We all have goals. But for most of us, turning those goals into reality can be difficult, especially the bigger, more challenging ones. How many times have you put something on your “to-do” list, only to see it remain there, uncompleted, for days, weeks, months, or even years? Luckily, there’s a research-backed way to start turning your goals into reality: goal visualization. Read on to learn how goal visualization works, how you can use goal setting tools to implement goal visualization, and to get my Trello board template for visualizing and achieving goals.
Does Visualization Work? The Science Behind Goal Visualization
Goal visualization is the process of clearly visualizing your goals, whether by simply imagining them in your mind, saying them out loud, or writing them down. It makes sense that this would be an essential first step toward achieving your goals, right? After all, you can’t achieve something that you can’t clearly see and define (and if you can, please tell us how!). Plus, when you’re able to imagine yourself achieving your goals, it serves as a motivator to actually take action.
But goal visualization doesn’t just make sense intuitively, it’s also borne out by research. Studies have found that visualization can improve both physical and psychological performance in all sorts of situations, most notably among athletes. For example, in one study, participants who practiced taking free throw basketball shots improved performance by 7%, while those who practiced and visualized making free throw shots improved performance by 32%! In another study, people who visualized exercising (but didn’t actually exercise) experienced almost as much of a strength increase as those who actually exercised. Couch potatoes rejoice! Meanwhile, Olympic athletes are well-known for using visualization as a means to both improve performance and remain calm and relaxed before competing.
According to brain imaging research, goal visualization works because our neurons interpret the images in our minds as real-life events. Our brain then tells the neurons to “perform” the action or thing we visualized, which creates a new neural pathway (a cluster of cells in our brain that creates learned behaviors). This prepares your brain and body to perform the action in real life.
How to Visualize Goals
What’s important to remember is that not all goal visualization is created equal. In fact, there are two types of goal visualization, and one of them can actually make you less likely to achieve your goals. The two types of goal visualization are:
- Outcome visualization: This is when you envision yourself achieving your goal.
- Process visualization: This is when you envision each of the individual actions and steps necessary to achieving your goal.
Research has shown that outcome visualization can actually be demotivating, because it makes you feel like you’ve already accomplished your goal. This means you get that little zing of positivity you were looking for, and don’t take any further action.
Process visualization, on the other hand, has been shown to boost the odds that you achieve your goal — and do it well. When you’re specific about the actions you need to take to reach your goals, you create a more targeted mental picture, which activates the corresponding brain pathways and makes it easier for you to perform those actions and reach your goal. So this means that if you want to use goal visualization to turn your dreams into reality, you need to visualize the journey, not just the final destination.
Besides focusing on the process, there are some other best practices when it comes to visualizing your goals. If you want to effectively visualize your goals, this is what I recommend:
- Set aside a time and limit distractions. You can’t truly visualize your goals if you’re multitasking, in a hectic environment, or trying to get it done quickly between other tasks. Dedicate an hour or so to the process, and make sure you won’t be interrupted (yes, even by your needy pet cat).
- Put it in writing. While visualizing often refers to imagining something in your mind, I find that it’s even more effective to write it down as well. This forces you to put into words what you want to achieve, which can help you get even clearer on your goals.
- Make sure your goals are realistic and concrete. Many of us have big, vague, goals, like “grow my business,” or “be healthier.” A vague goal can be a good starting point, but if you want to actually accomplish it, you need to make it more specific. For instance, “grow my business” becomes “increase my newsletter list by 50% by the end of the year,” and “be healthier” becomes “eat three servings of vegetables a day.”
- Break your goals down into smaller tasks. This is where process visualization comes into play. Once you’ve gotten clear on the outcome you want, you need to identify the steps you’ll need to take to get there. This will not only help you get started and make it feel less overwhelming, but also allow you to tap into the power of process visualization. For example, if your desired outcome is to build an app, you might break it down into steps like “do research on competitor apps,” “make a list of desired features,” “hire a developer,” and so on. Keep breaking the task down until you have a single actionable item that you can accomplish in under an hour.
Using Goal Setting Tools to Take Visualization to the Next Level
Of course, you can visualize your goals on your own, without any bells or whistles. But I’ve found it to be much more effective to use goal-setting tools, especially if you’re working on tracking multiple goals at once. Tools help you stay organized and get a real-life picture of your goals and progress toward them, which adds even more power and substance to the goal you visualized in your mind.
There are a variety of goal-setting tools, from whiteboards to old-school pencil and paper to sophisticated software with all sorts of features. There’s also been a recent boom in software programs that you can use to set, track, and achieve goals: there’s Trello, Asana, Airtable, ClickUp, and way too many more to name. Honestly, it feels like every weekend there’s a new one popping up, and I’ve seen many clients succumbing to “shiny object syndrome,” wasting tons of time as they switch back and forth between different programs.
It’s important to remember not to get distracted by choosing the perfect tool, but rather focus on your process for achieving goals. Almost every goal-setting tool out there can be adapted to your particular needs and goals, so remember to always keep the process — not the software — at the center.
For myself and my clients, I generally recommend Trello for a variety of reasons. It has a very clear visual layout that allows you to truly see each step you need to take to achieve your goals (ie, process visualization). I also find that Trello activates both sides of your brain: the visual, drag-and-drop, adaptable layout works the creative right side of your brain, allowing you the freedom you need to think big and ideate; meanwhile, the systems and structure work the methodical left side of your brain, allowing you to stay organized.
With Trello, you can create multiple different “Boards,” each one completely customized to your needs. Within the Boards, you can create as many “Lists” as you want, which are basically vertical columns that are focused on a particular type of task. Within each List are “Cards,” each of which contains one task and all the information you need to accomplish that task. Every individual and every team will use Trello differently — and you may even find that you use it differently depending on what type of project you’re tackling. One of the beauties of Trello is that you can create multiple different Boards and customize each one, so you can create the perfect visual layout and workflow for each of your unique goals.
My Trello Board Template for Achieving Your Goals
Though there’s an endless variety of possible configurations for Trello boards, I’ve developed one in particular that I find to be helpful for visualizing goals. Because it’s been so helpful for me and for my clients in terms of visualizing and achieving goals, I created a free Trello board template that you can use to turn your goals into reality.
You can access the Trello board template here. Here’s a quick explanation of the different lists on the board and how to use them:
- Inbox: This is where to put tasks as they come to you, to make sure nothing gets lost. Everything in this column needs to be looked at, addressed, and moved to another List.
- Planned: This is where to put tasks once you’ve made a plan to accomplish them.
- Up Next: This is where you put all of your upcoming tasks, in order by date. That way you won’t get overwhelmed by the number of tasks, because it will always be clear which task you need to focus on next.
- In Progress: This is where you put tasks that you are currently working on.
- Focus: This is where to put the things you will be tackling on that particular day. Make sure to limit this List to only three Cards — putting in more than that makes it more difficult for you to actually focus on and accomplish the tasks. I find that this List is one of the most helpful for goal visualization, because as I put these Cards into the List, I can actually picture myself working on them.
- Done: This is where to put tasks that have been completed. This List is a super powerful motivator, because seeing it grow throughout the week just feels great!
- One Day: This is where to put ideas and goals that you want to work on someday, but don’t have a plan for yet. I put both business and personal goals in here, and use it as a source of inspiration and a way to remember to focus on the big picture and what’s really important.
This Trello Board template is a helpful way to get started with goal visualization, but remember that you should feel free to customize yours depending on what you’re working on. Your Board might include Lists like “Timeline,” “In Review,” “Waiting For,” “To Read,” and on and on. Think about what you want to accomplish and what format works best for you. Hey, you can even add a “Don’t Need to Do” List if it helps you feel better about what’s on your plate!
The research is clear: visualizing the process of achieving your goals makes it much more likely that you’ll get the outcome you want. With goal-setting tools like Trello, you can take your goal visualization one step further, making the whole process — from ideation to completion — visible and trackable.
Have you used goal visualization before? What techniques and tools have you found most helpful? Let me know.