What is a habit?
A habit is any behavior that we do on a frequent and consistent basis.
The only way to build new habits is through conscious repetition and practice. As we repeat behaviors more and more, they become more ingrained into our brain and muscle memory, and thus begin to become second-nature to us. Once a habit is fully learned, a lot of it becomes unconscious to us and therefore takes up a lot less physical and mental energy.
Take “tying your shoes” as a simple example. When you were a kid, you probably needed to really concentrate and practice before you could get it right. You probably struggled at first. You probably made a lot of mistakes. You may have even gotten frustrated and upset a couple of times. Today, however, you have a whole of practice and experience with tying your shoes – so now you can do it without thinking about it at all.
Most habits work the same way. When we first learn them, we have to devote a lot of our attention and energy until we get them right. This is why it is often advised that you focus on building one new habit at a time.
Visualization for habit change
The only real way to successfully build new habits is to start doing them more often, but we can also mentally rehearse these habits through visualization to build the habit stronger and faster.
Recent neuroscience has revealed that when we imagine ourselves doing a particular habit it activates many of the same regions in our brain as when we are physically doing that same habit. This is strong evidence that mental visualization can be a useful way to condition ourselves toward new and more desirable behaviors.
The more we visualize ourselves doing an activity, the stronger the neural connections are which are associated with that habit. This is because the more certain neural firings occur, the more likely they are to undergo long-term potentiation, a cellular process that underlies all learning and memory.
After the neural associations are successfully built, they become a more natural reaction in the brain. In return, when we are presented with a situation similar to the one we imagined, we become more likely to act out the habits we trained ourselves to act out during the visualization exercise.
How to visualize and see real-world results
Now that you know exactly how visualization is supposed to work, you’re probably wondering how to actually do it. The truth is a lot of people practice visualization – but they do it absolutely wrong. Here are some tips to help you cultivate a visualization exercise that actually works and gets you results:
- Begin your visualization with a relaxation exercise
- Picture yourself in situations that are similar to your everyday life
- Visualize process, not end goals
- Evoke as many senses as possible
- Practice 15-20 minutes a day
Do something short and simple – like the 100 Breaths Meditation – just to get your mind in a more clear, focused, and relaxed state before starting the visualization.
If you are trying to improve school work, imagine yourself actually sitting in the classroom you go to. If you are trying to improve sports performance, imagine yourself on the fields you play at. The more your visualization relates to the real world, the more effective it will be.
Research has shown that visualizing process is much more effective than visualizing end goals. You need to actually see yourself going step-by-step in achieving your habit. For example, if you want to go to the gym every morning, start your visualization from the moment you wake up. Imagine yourself going through your morning routine, driving to the gym, walking inside, lifting weights, and then eventually leaving. The more thoroughly you go through each step of the habit, the less likely you are to hit a snag along the way. Some people imagine themselves fit and healthy but they never actually see themselves doing the habits that it takes to actually becoming fit and healthy.
In truth, effective visualization is about more than just vision. When you mentally rehearse a habit, try to evoke as many senses as possible, like hearing, touch, smell, and taste. The better you can replicate the actual experience of a new habit, the better prepared you will be to duplicate that habit in the real world.
Mental rehearsing is practice, by definition. That means it is very unlikely that you will get it right after just one try. Instead, I recommend trying to do about 15-20 minutes of visualization a day when first starting your new habit. And you should start seeing improvements by the end of the week. Also, please don’t forget to only practice one new habit at a time- any more than that and you will probably get overwhelmed.
Visualization is just one tool in habit change
Although it should be commonsense, I just want to reiterate that visualization is a supplement toward habit change, not a cure-all.
No amount of visualization alone will ingrain new habits. That being said, visualization can still be a very valuable tool in guiding your habit change and making it easier.
What you need to do is take the lessons you learn from your visualization and apply those directly to the real world.
Remember, visualization isn’t about living in your head, but using your mind as a tool to prepare you for outside reality. This is how successful businessmen, athletes, and performers use visualization.
Discover more tools to daily growth in the digital guide The Science of Self Improvement