Self-Help Visualization Is Dumb

You close your eyes, or you look at your vision board, and you visualize. Your Visualization could include your goals, what it will look and feel like when you reach them. You visualize the day going perfectly, see yourself enjoying your work, smiling and laughing with your family, or your significant other, and easily accomplishing all that you intend to accomplish for that day.

— Miracle Morning, Hal Elrod (source:

I read miracle morning back in 2016. Or 2015. And I’ve tried this visualization technique. I imagined myself living in a penthouse in Manhattan, having a bunch of awesome friends, having any and all worldly possessions I want, and having impeccable health. I could hear, smell, feel, touch everything. And I did this for a while.

But I noticed as I visualized it more and more, it felt less and less “good.” It was just pretty normal. Having awesome friends and company is amazing. Having an awesome view of Central Park? Amazing. But I’m still just me, and the stuff I have is just stuff and while the simulated relationships were amazing, I already have great relationships so that’s not a change. In the imaginary world, the hustle was still there so I’m still working. In other words, visualizing the end-goal too much made me not care as much about it.

So What the Hell, Hal?

Before I dive into this visualization shit, I wanted to explain why I quote studies.

I honestly think this whole “self-help” category is getting to be really dangerous. So many loud-mouthed motherfuckers talking with extreme conviction on why one thing works, causing the masses to be completely dichotomous to other view points.

And even if there is some guru or mentor that is touting one way is the best, and it has been historically proven for him or her to work, there’s one problem. That’s a sample size of 1. Just 1. In an uncontrolled environment. In other words, most self-help advice has no scientific basis at all. So the current landscape for “advice” is just a bunch of cowboys spouting shit that they think works because 1) it has worked for them once, or 2) it has worked for someone else that they’ve hard of…once. So it ends up being everybody just saying a bunch of shit and it’s all just anecdotes. Not concrete facts. Just stories.

Hal’s story is amazing — he survived a brutal accident and was able to come back and accomplish all his goals — I respect him 100% and love that it has worked for him. He touts as long as you do your routine in the morning, it will give you more energy and that you honestly don’t need as much sleep as you need to.

And then he got cancer.

Then he touts that you actually need to rest from time to time.

Your body needs rest? No shit.

Visualization Study

Link at the bottom of the article.

This paper tells a bunch of stories and does a bunch of different studies regarding visualization — from military applications to studying for tests to sales, and so forth.

Some of the studies I found to be a little dubious. But some not. Such are papers. But in general I definitely agree with their thesis:

Our research program has identified outcome simulations as another type of mental simulation that appears to have few benefits and can even be maladaptive. In so doing, it provides an indictment of a technique lauded by the self-help literature, which has no basis in scientific fact.

Highlighted for emphasis. Essentially this paper talks about 2 types of simulations (visualizations).

One is “outcome simulation,” which is basically you visualize the outcome of whatever you’re trying to do. You imagine weigh X pounds, or you have this much money, or you have this much possession. And then you pretend you’re there, and you feel/touch/smell as if you’ve accomplished the goal. It’s supposed to motivate you…or whatever.

The other is “process simulation,” which is basically you visualize all the work you need to do to get to your goal. You imagine rejecting your friends for carbs at a party, or the work you gotta put into your hustle, or thinking about the workout you’re gonna do. Athletes do this a lot — they often visualize exactly how they’re gonna put a ball in a basket, etc. — and they do it with great success. They talk about this more in the paper.

In particular, the relapse-prevention techniques developed by Marlatt and others (e.g., Brownell et al., 1986; Marlatt & Gordon, 1985) show how important mental rehearsal of high-risk-for-relapse situations can be to the ability to maintain abstinence from such health-compromising behaviors as smoking and excessive drinking. For example, a man trying to overcome a drinking problem may mentally rehearse exactly how he will handle Superbowl Sunday with his friends so that he can refrain from drinking or can engage in placebo drinking during the afternoon.

The above quote is just a pretty nice example on how effective visualization can help one get rid of a drug problem. Both those papers don’t really have a bunch of figures (which I like), but they do lay out the fundamental framework in how cognitive behavioral therapy is leveraged in helping people overcome huge mental obstacles like this.

Brownell et al. for example:

So let’s talk about another study.

They took a bunch of students and had them visualize getting A’s on a test vs. visualizing the process of studying. The former group is more in line with the regular self-help crap: how good it’ll feel to slowly uncover your A grade on your paper, and the feel of the test on your hand when you get it back, etc. The latter is the harder visualization: they’d visualize themselves studying and holding that picture in their minds, declining friends’ offers to hang out, studying at the library, studying on their desk and bed, turning off TV and stereos (it’s published in 1998 OK).

This table shows the results:

Outcome visualization is better than nothing, I guess.

Control did the worst, so outcome simulation did fare better than doing nothing. Process simulation did the best, however. It turned out that because they’d imagine themselves studying more…they unsurprisingly studied more and so got the best grades.

Then…they altered the test a bit. They helped students get rid of anxiety and help improve planning by basically giving them a checklist. So now the process simulation group is really gonna simulate the process in their minds, and the outcome simulation group is really gonna simulate the outcome in their minds. They also told the outcome simulators to think about ‘getting a high grade’ instead of an A. Reason being an ‘A’ is pretty unreasonable for some reason.

Variant of study where they were asked to visualize a “high grade” instead of getting an A instead. Outcome visualization is worse than control in this case.

People who envisioned the outcome tended to study less because they’ve already lived through the “success” many times, and thus were no longer motivated to study. Their brain is physically desensitized to the success. People who imagined the process were much like athletes imagining how they would go about shooting a ball or executing a play. It encouraged them to do more studying, and as a result they scored higher.

There’s another study in there that talks about how process visualization helps with planning projects and as such will help students finish in time. Results of study favor outcome simulation by p < .001 for finishing on time.

But my main takeaway for the above study is this: the small variance of adding a checklist made outcome visualization perform worse than control. So when you listen to gurus for advice, a small variance or a small misunderstanding from what they’re trying to communicate can actually give you adverse results. You’d not only waste time visualizing, you’d perform worse after that. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot! It’s like feeding yourself poison!

Anyway, for these sort of intellectual challenges (midterms, projects, etc.) it seems like focusing on the process helps a ton. Too bad most of us aren’t in school no more (but with a double-negative like that, maybe I should go back). Let’s take a look at a sales application.

Some of the homeowners were asked to imagine that they had cable and to envision the benefits it would bring them. Other homeowners were given a persuasive communication that described the advantages of subscribing to cable. Subsequently, participants were contacted to see whether they would be interested in purchasing cable. Those who had mentally simulated owning cable were more likely to want to subscribe than were those who had merely read about its advantages.

This paper doesn’t quote the numbers of that study, but it’s p < .01 as you can see here:


By the way, this paper is done with Robert Cialdini, so seems like it should be a pretty dope study to read.

So anyway, this visualization stuff seems pretty dope. Instead of just telling your prospect the benefits of your product (more money, more time, etc) you might want to correlate with things that they can actually visualize. Like that with more time, they can go to Cancun in the sunny beach with their family, or that with more money they can finally get that new Tesla with a leather interior with the 2 trunks, and the baby seats in the back for their new children (if they like cars). If you can somehow connect your product directly to one of these outcomes…damn. Like if you were offering sales training, and the efficacy of your training is so that the owner can be more hands-off and get more time for that Cancun scenario…damn.

But of course it’s important to know what your prospect likes, otherwise you might be implanting adverse visualizations. Maybe they hate vacation and will tell you to fuck off.

Anyway, the main paper I was looking at is here below:


2 thoughts on “Self-Help Visualization Is Dumb

  1. You make many valid points about the faults of visualizing your future.

    But you really turn me off to this blog whenever you curse or use crude language. I think there are better ways to get your point across.

    Liked by 1 person

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