Why Visualizing Success Isn’t As Farfetched As It Sounds

Don’t roll your eyes. Here are the better ways to make visualizing success work.

Why Visualizing Success Isn’t As Farfetched As It Sounds
[Photo: Flickr user August Brill]

It’s a popular self-help trope: If you believe it, you can achieve it!


In the “New Thought” philosophy, popularized around the beginning of the 20th century, gurus preached that sending out positive thought vibes would bring good things to your life. It’s the idea Rhonda Byrne ran with in her 2006 best-selling book The Secret, and you’re probably unconvinced about the whole positive visualization thing.

And yet, when you talk with professional athletes, many mention a mental component of their training. They picture themselves standing at the free throw line, sinking shots. So does visualization work? Would it work in a business context?

“Skeptics have a right to be skeptical if they visualize the wrong thing,” says Jack Groppel, co-founder of the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute, and Vice President of Applied Science and Performance Training at Johnson & Johnson Health and Wellness Solutions. Simply picturing yourself winning a deal won’t guarantee it. Your competitors are likely visualizing the exact same outcome. Here’s how to do it better.

Focus on what you can control

A smart golfer visualizes sinking a put, not winning the tournament. Groppel says he tells athletes to “visualize the process you’re in and let the results take care of themselves.” Likewise, in a tough negotiation, “visualize yourself with a positive physical response. See yourself being optimistic, smiling, shaking hands with everyone, and looking everyone in the eye.” Whatever else happens, you are in control of those actions, so picturing yourself reacting that way will help you stay calm.


Pam Grout, author of E-Squared: 9 Do-it-Yourself Energy Experiments that Prove Your Thoughts Create Your Reality, notes that “Our lives tend to conform to our beliefs and expectations, whether those beliefs and expectations are conscious or unconscious.” So work to be conscious of those expectations. Visualization is a skill you can get better at like anything else if you regularly carve out time to do it. “I rehearse like crazy,” says Groppel. “I never go into a presentation of any type cold, ever.”

Get (sort of) specific

A new study in the Academy of Management Journal finds that using specific visual imagery in corporate vision statements is more effective than focusing on values. Employees who want “to see customers smiling as they leave our stores” are more likely to unite around this goal than those encouraged to become the leading seller of their products.


So how should you use this insight? Grout says that as you’re visualizing an upcoming scenario, “it helps to have an anchor–say, me with my favorite coffee cup doing whatever it is I hope to accomplish.” That said, you don’t want to be caught off guard if a high-stakes situation doesn’t unfold exactly as planned. You picture the conference room where you’ve been before in glorious detail–and then the meeting moves. Again, be careful of what you can control, and what you can’t.

Deal with negative thoughts

“The truth is we’re always using ‘visualization.’ Most times we just don’t realize it,” says Grout. “When we expect that life is going to be hard or that some project isn’t going to take off, we soon find that very reality staring us in the face.” But that doesn’t mean that negative thoughts doom you to failure. Everyone has them.

“The best thing to do when having negative thoughts is to use what I call the two magic words: ‘It’s okay.’” Just let it go, and realize that “when you start beating yourself up because you have a negative thought, you only add more weight and energy to the problem.” Get back on track with positive thoughts as soon as possible.


About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at