The Power of Visualization: How to Imagine the Future to Create a Better Present

Jim Carrey. Tiger Woods. Oprah Winfrey. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Lindsey Vohn.

What do all these celebrities have in common? They used visualization to create their success.

Jim Carrey once wrote himself a $10 million dollar check dated for the future when he was a struggling actor. Tiger Woods practiced swinging in his mind. Oprah Winfrey used visualization to imagine her future success. Arnold Schwarzenegger became a bodybuilder using his imagination. And Lindsey Vohn practiced skiing through several turns in her mind before she got on the slopes.

Visualizing the future has long been touted as the secret ingredient to success. But visualization is not just a discipline for amassing material success.

Visualization is the practice that will guide us to long-term joy as we seek to take care of not only our present selves but our future selves.

After a year-long study on joy, I defined joy as the internal satisfaction we feel when we are fully engaged with life. Visualization is a natural discipline for joy because as we make the future more concrete in our minds, we do a better job of taking care of our present selves.

The more connected we are to the future, the greater our joy will be in the present.

But if this is true, why don’t more people practice visualization? Why is visualization such a struggle, and how can we practically visualize our future for a better present?

In this article, I’ll identify how you can utilize visualization to give you more joy in the present.

You’ve got a friend in you

The problem most people have with visualization is they see their future selves as strangers.

Psychologist, Hal Ersner-Hershfield, conducted a study to record how connected people were to their future selves. The study showed participants seven pairs of circles. The first circle in the pair was labeled “current self” and the second circle was labeled “future self.” The first pair of circles did not overlap at all. But as the participants got further down the seven-point scale, the more the circles overlapped, indicating there was a greater connection between their current self and their future self.

The participants were asked to choose which pair they most identified with. As you guessed it, the participants who were the most connected to their future self gathered more wealth than others.

The people who felt most connected to their future self knew who their future self was.

But there are many people who don’t know their future self.

This was proven by another study from Hershfield. He placed study volunteers in an fMRI machine to see how the brain lit up when imagining their future selves. He first asked people to think of a celebrity. They knew of these celebrities, but they didn’t know them personally. They were strangers. Then the volunteers were asked to imagine themselves 10 years from now. The result? Their brain activity matched how they thought about the celebrities. They were strangers.

We see our future selves as strangers, not as extensions of who we are. When we do this, we can’t create a better present to take care of our future self. We don’t know our future self.

So how can we connect with our future self to make visualization easier and more successful?

How to connect with your future

The first study by Hershfield mentioned above shows us that the imagined future self matched the personality of today.

When you do visualization exercises, your imagination can go crazy and think of a person who is entirely different than who you are today. This person can have 10 sports cars, a mansion, and a helicopter pad. But the person you are today might be a minimalist who wouldn’t want these things in the first place.

To connect better with your future self, your future self should have the same values as your current self.

This means, before we can utilize visualization to give us more joy in the present, we must first understand who the person of today is. We can do this by connecting with our values.

Once we understand the values that inform our personality and choices today, then we can construct a future self who is still driven by those values.

Practical strategies for visualization

Here are practical ways you can connect with your future self and visualize a future that helps you in the present.

1. Write down a future identity that matches your personality of today, but isn’t shut down by shame or fear.

Shame and fear are powerful forces that shut down our potential. They tell us we’re not enough, we’ll never be enough, and anything outside our comfort zone is too much for us. When we imagine our future with shame and fear working in the background, we don’t believe we will actually become our future selves.

Instead of giving the reins to shame and fear, be critical of them. Write down your future identity, and then ask yourself…

  • Is this who I am?
  • Do I actually believe this person is me?
  • Can this person ever be me?

If visualization is going to help you, your future self must match your personality of today. But you must also believe this future identity is possible. When shame and fear work in the background, we might not believe our future self. This is why we must get critical about our mental picture, and ask if we truly believe we can become our future self.

2. WOOP (there it is!)

WOOP is a visualization exercise created by NYU professors Gabrielle Oettingen and Peter Gollwitzer. It stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacles, and Plan.

WOOP is effective because it utilizes a principle known as mental contrasting. Typically when we imagine the future, we focus on the glory of achieving the outcome. But this doesn’t automatically give us that future. Mental contrasting has us focus on the obstacles, so we can create a plan that anticipates those challenges.

To do WOOP, start by writing down your short-term or long-term goal. Be as specific as possible.

Then, imagine the outcome of achieving that goal. Be as descriptive as possible. Focus on the senses you might experience during that time. How would you feel? What would you smell? What would you see?

Next, start thinking through the obstacles. If you wanted to make a big sale, an obstacle would be that your prospect mentions not being sure if you have the right solution. By thinking through obstacles, you avoid being surprised in the moment.

Finally, come up with a plan for tackling those obstacles. What would you say in return if a prospect says they don’t trust your solution? You can write these as “if-then” statements. For example, if a prospect says they don’t trust your solution, then you will show them a specific case study to garner their trust.

WOOP is a tangible and practical exercise you can use for visualizing future outcomes and planning for your success.

3. Send a letter to your future self.

Once you get acquainted with the future self in your mind, write a letter to that person. Be as concrete and descriptive as possible in your letter.

One tool I use to send letters to my future self is futureme.org. You can use this tool to visualize your future self and keep yourself accountable to becoming this person.

Are you taking care of yourself?

Typically, we tend to only take care of the person we are today. This is fine, but could also land us in some troubling situations where we only think about our present happiness. A person only concerned with today might drink too heavily or watch too much television to find happiness in the present moment.

But when we practice the discipline of visualization, we can start taking care of not only ourself today, but the people we will become. And as we take care of our future self, we’ll add joy to our present self.

More joy is possible today, but it starts by getting clear on the future.

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