Ever fantasized that you’re a lean, mean fighting machine, with Churchillian speech-making talents, winning charisma, and superhuman willpower? If so, then you have already tapped into the tool that can help you get there in real life. Mental imagery—the kind that involves imagining success—has long been employed by professional athletes to boost their strength, confidence, and results. (Arnold Schwarzenegger imagined his biceps to be mountain peaks as he pumped iron.) But the technique is good for more than just sports. “Everyone can use imagery to prepare for all kinds of situations, including public presentations and difficult interactions,” says Daniel Kadish, Ph.D., a psychologist in New York City who guides clients in mental imagery. Research has shown that surgeons, musicians, and business executives have used it to focus and to improve their performance. It could also help you run a 5K, ace a presentation, or even pass up the morning doughnut box.
How It Works
Scientists believe that we may experience real-world and imaginary actions in similar ways, explains Aymeric Guillot, Ph.D., a professor at the Center of Research and Innovation in Sport at University Claude Bernard Lyon, in France. Whether we walk on a mountain trail or only picture it, we activate many of the same neural networks—paths of interconnected nerve cells that link what your body does to the brain impulses that control it. You can use this to your advantage in different ways. For example, imagining yourself doing movements can help you get better at them: Legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus practiced each shot in his mind before taking it.
Mental workouts also stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, which governs our fight-or-flight response and causes increases in heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure. So simply envisioning a movement elicits nervous-system responses comparable to those recorded during physical execution of the same action, says Guillot.
Although it may sound like hocus-pocus, some research suggests that imagining could help you get results even when you don’t move a muscle. In one notable study that appeared in the North American Journal of Psychology in 2007, athletes who mentally practiced a hip-flexor exercise had strength gains that were almost as significant as those in people who actually did the exercise (five times a week for 15 minutes) on a weight machine.
If your challenge is more mental than physical—for instance, handling a difficult conversation—imagery can keep you calm and focused. “Mentally rehearsing maintaining a steady assertiveness while the other person is ignoring or distracting you can help you attain your goal,” says Kadish. Envisioning this calmness may also decrease physical symptoms of stress, like an increase in heart rate or stress hormones.
When you repeatedly imagine performing a task, you may also condition your neural pathways so that the action feels familiar when you go to perform it; it’s as if you’re carving a groove in your nervous system. Finally, on a purely psychological level, envisioning success can enhance motivation and confidence.
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Powerful though your mind may be, you can’t just think your way from running a nine-minute mile to a five-minute one. “Imagery can’t make you perform beyond your capabilities, but it can help you reach your potential,” says Tom Seabourne, Ph.D., an athlete and imagery expert and the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Quick Total Body Workouts ($15, amazon.com). So imagery can be a handy tool the next time you have set your sights on a goal. Here’s how to put it into effect.
Use all your senses. Mental imagery is often referred to as visualization, but it’s not limited to the visual. “The most effective imagery involves all five senses,” says Michael Gervais, Ph.D., a performance psychologist in Los Angeles who has worked with numerous professional athletes and teams. What are you smelling, hearing, feeling? “You should be so immersed in a mental image that it seems as if it is actually happening,” he says.
Be the star, not the audience. To engage in your practice fully, “imagine performing the activity from your own perspective,” says Seabourne. Don’t watch yourself as if you’re viewing a movie.
Practice. “Effective mental imagery is not wishful thinking, nor is it brief moments of ‘seeing’ success,” says Gervais. Just as you can’t become a better speaker simply by reading a book on the subject, “the only way we get better at mental imagery is by practicing it,” says Tammy Miller, a speech coach in State College, Pennsylvania, and a speaker for Toastmasters International, a communication- and leadership-development nonprofit. The imagery should be so detailed that it takes almost as long to execute in your mind as it would take in real life. (Of course, if you’re getting ready for a marathon, you’ll probably want to work your way through just the tough spots.)
Write it down. If you really want to hone your efforts, put the story of how your feat will unfold in writing, says Kay Porter, Ph.D., a sports-psychology consultant and the author of The Mental Athlete ($20, amazon.com).
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You can further enhance your practice if you employ strategies specific to your goal. Use these tips to meet challenges that are especially, well, challenging.
If You Want: Healthier Eating Habits
Focus on the positive. Think of reaching for an apple instead of visualizing passing up the peanut butter cups. Researchers suspect that this tack may be more effective because it’s easier to see how close you are to a new goal than to gauge how far you are from old habits. In other words, it’s more satisfying to note all the fresh, nutritious salads you’ve had than to think of all the cupcakes you could have eaten but didn’t.
Imagine every step. A 2011 study by scientists at McGill University, in Montreal, found that when told to eat more fruit, people who envisioned every step of the process (reaching for it, biting into it, enjoying it) were more successful than those who only generally thought about eating more fruit.
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If You Want: More Out of Your Workout
Put rest breaks to use. Between sets of strength-training exercises, picture yourself doing additional repetitions of the move that you just completed. In one of Guillot’s studies, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2010, people who imagined doing leg presses between sets were able to lift more weight and do more repetitions than those who didn’t use imagery.
Feel the results. While visualizing small steps works for fruit, a broader perspective may be better for exercise. A study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine in 2011 found that people who saw themselves as the person they would like to become as a result of exercise burned more calories than did those who imagined themselves only working out or getting ready to do it. So if you imagine how slim and energetic you are as you put on those sneakers, you may have a better chance of becoming those things—or at least of exercising tomorrow.
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If You Want: To Ace a Speech
Script your success. Break up the imagery into segments, Gervais recommends. First imagine walking into the room. (What is the lighting like? The temperature? What are you wearing?) Then take a deep breath before you begin. Think of getting onstage with the “sense of trusting yourself,” says Porter. Look into the audience and focus on one or two people who are interested in what you’re saying as you deliver the speech calmly and smoothly. But “don’t picture everything going perfectly. Also rehearse overcoming difficulty,” says Kadish. “You might envision someone yawning loudly, but experience yourself maintaining your focus and delivery.”
Be true to yourself. If you’re a soft-spoken type, don’t visualize yourself thundering and pounding your fists; it won’t feel real. Think of speaking clearly and confidently, as the very best version of you.