A couple years ago, I wrote a post in which I made a bold statement, somewhat similar to the one I made about hating Pinterest this week. I said: don’t create a vision board, create an action plan. You could probably pin that one on Pinterest next to quotes like, “don’t dream it, do it” and, “a goal without a deadline is just a dream”. And it’s true. If you want your dreams to come true, you do need to take steps towards it (and deadlines can help). But sometimes, it’s ok to close your eyes and dream. In fact, doing so is one of the things that helps me stay motivated to achieve my goals. Let me explain…
When I was paying off my debt, there were two things that stopped me from derailing off the path and racking up more debt. First, I remembered how awful it felt to be maxed out. I could still feel the cold floor beneath my feet, and the pit in my stomach, on the day I finally looked at the balance of my credit card statement. I felt like a failure, and was so stressed out… and while I don’t believe there’s any point looking to the past and wishing you could’ve changed anything, I often closed my eyes and brought myself back to that day, so I could remember that I never wanted to relive it.
The second thing I did was think about the goal. Reaching debt zero wasn’t the only goal I had. Of course, I wanted to see $0 balances on my cards and loans… but that wasn’t the only goal I had. I was working towards something else; something simpler; a single moment I would get to experience only after my debt was gone. My goal was to get my first paycheque where I didn’t owe anyone money and could keep every penny for myself. When I felt like giving into an impulse or swiping my cards for something, I’d close my eyes and think about that day. I wanted it more than any “thing” I could buy.
I’ve used visualization to help me push through a lot of tough moments, when I’ve been working towards big goals. I used to imagine myself (1) running over the Burrard Bridge in Vancouver and (2) crossing the finish line of my first half-marathon, when I was starting to train for it. I’d imagine how it would feel walking into my living room/office after I’d finished decluttering (this mostly happened when the contents of each room was spread out on the floor, but it worked). And I still imagine seeing my first $100,000 in investments, if I’m ever questioning how much to save.
The difference between calling this a typical daydream and a dream is that I’m thinking about a specific goal I am already working towards – not just fantasizing about. I wasn’t laying on the couch thinking, “I’d love to run one day” – I was actually out running. I wasn’t looking at my clutter and hoping it would disappear – I was tackling it. And I didn’t “wish” my debt away or for my savings to appear – I know it’s me who needs to earn the money I need, and to move it around to various accounts, if I want to achieve my goals. Daydreaming sounds nice, but I still had to do the work.
With that being said, the reason I personally believe visualization is so powerful is because (a) you know what your goal or desired outcome is (for example: to get your first paycheque where you owe no one money) and (b) you dream it up and create the scene in your head. I used to think about the grin that would be on my face, and imagine my hand clicking on the mouse to move money into savings or into a travel fund. I didn’t just daydream – I closed my eyes and took myself to that moment; felt my hand click the mouse; saw the money appear in savings, and so on. It’s a powerful experience.
“Visualization works because neurons in our brains – those electrically excitable cells that transmit information – interpret imagery as equivalent to a real-life action. When we visualize an act, the brain generates an impulse that tells our neurons to ‘perform’ the movement. This creates a new neural pathway – clusters of cells in our brain that work together to create memories or learned behaviours – that primes our body to act in a way consistent to what we imagined.” – Frank Niles, PhD
I’ve been dreaming a lot, lately. On Wednesday, I’m undergoing a surgery that could take 4-6 months to fully recover from, and I’m already dreaming about my goal for it: I want to hike the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail. I can’t set a deadline, as my body is in charge to some degree, but that’s what I’m working towards. And every time I’m at physiotherapy or moving around on my own, I’m going to visualize this: my boots hitting the ground, my hands grabbing onto things for support, the weight on my back, the exhaustion in my legs – and the moment we get to the second car and know we did it!
Dreaming/visualizing is just the first step, though – I need to do the work. A vision board of pictures from the trail might be nice, but the reality is that I am responsible for getting myself there – and (literally) every step will count. Here’s my list of mini goals I need to cross off:
- Kick butt at walking with crutches
- Get around without crutches
- Go for a 15-minute walk
- Go for a 30-minute walk
- Go for a 45-minute walk
- Go for a 60-minute walk
- Go to the gym
- Walk some of the lower trails of Mt. Doug (fairly flat, some up and down)
- Walk up Mt. Doug (the road)
- Hike up Mt. Doug (various trails)
- Go for a 2-hour hike
- Go for a 4-hour hike
- Go for a 6-hour hike
- Hike the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail
- Take over the world! (Ok, not really…)
Right now, I’m between #11-12, but I constantly lose my balance, can’t do certain things and limp around for days after. I still do it, but I’m restricted and the aftermath sucks. The idea of going all the way down to #1 isn’t exactly fun to think about… so I don’t – that’s why I’m going into this with my goals already envisioned in my mind. When I’m at #1, my goal will be to get to #2. When I’m off crutches, my goal will be to go for a walk. When I’m ready, I’ll hit a flat trail. And no matter what stage I’m at, I’m going to dream about the bigger goal.
This is the exact same tactic I used to pay off my debt. I was maxed out, visualized getting my first paycheque where I didn’t owe anyone money and then started to take action. My mini goals included: paying off my student debt, credit card #1, credit card #2, loan #1 and loan #2. And whenever I thought about buying something I couldn’t afford, or just forgetting about the whole thing and going back to my old ways, I’d close my eyes and take myself to that moment at the computer when I saw the first paycheque and could do whatever I wanted with it; that is how I stayed motivated.
My opinion on vision boards has changed, over the years. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with keeping visuals of what you’re working towards nearby at all times. (Just don’t do it on Pinterest – make it physical and put it somewhere you’ll see it every day, like on your fridge or near your desk.) But if you ever find yourself piecing one together, make sure your dream or vision isn’t just a daydream or fantasy; it should be a goal you’re actually going to take action on and work towards. Include pictures of boots hitting the trail and hands gripping rocks and the parking lot at the end; the things you’re going to see and feel, when you achieve your goals. Because whenever you feel like giving up, taking yourself to the place you want to go will help you remember why you’re doing it in the first place – and a list of goals to cross off will help you get there.