, or visualize easily achieving success, they're less likely to succeed than people who imagine failing to perform their best, encountering problems, or taking the required actions to be successful. 

In other words, those who practice visualization that includes a realistic vision of what something like losing weight looks like are more likely to be successful than those who have a mental image of their progress being perfect and linear.

Think about your current fitness journey. Has every single day gone according to plan? Probably not.

You've likely had days where you missed certain macro targets or didn't get enough steps in. And there have for sure been days when life got crazy and you weren't managing your stress the way you would like.

These things are a normal part of daily life and a fitness journey, so if you're visualizing your success, make sure you don't only focus on the good and that you imagine the challenges that you're bound to face.

Visualization During Weight Loss: A Study

Let's look at more research on visualization techniques. Oettingen and Wadden (1991) did a study in which 25 women going through a weight loss program completed assessments of realistic expectations and fantasy expectations. 

The results showed that more realistic, positive expectations, such as imagining and overcoming obstacles, resulted in more weight loss. Those who had more positive fantasy visualizations lost less weight.

The researchers propose that fantasies of successful achievement inhibit the effort required to achieve the desired outcomes. That's because real life requires overcoming major obstacles to achieve our goals.

If we want to lose weight, we have to plan things like how we will navigate social situations that involve food, how we will hit our macro targets, and how we will achieve our workout and step goals each week.

It's nice to create a vision board with what a healthy lifestyle looks like, but if we don't have realistic goals or anticipate obstacles, that vision board will remain a fantasy.

Visualization in a Time Management and Control Study

Another study on visualization conducted by Kappes and Oettingen (2011) looked at time management. 

The researchers had 40 students participate in the study, and the students were divided into two groups: a fantasy group and a neutral group. 

The fantasy group was instructed to imagine that everything they did in the coming week would go really well and to generate and write down positive thoughts and daydreams. This method is probably very similar to the visualization techniques you've read about in your research on the effectiveness of visualization.

The neutral group was asked to generate and write down their thoughts and daydreams about the coming week. They were not directed to be positive or negative. 

After seven days, the people in the fantasy group reported that their week was worse overall. They felt like they had less control and had more difficulty managing time than the participants in the neutral group. 

The researchers suggest that imagining positive success without considering realistic outcomes interfered with actual success. So, once again, research shows us that an effective visualization technique requires setting realistic expectations and thinking about potential obstacles we may face.

If we're trying to better manage our time, we would be better off anticipating traffic, unscheduled meetings, and projects taking longer than we'd like than simply envisioning things going perfectly. And, to be clear, envisioning obstacles doesn't necessarily mean you have negative thoughts about your desired outcome; it means you're being realistic about what's possible and likely to happen.

What to Know About Visualization

Visualization sounds nice, but it likely won't help you achieve your goals.⁣ 

This is because the visualizing techniques of only thinking about positive images of success can drain energy from the ambition and effort it takes to actually succeed and make your life goals a reality. 

Positive visualization usually ignores potential challenges, which would otherwise provide an opportunity to make effective plans to overcome or avoid obstacles. It's not enough to just visualize success. 

Daydreaming about successful outcomes can derail actual success by serving as a substitute for real goal achievement.

So comes the ultimate question: Can visualization exercises help you achieve your goals?

If done correctly, visualization can help, but it isn't the be-all and end-all of your success. If you visualize specific details like the obstacles you're bound to face on your journey, then visualization can help in the process, but you still have to take action.

How to use Visualization Techniques Effectively

Some final thoughts on visualization: I hate to break it to you, but the power of visualization isn't as strong as many people would have you believe. Visualization techniques like creating a vision board or mental rehearsal can only get you so far.⁣

Instead of just visualizing success, use visualization as a jumping-off point to reverse engineer your desired reality and be CRITICAL when you do.⁣ You can practice critical visualization through mental contrasting, which is the process of comparing and contrasting the positive and negative possibilities for the future.

For example, if you want to increase your confidence and strength and change your body composition, first visualize yourself as the best version of yourself. 

How do you feel?

What does your life look like?

The common visualization technique you're probably familiar with would have you end there and essentially just hope you achieve your desired confidence, strength, and body composition through positive thinking.

But the work isn't done there! 

If you want to achieve those goals, you have to be critical and accept reality. You must also visualize the obstacles, setbacks, and potential failures. From there, you can create "if-then" plans. 

If the not-so-desirable situations arise, then what will you do to keep going? For example, if you can't get your Saturday morning walk in, then what will you do to ensure you stay on track to hit your step goal?

You can read more about breaking bad habits and creating if-then plans here.

Do More Than Visualize Your Future

Goal-setting success requires a lot more than visualization. You have to look to the future and be realistic about the possibilities and how you'll overcome any obstacles. 

Whatever your future goals are, they're generally much easier to achieve when you have someone to support you and help you navigate through the challenges. 

If you're interested in working with a stellar team of coaches who can help you achieve your goals and set you up for lifelong success, you need to apply to work with KJO Coaching!

We'd love to be a part of your success journey!

Better Than Visualization

If you're ready to take action toward your goals with more than just visualization techniques, check out our FREE 5-day self-sabotage workshop.

You'll receive short, daily trainings and exercises to finally learn the “why” behind your cravings, all-or-nothing thinking, and other psychological barriers that keep getting in the way of your health and fitness goals.

You'll learn what's preventing you from moving forward in your fitness journey and increase your likelihood of success. Access the workshop here, and make this the first step to improving your health, fitness, and life!


Connect with us!

Email: [email protected]

IG: @coachkaseyjo @kjocoaching ⁣


Brehm, J. W., & Self, E. A. (1989). The intensity of motivation. Annual review of psychology, 40(1), 109-131.

Kappes, H. B., & Oettingen, G. (2011). Positive fantasies about idealized futures sap energy. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47(4), 719-729.

Oettingen, G., & Wadden, T. A. (1991). Expectation, fantasy, and weight loss: Is the impact of positive thinking always positive? Cognitive Therapy and Research, 15(2), 167-175.

Hi, I'm Kasey!

I coach, mentor, write, and teach with one main focus: Build strong bodies and healthy lifestyles, starting with your mindset.


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