Don’t Visualise Your Goals

A runner ring on the surface of a swimming pool
Photo by Marie Dehayes on Unsplash

It’s the first rule of achieving your goals. Visualise the thing you want. Write it down, think about it, set your mind on it — and use that mental picture of you achieving your goal like a grappling hook. Attach a rope to it and pull on that rope for all you are worth and eventually you will get there. Without that vision, without anchoring the rope to a specific point, you are just wandering aimlessly.

But for many of our most important goals, most of the time, that’s wrong. Let me explain why.

There is a very simple reason why visualising a life goal is not helpful:

Life goals are rich and complex — pictures are simple, and even the most detailed and imaginative ones can capture only a tiny part of what a goal represents.

So when we focus on the picture, we focus on only a tiny part of our actual goals. And if we focus on getting that thing, the thing in the picture, then our actions will all work to maximise our chance of attaining that one thing. And even if we achieve it — possibly, and most frustratingly of all, perhaps especially if we achieve it, we will miss out on all the other things that are actually important parts of the life we want to live.

This is yet another example of the importance of understanding that goals are about maximising the area under a very large curve made up of many different aspects, and not about reaching a single point.

This problem of visualisation is one I come across a lot when I teach people how to be more creative, how to come up with more and better and more interesting and more original ideas.

When we picture something we lose its complexity. We lose its richness. When I picture a dog, I don’t picture a random or generic dog — that’s not how visualising things works. I picture a childhood pet. Or a dog from a TV show or film I love.

And while in my head I know that this image represents all dogs, the image itself distracts me from that. If I really want to think about dogs in all their richness, I am better off getting rid of the image and instead breaking down the idea into all the associations I have with the concept of a dog.

It’s the same with goals. The thing that people believe makes visualisation so powerful — its ability to capture detail — the sights and sounds and smells and even the feeling of the track beneath your feet as you cross a finish line for example, is the thing that makes it bad at capturing our goals.

When you think about living your ideal life, you may picture yourself by a pool. But that’s not because what you want most in life is to sit endlessly beside one particular pool drinking a bottomless pina colada. You would soon get very bored of that.

What’s important to you is what the image represents. It stands for a life where your time is your own. It represents the freedom to decide what you do with each day. But to focus just on that picture is to channel your efforts into a particular thing rather than the general thing it stands for. Successfully pursuing a life sitting by a pool would take away the very freedom to choose that the picture of the pool represents.

This is the principle behind one of the most famous quotations from the 20th century, “the map is not the territory” (Alfred Korzybski).

What matters is the territory, the actual thing. The map, the representation we have of that thing, serves the purpose of helping us understand the thing itself — but if we give it too much importance it can do the opposite.

What matters to you is your goal. Some kind of representation of that goal is important — it keeps you on the path towards the goal. But if we pay too much attention to the representation, or make it too selective, we risk taking a wrong turn and missing our goal altogether, while all the time believing we are on the right path.

So what should we do instead? That’s the subject for another piece, but let’s go back to our creativity lesson. If you want to make the most creative use you can of the idea of a dog, you don’t picture a dog, you learn to break the idea into its parts.

Do the same with your ideal life. It’s more than sitting by a pool. There are more specific things — walking by the sea, lying under the stars, running along the cliffs, time with loved ones, and there are plenty of general things — never having to worry about money; being in a place where you can wake up each morning and have a choice of places to go, and so on.

Your goals are incredibly complex. Of course they are — you’re human. Contrary to what you are so often told, trying to write down all of that complexity, all of that richness, and the relations between the parts (“I want money, but not at the expense of family”, “I want health, but not at the expense of cake”) will not make achieving them harder. Pretending something complex is actually simple will make it easier to achieve the simple thing. But if the simple thing is only a tiny part of what you want, that may be the worst outcome of all.

If you found this interesting, do consider reading my guide to living a more creative life, Our Dreams Make Different Shapes.

Image vs concept