Every Vision Board Needs an Action Plan


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:

  1. Kick butt at walking with crutches
  2. Get around without crutches
  3. Go for a 15-minute walk
  4. Go for a 30-minute walk
  5. Go for a 45-minute walk
  6. Go for a 60-minute walk
  7. Go to the gym
  8. Walk some of the lower trails of Mt. Doug (fairly flat, some up and down)
  9. Walk up Mt. Doug (the road)
  10. Hike up Mt. Doug (various trails)
  11. Go for a 2-hour hike
  12. Go for a 4-hour hike
  13. Go for a 6-hour hike
  14. Hike the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail
  15. 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.

  • Great post! Visualization helps me keep me eye on the prize too. When I look at our total debt payments that we need to make every month, I imagine the day when those lines are gone now from my budget and that money can be used for something else. It makes me sick that hundreds of dollars a month go to pay for my past choices. I never want to rob my future self like that again.

  • I totally agree, Cait! No matter what one’s goal(s) are.
    For as Mao Tse-tung once said, “A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.”
    Plan the work then work the plan, whether it should apply to one’s finances, health, or whatever …

  • I am currently at number one on your post surgery checklist. One great thing is that your body can heal itself, so as long as you show up you won’t actually have to work that hard to make it all happen. I didn’t really have as a goal kicking butt at crutches, I just needed to get to the bathroom, but do that enough times and you get pretty good at crutches. Likewise, I love walking, so I’m going to want to go for walks and I think that will help me with the rest of your post surgery goals.

    So yeah, I think an action plan is good for morale, but just showing up and doing the work every day (just a little bit more than yesterday), even if you don’t know what the long-term plan is, can get you there just the same.

  • Cait, I have loved the more often articles this week, I used to wonder why everyone didn’t post two or three times a week until I started my own blog…. now I understand the work that goes into this so thank you so much for getting these articles out this week.

    I have been visualizing a lot lately being debt free I didn’t even think of having a check that has no where to be paid but now that I’m thinking about it when the debt is finally paid off it will be a lot of money that has no place to go and that will be awesome. Though my wife wants to buy a new car once we are out of debt…..not really sure that’s wise lol.

  • Great post, Cait! I have definitely been feeling some savings fatigue lately–I’m getting to this FOMO stage of my twenties where I want to do all the fun stuff I can and live it up. But the financial freedom of not having to depend on others, and working on my overall goals, is far more worth it–time to take another look at my financial goals and re-work my budget to stay on track! After an upcoming move this Spring, I plan to keep a personal finance blog myself, to chronicle my journey and keep me accountable :)

    I hope your upcoming surgery goes well!

  • Visualization is such an incredibly powerful tool, and I could picture the imagery with your goals & the actionable plans you had behind them! I started incorporating a 3x3x3 handwritten routine in the morning (3 goals, 3 things you are grateful for, 3 positive affirmations about yourself). Along with this ‘plan,’ afterwards after completing it I visualize in my mind what these 9 different things look & feel like. It’s been incredibly successful so far, and I always feel whole & accomplished by the end of the day (when I used to feel so burnt out by never getting enough done, or completing my crazy long to-do lists). This visualization is also much more powerful than any obstacles/detours that may occur in the day. It allows me to brush off anything that I didn’t account for much easier!

  • Our goal is to pay off our mortgage. Our mini goal for the past year is to get there is getting it below $100,000. Right now its a $101,480. Soooclose!! And then our next mini goal is to get it below $75,000. And we do imagine ourselves seeing that number on the screen say $99,987. To me it looks so tiny compared to 6 digits! Our end goal though is to have it gone before we turn 40. So far, the calculator tells us we have 9 years left and I’m turning 30 this year. But thats if we keep our payments how they are, but we plan on blowing that out of the water, of course.

  • Well said! A dream without a plan is a fun way to pass the time, but nothing will come of it. I have trouble breaking down big goals into the intermediate ones sometimes, but your list looks very thorough. :D

    I hope your surgery goes well, and that you don’t find the process of recovery too frustrating!

  • Years ago when I learned to ski, the best advice I was given was to ski a few feet at a time, not the whole mountain. Your article is full of faith-in-yourself-realistic-goals with a great measure of optomism and incredible drive. Love reading your posts! You will do well during your post surgery without a doubt!! Best to you!

  • Hi Cait, I’ve been reading your blog for over a year now and I really enjoy it! I have a question about hiking in Victoria. I’m planning a trip there in May and I’m wondering if there are any non-challenging hikes you can recommend. I love taking long, long walks, but prefer them to be easy. Thanks and best wishes on your quick recovery.

  • My visual reminders are in the form of 6 sticky notes. They cover most of my daily health/money goals and they are stuck right in front of me at work so I see them all the time.
    1. Spend wisely, save more
    2. Eat better, exercise more
    3. Less TV, more books
    4. Drink lots of water
    5. income – expenses = savings, savings x time = freedom
    6. freedom > money > stuff

  • Very timely post for me, Cait. Love, love, love this :) Visualization is so important when you are setting goals and need to map out the steps to achieve them.

  • This is such a timely post for me. In the cold of winter it is easy for me to cozy up and spend mindless time on the internet, in my spare time. Your comment on Pinterest hit the mark, and so did this post on setting goals. Winter is easing some where I live and I can feel myself waking up; my energy just beginning to pick up a bit. So its the time to begin thinking about operationalizing winter time ideas and setting new goals.
    I needed this reminder today. I hope your surgery and recovery are uneventful, so you can move on toward your other goals! All best.

  • A vision without a plan is like a treehouse without a ladder. It seems really neat, but very difficult to get to. Also, a doughnut with no hole is a Danish.

    Best of luck with the surgery and the equally important anesthesia!

  • Agreed! I’ve never been one for vision boards or believing in “The Secret” or the power of wishing things into existence. I do believe in writing down goals and then checking in routinely on the progress that’s been made to achieve them. And as someone who keeps putting running on the to-do list, this was a great kick in the butt!

    Best luck with your surgery.

  • I do think visualization has a place in creating the lives we want, but once you get this perfect vision, you have to write it down and divide the big dream into small steps with deadlines. Having a plan, with end dates for the steps along the way, makes the day-to-day grind easier to wade through.

    Thanks for a great post and reminder of how to reach our loftiest goals.


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