If you do a quick Google search on mental imagery, you’ll come across a variety of sports psychology articles on how athletes approach their sport from a mental training stand point. Some of the best athletes around the world do this. Phil Mickelson is famous for saying he took every shot twice—once in the mind’s eye and then again for the actual shot. Michael Phelps has the famous “watch the tape” routine, where he performs the perfect race in his mind every night before going to bed, and once again in the morning. Some of the greatest basketball players in the history of the sport, including Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant practiced 1000’s and 1000’s of game winning shots in their minds under Phil Jack and his Zen Buddhism philosophy.
Every where you look with mental visualization, hundreds of athletes and sports psychologists are tuning in to enhance their game. There are many well documented cases and studies and how top athletes do this, but surprisingly, not much outside of the sports world exists on how you can improve your own life using the same mental imagery techniques. If some of the top athletes are seeing such measurable results, why not apply them outside of sports into every day life?
Real vs Imagined
Your brain cannot tell the difference between a real occurrence and something actively imagined in great detail. A Harvard Medical School experiment performed a test on students ability to learn a piano fingering exercise. After teaching the entire group the exercise, they split the subjects into two groups: one group would practice the exercise every day for two hours, and the other group to just think about practicing everyday for two hours, running the scales through their mind.
The end results were astounding: both groups exhibited the same structural changes in the gray matter in their brain. Simply by thinking about the piano exercises and the results they wanted, they were able to re-wire their brains as if they had actual done it! This opens worlds of opportunities for how we can approach learning.
Applying it to You
Apply it to your life now, what are some ways you can help re-wire your brain to achieve your goals? To start off, the grander the details in the visualization, the better. Your brain has to be convinced that it is already happening—that you are experiencing what you intend to produce. This means imagining from all your senses: how your body feels, what you’re seeing, smelling, tasting, what you’re wearing, what’s near by.
Begin by determining what it is you intend to visualize and bring into your life. This could be nailing a golf swing, waking up early to start jog, or practicing the piano like in the example above. There limits are endless! Let’s use the jogging before work as an example: imagine yourself getting up a few minutes earlier than usual, putting on your exercise clothes and jogging shoes.
What do those clothes look like, how do they feel in your hands? What noises are going around you and what is the atmosphere of the room like? These are all details you want to include. Then visualize heading out into the crisp air. You start to job, watching the sun rise over the high building tops, hear the birds chirping, and start to feel pretty good. Take visual note of all the things you are seeing around you, the people makin their way to the bus, the feel and smell of the air around you, the sound of your feet hitting the floor.
The more detail the better. In fact, I’m sure many of you were able to create a pretty descriptive visualization just reading that. Finally, take note of how you feel after you get back. What thoughts are going on in your head when you walk in the front door. Feeling good and energized? Allow yourself to actively feel those emotions now, as if you are already experiencing them. You’re in essence feeding your brain with the same experiences you want it to produce.
As discussed in last weeks blog post on creating habits, mental imagery should be approached in a similar mindset of taking small steps at a time. As much as you might want to be a multi-billionaire dating a supermodel and touring the world in your own private yacht, the mental imagery becomes increasingly difficult the further you are away from it. Remember, you brain has to believe that it is actively experiencing this now.
The visualization has to be a plausible experience for your brain. Using the Harvard Medical study above, if the students imaged themselves playing like Beethoven, I can assure that they wouldn’t see much progress, even after the a week of the same visual training techniques. But because it was a small and goal and a very do-able exercise, the brain was able to change its physiological structure with the sheer power of thoughts alone.
You’re beliefs in what you can achieve are an important congruent in your life. They shape your “I am” and definition of self, including those beliefs in potential ability. That’s why small wins are so crucial to making changes. Though they may seem small and petty at first, they grow exponentially and compound in the long run over time.
To help motivate you focus on the incredible small changes instead of casting them aside as trival and unimportant, let’s look at an example to help illustrate my point. Say you receive a penny for your laborious efforts as a token for your improvements. Seems pretty small and insignificant, right? Now suppose that the penny doubles in value every month to represent your continuous progress and growth. After one-quarter of a year, you’re looking at 8 pennies! How long do you suppose it would take you to get to $1,000,000. 50 years? 100 years? The answer is less than 2½.
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Humans are terrible with grasping exponential growth, because we just don’t see or use it very much in our ordinary lives. Yet it exists all around us; anyone familiar with Moore’s law or the growth of technology and our adaptation can account for that. You can’t discount any seemingly small victory. It’s ability to grow and compound overtime has big time effects. In fact, the smaller the better. Ingrain the attitude of patting yourself on the back, even for the smallest progress. Take great pride in taking baby steps. Slowly, you’ll cultivate the mentality of achieving. Your seemingly far off goals and distant ambitions are exponentially closer than you think. All it takes is a little active imagination.