Does Visualizing Goals Work? Here’s What the Research Says

awareness brain science goal achievement goal setting self awareness visualization
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)

So many people are talking about visualization on social media. “Visualize your destiny” and you’ll achieve it. 

While that sounds nice and easy, that’s not the reality of it, 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. 


Visualizing Your Goals

Think, daydream, and brainstorm about all the amazing things you’re capable of.⁣

Envision yourself landing that promotion, winning that show, doubling your business revenue, navigating parties without food anxiety.⁣

In doing so, you might lower blood pressure and feelings of worry (Kappes & Oettingen, 2011)⁣

That sounds nice, relaxing, right?⁣ But in pursuit of your goals, it’s not optimal.⁣

Positive visualization alone can put your body in a lower energy state, essentially “tricking” yourself into thinking you’ve already achieved your goal.⁣

In other words, you feel like you’ve done all the hard work. You feel like you 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!


Energy underlies the investment of effort (Brehm & Self, 1989).⁣

The issue is that imagining a perfect outcome isn’t realistic.⁣


Research Studies on Visualization

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 the required actions to be successful. 


The Weight Loss Study


Oettingen and Wadden (1991) did a study where 25 women going through a weight loss program completed assessments of realistic expectations and fantasy. 

The results showed that more realistic, positive expectations such as imagining obstacles and overcoming them 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. 


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. 

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. 

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. 


What to Know About Visualization


Visualization feels nice, but it likely won’t help you.⁣ 

This is because visualizing positive images of success can drain energy from the ambition and effort it takes to actually succeed. 

Positive visualization usually ignores potential challenges, which would otherwise provide an opportunity to make effective plans to overcome or avoid obstacles. 

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


Apply Visualization Research to Your Life

Instead of just visualizing success, use it 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 work isn’t done there, though! You have to be critical and accept reality. 

Also visualize the obstacles, setbacks, and potential failure. From there, you can create “if-then” plans. 

If the not-so-desirable situations arise, then what will you do to keep going? 

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


Do More Than Visualize Your Future 


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! 


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.