Have you ever watched someone who is incredibly successful and wondered how did they get so lucky? We often associate other people’s success with luck and it’s pretty easy to think of a story of a singer who was “discovered” in a grocery store and became an overnight success. What we don’t see is all the years of practice and hard work that got their skill to the level where they could take advantage of opportunities.
It’s probably equally as easy to think of an example of someone you know that works hard every day but they never seem to get ahead. Working hard isn’t enough. We need to know the tricks and strategies that separate those who are at the top of their field from the rest of us.
One trick that many very successful people take advantage of is the knowledge that our brain is not able to distinguish imagination from reality! Athletes are great examples of this trick. Last time I was watching the Olympics I noticed that the competitive swimmers sit before their race with their eyes closed and their headphones in. While you might be inclined to think that they’re just trying to pump themselves up for the competition, part of what they are doing is mentally rehearsing their movements.
The swimmers are imagining themselves performing the perfect stroke as they swim down the lane. They are imagining what it will feel like for their arms and legs to pass through the water. What they will hear as they rush through the water and the crowd cheers them on. Imagining how the water will taste. Imagining how their body will feel. Imagining the adrenaline, and excitement they will experience.
When we imagine ourselves performing an activity, particularly if we imagine it so vividly that we can see ourselves doing the action and feel it in our body, our brain responds as if we are actually performing the activity! We know from studies of athletes that when athletes are visualizing their movements there are changes in their metabolism, their breathing, and their muscles that are the same as if they were actually doing the movement.
This is amazing! This means that we don’t have to physically do the action for our brains to learn. We can learn through the power of our mind to imagine ourselves in these situations.
It’s not just athletes who can take advantage of this brain trick. Public speakers mentally rehearse themselves giving speeches. Business people mentally practice leading meetings, or completing negotiations. We use imagery in medicine as well to promote relaxation, manage pain, and manage stress.
We know our brain learns by practice. Repetition is key. Mental practice and rehearsal triggers this learning in the brain. The more I imagine myself giving a speech the easier it will be when I actually deliver it.
When we are practicing this mental imagery or mental rehearsal we want to make the image as lifelike as we can. Imagine yourself actually performing the action. Imagine what you will see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. And imaging what emotions you will experience. The stronger an emotional reaction you can get when practicing mental imagery the better your brain will learn. Our brain learns faster and stronger with an emotional connection.
Here’s an imagery exercise I do several times per week to help me keep on track towards my goals.
Sit in a comfortable position with your back straight, your feet planted firmly on the floor, your hands resting comfortably on your lap, and your eyes closed.
Take five deep breaths. Breathe in through your nose as you count to five and then breathe out slowly through your mouth as you count to five.
Picture in your mind yourself achieving one of your goals. What would that be like? What would you see, what would you hear, what would be going on around you? How would you feel if you had succeeded and you were in that situation of success? Let that feeling of success and achievement fill you up. I start smiling when I do this exercise because this feeling is so powerful.
Keep that picture in your mind of you achieving your goal for one minute. If you find your mind starting to drift or you get distracted, just bring yourself back by refocusing on that mental image of you achieving your goal.
After you’ve done this for one minute, picture yourself achieving a second goal for one minute.
Then picture yourself achieving a third goal for one minute.
This exercise takes less than five minutes. The goal is to imagine yourself reaching your goals with so much detail that it’s almost like you are there. You can feel what it will be like to reach that goal.
By mentally picturing our goals we are training our brain to point towards success. Just like an athlete trains their movements in their mind, we are training our brains to reach our goals.
Try it for a week and see how you feel. I bet by the end of the week you will feel more motivated and energized to keep working towards your goals. Just like learning any skill, with practice this mental imagery becomes easier, and you will train your brain for success. All with your eyes closed!