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Try this for me: Walk into your nearest Borders (or Amazon) and head over to the self-help section. Pick up a book, any book, I am going to guess that the core technique used in its method is creative visualization (or some derivative thereof). Creative visualization has been the cornerstone of most pop-growth toolkits since Russian scientists advanced the theory in a now famous study of their 1980 Olympic team. And why not? Creative visualization is easy–the lazy man’s path to growth and development. I don’t have to work hard–I can just think about what it will be like when I succeed, and I will.

If it sounds too good to be true…

So what if I told you recent studies suggested that creative visualization not only didn’t help people realize goals, but was actually a hindrance. A study by Lien Pham and Shelley Taylor looked at the relationship between visualizing success and achieving success.  A group of students were asked to spend a few moments each day visualizing themselves doing well on an upcoming test tracking how much time they spent studying. When compared to the control group, which did not engage in the visualization exercises but were still asked to track study time, the students who visualized themselves doing well on the test preformed far worse. Digging further into the study they discovered that the visualization techniques lead the students to feelings of overconfidence which significantly lowered the amount of time they spent studying compared to the control.

You have a bad attitude…

Another study by Gabriele Oettingen and Thomas A. Wadden tracked obese women who were actively participating in a weight reduction program. The women were asked to describe how they would react in various situations when tempted by food.  The responses were ranked on a scale from highly positive (ie. I would not even consider touching it) to highly negative (ie. Wild horses couldn’t hold me back from eating it). Which group would you think most successful after a year in the program? If you thought it was the ‘highly positive’ group, think again; they lost an average of 26 pounds less than the ‘highly negative’ group.

Adopting Newspeak…

This is where the doublethink comes in. Decidedly not a psychologist, George Orwell explained Doubethink in 1984 as: “The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” As it happens this is a remarkably adept description of the most effective form of motivational visualization. Going back to the Pham/Taylor study above, there was a third group of students in the study. This third group was asked not to visualize succeeding on the test, but instead were asked to visualize the process of study and review that would be needed to succeed on the test as well as track their actual study habits like the other two groups. The results were remarkable; the grades of the third group were significantly better than either the control or the group that visualized only their success.

When tied in with the second study I conclude that what is lacking from traditional creative visualization techniques is the complete dismissal of acknowledgement and preparation for the barriers that will no doubt be faced along the way. Next time you set a goal you wish to achieve try this doublethink technique. Start by visualizing your success and write down what the benefits you will achieve. Then spend time visualizing the obstacles and problems you will face along the way and record these as well. Pick your top two or three form each group. Now the doublethink: alternating between the benefits and the obstacles, elaborate on each. Combining the visions of achieving success with the visions of the reality you will face long the way will be far more effective than either technique on its own.

Try it and please share your thoughts in the comments.