I was speaking at an event a few weeks ago and another speaker asked me about my plans for the next year. I said I was looking forward to my next book being released. He replied, "That's too vague. You need to dream bigger and more specific. You should create a vision board to help you clarify everything you want in life."

I nodded and walked away (and tried not to roll my eyes). As a psychotherapist, I've never been a fan of vision boards or the books that encourage them.

I saw too many clients in my therapy office whose vision boards stunted their growth. Rather than get out there and work toward their goals, people who created vision boards seemed to be waiting for the universe to grant their wishes.

Like this one man I worked with whose vision board included a sports car, a mansion, and an attractive girlfriend. He was convinced that if he spent time visualizing those things every day, somehow the universe would gift him with exactly what he wanted.

Even though he was in therapy saying he wanted to feel better, he wasn't willing to do anything to make his life better. He was barely making ends meet, and he hadn't been on a date in years, but he was convinced that the law of attraction would magically make his dreams come true. Rather than get a new job or put himself out there socially, he passively waited for his life to change.

Ironically, his vision board was actually the stumbling block to living a better life. I've seen situations like that happen countless times in my therapy office. 

What Science Says About Vision Boards

While my anecdotal evidence shows that vision boards backfire, research also shows that focusing on attaining your goal--as opposed to the effort it will take to succeed--will increase your chances of failure.

In one study, researchers at the University of California asked one group of students to visualize themselves getting a great grade on an exam. They asked another group to visualize themselves studying for the exam.

The students who visualized themselves getting a good grade scored lower on the test than the students who visualized themselves studying. Students who visualized themselves studying put more time into preparing for the test and ultimately, they scored much better.

That's just one example. There are a multitude of studies that show athletes, students, and musicians perform worse when they visualize themselves succeeding, as opposed to visualizing themselves going through the steps it takes to succeed.

It's not just performers who ruin their chances of victory with vision boards. Research shows people who imagine how they're going to feel when they succeed are less likely to reach a wide range of goals--ranging from weight loss to getting a new job.

A 2011 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that fantasizing about an idealized future decreases the likelihood that someone will expend energy trying to turn their fantasy into a reality.

When you put a picture of a Lamborghini on your vision board, your brain reacts as if you already have a Lamborghini. You'll experience a relaxation response that reduces your energy and decreases your motivation.

In most cases, you need all the energy and motivation you can muster to reach your goals.

That's why researchers suggest visualizing success may be most helpful when you actually need to take your foot off the gas. The authors of the study suggest people with anorexia, for example, may relax their restrictive eating habits by imagining they've achieved their ideal physique.

What to Do Instead

So, if a vision board filled with everything you hope to have someday won't help you achieve, what will? Try visualizing yourself going through the motions of what it takes to succeed--like changing your diet, working out in the gym, or studying hard. Then, you'll equip yourself to go out there and get it.

That's not to say you can't establish big goals for yourself. But it's important to identify short-term action steps you can start taking right now.

The way you think is important--it affects how you feel and how you behave. But thinking alone--and staring at a vision board--won't change your life. Positive thinking only works when it's combined with positive action.

Published on: Nov 16, 2018