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  • Writer's pictureNicholas Pihl

Why "Visualizing" Your Goals Is Killing Your Dreams

Updated: Feb 13, 2023

‘Tis almost the season for New Year’s Resolutions, so I wanted to get this article out while you’re still formulating those goals because I think it will really help you over the next year.

Whether we're moving towards physical goals (like the next milepost in a marathon) or intangible goals (like career success or skill development), our brain is using almost exactly the same pathways. In fact, this is captured in the two meanings of the word "Vision." We see something we want and move towards it, whether literally or metaphorically. Neat, huh?

This matters because the better we understand how these pathways work, the more we can set ourselves up for success by working with our biology, rather than against it. In fact, here’s a really cool podcast about it: Huberman Lab: Dr. Emily Balcetis: Tools for Setting & Achieving Goals

One of the most interesting takeaways from this podcast, for me, was that creating a vivid vision for the future actually decreases your likelihood of attaining that goal. When you imagine what it would feel like to have achieved your goals, you’re treating yourself to all of the neurochemical rewards of accomplishment (dopamine, lower blood pressure, etc), but without expending any actual effort, taking any risks, or facing any fears. This in turn robs you of the energy and motivation to go out and actually do the thing.

But wait a minute. Aren’t goals supposed to be a good thing? They are, but it isn’t necessarily good to dwell in a fantasy world where you’ve already achieved them all. Instead, goals are useful as a navigational tool, particularly when they translate into specific actions you can take today.

If you really want to get what you want, it is important to convert your big picture goals into small actions you can take one day at a time. Why is this important? Because we can’t “do” life in years or decades, we can only take action in the present. Attempting to do otherwise is a recipe for anxiety and despair.

As an example, suppose that in 20 years you want to be totally financially independent and live in a million dollar house. Depending on your starting point, that goal might be pretty daunting.

But suppose we then quantify that goal to include $40,000 a year of passive investment income. $40,000 a year of investment income might require a nest egg of roughly $1,000,000. So, $1,000,000 plus $1,000,000 for your dream home is $2,000,000 in terms of the total value of your goal. Okay. So how do we get there?

Well, let’s keep breaking it down. Depending on your starting point, that might require saving and investing $35,000 a year. Which is a lot, but it might be doable on its own. If not, maybe you create some sub-goals, like making more money, or spending less. None of which has to happen overnight, mind you.

But from there you’ll find that there are small actions that move you in that direction, little by little. Making more money might require more education, training, and experience. Spending less might mean creating (and sticking to) a consistent monthly budget. Financial independence comes one small decision at a time.

Eventually, you'll have broken your "dream life" into specific, daily actions.

This is where dreams become reality.

One habit might be that you start reading nonfiction books for a half hour each night. Another might be touching base with at least 3 friends a week, or trying to meet for lunch one new person in your industry every month. You might join a toastmasters group. You might start a blog. You might start interviewing people who have already achieved the objectives you set for yourself.

It isn’t obvious at the outset what the right path will be, this will require some trial and error. But, if you stick with it, and keep chipping away every single day, you cannot fail to make progress. Bit by bit, you’ll develop some real skill at these activities, and eventually, that skill will translate into measurable results.

You won’t become financially independent, or get six-pack abs, or have that beautiful million-dollar house by putting in a massive effort on just one day. But that’s good news, because it means you don’t have to run yourself into the ground or be stressed and miserable in order to achieve your goal.

In fact, you’ll find that you can be happy just from working towards a goal, even before you’ve achieved it. And actually, this is supported by neuroscience as well. Dopamine is the molecule of motivation, and our brains release dopamine whenever we’re moving towards a goal. That’s why focusing on your progress in the present moment, rather than on the gulf of “remaining work,” is so effective.

So track your wins, focus on the positives, and enjoy life along the way.

That’s how you bring your dreams into reality.

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