If you've ever watched a documentary about Olympic athletes, chances are you've seen how visualizations are used.

Visualization, or the process of developing a mental image of what you want to happen is used both in training as well as in competition prep.

But visualizations are also useful to us mere mortals trying to do better at work, attempting to launch a new business or getting back in shape.

But there's skill to using them - visualizations work much better in some contexts than others.

Let's take a look at what the big brains from University of Virginia had to say in their research:

1/ Easy-to-visualize goals are judged to be closer than harder-to-visualize goals.

Instead of visualizing a certain weight number showing up on the scales display, picture a mental image (or even use a prior photo) of you at that weight looking happy and healthy. The more "real and visible" the more motivating.

2/ The beneficial effects of visualization work best when close to the goal. 

If you just joined a very long queue, visualization of you reaching the counter doesn't work as strongly as when you are closer to the front.

3/ Consolidated goal visualization works better than many subgoals.

Framing a goal of 20 sales in a consolidated manner elicits greater effort (goal is achieved faster) relative to when this goal is split into four separate subgoals of five sales each.

But hang on, doesn't 3 conflict with 2 you might say?

Short answer is yes, it can!

In the words of the researchers:

"...unpacking a goal into subgoals results in two countervailing forces. On the one hand, subgoals make the tasks more manageable and, consistent with goal-gradient theory, may increase effort and performance. On the other hand, splitting a goal into multiple subgoals may also shift motivational focus away from the main goal, increasing complacency and therefore decreasing performance.”

In simpler terms - subgoals can cause you to lose touch with the bigger goal, and cause you to rest on your laurels after hitting each of the smaller subgoals.

The best approach may be then to do both.

Always have the big picture target in mind and progress towards it updated, but use small subgoals to drive short term focus and progress, especially if the end goal is a complicated one with an uncertain path. Basically, try to get the best of both worlds.

Fascinating huh?

Ok lecture is over, it's time for your homework:

Which of your personal goals can you increase your effort and persistence in by adding (or enhancing) visualization?