How to: Use this powerful visualisation technique to make healthy habits stick
As we head into February, the statistics say that only 8% of our new year’s resolutions will succeed, meaning that many of us might be left feeling a little disillusioned by healthy intentions that have fallen by the wayside.
So how do we make good habits stick?
We are creatures of habit and although creating a new routine can be challenging, starting out small and making use of visualisation, a proven technique, can make all the difference.
Whether you want to drink more water this year, include more exercise in your routine or fit a few more home cooked meals into your week, pick one healthy habit you want to make a priority and give yourself 10 minutes to go through this exercise fully.
Visualisation is a powerful tool, grounded in neuroscience, which has long been used by professional athletes to improve their performance. Studies have shown that the brain doesn’t differentiate between a real memory and an imagined, or visualised, one. Your brain chemistry will change as though the experience was real. Through visualisation we can enable the brain to overcome fear and build self-confidence, by making the “unknown” of what we want to achieve, known. As if we’ve already accomplished it.
I used this tool myself while recovering from serious illness, envisioning all the things I would be able to do once I was better and physically fit again. This helped my brain to move on from the illness, overcoming fears and barriers around my rehabilitation, while releasing positive and health giving hormones which also supported my physical recovery. I couldn’t believe how effective it was, and with practice, it’s a powerful way to embed healthy habits.
How to visualise your goal and achieve it
1. Set and define your goal
What do you want to achieve and why? How will making this change impact your life? Will it increase your happiness, productivity, energy levels, health, or relationships with others?
Take a few minutes to think about these questions and jot the answers down somewhere. If you can’t easily articulate what the outcome will be or the purpose of making this change, it might not be exactly the right goal.
Once you have it, write your goal down and say briefly why you want to achieve it.
2. What will you do to achieve your goal? Break it down into chunks and start small.
Really small. Think tiny. One push up a day, or one extra glass of water a day before breakfast. The best way to success it to set tiny steps you can easily achieve, that will accumulate over time as your new habit becomes routine and you start doing it automatically. Jot down what you will do this week, in two weeks, in one month, and in two then three months, towards your goal.
Think about what support you might need from others to achieve it, and speak to friends or family about it. Sharing with others is a great way to build accountability towards your new goal too.
3. Visualise what success will look and feel like
Here’s the fun part! Take a few minutes to shut your eyes and put yourself in your future self’s shoes, once you have achieved your goal. Make sure you have a few minutes to yourself where you won’t be disturbed.
How will you feel? Happy, excited, relaxed, accomplished? Feel the positive emotions and try to imagine the exact scene of your accomplishment in vivid detail. What will you see? Who else will be there? What will you hear and smell?
The more detail you can add to your vision, the stronger your brain’s response will be. Once you have a basic idea, try to turn up the volume on those positive emotions and feel them more intensely.
Visualisation can be difficult at first and it’s normal to struggle to get a crystal clear picture. Don’t worry if this is the case! Do your best and with practice, you'll find it easier.
4. Dwell on your visualisation and feel the good feelings
Do this for at least a full minute. More, if you can. This ensures your brain’s survival response doesn’t break in to sabotage your vision and conjure negative "what if?" scenarios. By dwelling on the positive vision, you will reinforce the neural connections associated with achieving your goal.
5. Take a minute a day to repeat your visualisation
Pick the same time and place each day, maybe while you’re having your morning shower, before you brush your teeth or when you sit down at your desk in the morning before you start checking emails. Stick a post it note somewhere obvious to remind you!
Every time you repeat the visualisation, you are strengthening the belief that you have already accomplished this goal and you will find it much easier to take the small steps you have committed to.
The road to habit formation success
With consistent practice, visualisation becomes easier and you will start to be able to generate that crystal clear image and surrounding positive emotions, that will propel you towards your goal.
If you start to falter or miss days where you don’t take the small steps you committed to, don’t beat yourself up. There is no failure, only important feedback!
Take a moment to look at what’s happened for you objectively and without judgement. Why was it you weren’t able to have that extra glass of water? Maybe you woke up late in a rush, and forgot, or it didn’t feel like a priority. You could set your alarm 15 minutes early and head to bed a little earlier so you have more time in the morning.
If you continually don't take the step you’ve set for yourself, take it back to basics. Perhaps you’ve started too big or it’s actually not a goal that’s important to you after all. There could be an underlying element of self-sabotage that needs to be worked through. Building this awareness of your patterns will help you see them more clearly, and enable you to strategise ways to overcome negative ones.
Best of luck with this technique and taking steps towards your goal!
If you are as much of a geek for the science behind habit formation as I am, James Clear’s book Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results is fantastic and talks in detail about habit formation, the brain, and how to get the best results.