3 Ways to Motivate Yourself Without Visualization

How do you stay motivated to achieve your goals if you can't visualize them? Discover alternative motivational strategies without visualization.
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Motivation Without Visualization: Is It Possible?

Many behavioural change interventions, such as developing practices that increase motivation, have often focused on visualization techniques. Many motivational coaches and experts believe that when people create a clear mental picture of future success, people are more motivated and, therefore, more likely to follow through with positive behaviours that bring about change.  

This concept echoes the adage: 

If you can imagine it, you can achieve it.

~ William Arthur Ward

But what if you can’t visualize your goals? At least not in the conventional ways the word “imagine” is used, such as conjuring an “image” of what success looks like in your mind. This adage suggests a universal applicability that doesn’t account for the entire spectrum of cognitive experiences, particularly for those who operate without visualization.

If you have aphantasia, like me, using mental imagery as a cognitive tool for motivation isn’t an option. However, this doesn’t necessarily imply a dead end in the journey of personal development and motivation. In fact, there are alternative strategies that can be equally, if not more effective.

In this article, I will explore how motivation without visualization is possible. I’ll share insights and practical strategies from my own experiences building the Aphantasia Network that may inspire and guide those with aphantasia and anyone looking for different approaches to sustain motivation and achieve their goals.

Visualization and Motivation

To start, we first need to understand why visualization is commonly used as a tool for motivation. For many, visualization is a useful tool because of its transient and amenable nature;

“The only limit to your impact is your imagination and commitment.”

~ Tony Robbins

Visualization creates an internal image that simultaneously represents and influences what someone might think and feel about a person, place, or thing they’re trying to achieve. These mental images of future activities are not static; they can evolve and shift over time, mirroring your ever-evolving goals and aspirations. Its amenable quality allows for reshaping and adapting these images to personal needs, making it a flexible cognitive tool tailored to different objectives and circumstances.

Let’s consider a real-world example.

The Aspiring Marathon Runner 

Imagine Sarah, a beginner runner with a dream of completing a marathon. She starts her journey with a simple goal: to finish a race. Initially, her mental images are basic—picturing herself crossing the finish line, feeling a mix of exhaustion and triumph. These images provide motivation on tough training days and help her push through physical discomfort.

As Sarah’s training progresses, so does her imagination. It becomes more detailed and personalized. She begins to envision not just the act of finishing but also the crowd cheering, the sound of her footsteps on the pavement, the sensation of the finisher’s medal being placed around her neck, and even the specific time on the race clock as she crosses the finish line. This rich, evolving mental imagery keeps her training aligned with her goal, and each run becomes a step toward that vividly imagined moment.

To an aphantasic person, that may sound great on the surface and perhaps bring about feelings of “missing out” on some seemingly super-power ability. But it raises an intriguing question: Does visualization truly lead to the desired outcome for those who can experience it?

The answer is more nuanced than you might think.

Mental Imagery as a “Motivational Amplifier”

We know mental images are powerful enough to affect an individual’s emotions, and how you feel about a situation can be a primary source of motivation to engage or evade something. Mental imagery, therefore, serves as a ‘motivational amplifier’.

Anticipating and imagining the emotional consequences of our future behaviour, whether positive or negative, is essential to decision making and guides behaviour. […] Mental imagery allows us to ‘pre-experience’ future activities and thereby to anticipate their potential to be pleasant and rewarding” (Holmes et al. in Mental Imagery as a Motivational Amplifier to Promote Activities).

As an aphantasic, I can’t ‘pre-experience’ these future moments, but the logic is clear. A person who visualizes might find themselves more excited about a future goal by vividly picturing it in their mind, essentially playing out the expected positive emotions tied to achieving that goal.

However, the crucial question remains: Does this surge of excitement driven by mental pictures guarantee that you’ll find yourself crossing that finish line?

The Law of Attraction, often mentioned in discussions about visualization and motivation, posits that positive or negative thoughts bring positive or negative experiences into a person’s life. Advocates of this philosophy believe that visualizing a goal, such as owning a Ferrari, can attract the means to achieve it into your life. It’s as if by focusing on positive visualizations, you’re setting the stage for these outcomes to materialize.

This is where the power of mental imagery potentially holds an advantage. If a visualizer can ‘pre-live’ a future moment, anchoring it firmly in their mind and maintaining that image over time, their motivation to realize that goal could be significantly heightened.

However, consider an aphantasic who sees a picture of the Ferrari daily, maybe because it’s hung on their wall. Could this consistent reminder influence their day-to-day choices and habits, thereby boosting their chances of taking the driver’s seat?

The underlying principle—that focusing on a desired outcome can influence your reality—is adaptable to non-visual thinkers as well. For instance, the act of repeatedly viewing a photo or video of a Ferrari doesn’t just evoke excitement, it can also help to align your mindset toward achieving that goal. For those of us with aphantasia, placing a physical representation, such as a photo of a Ferrari on your phone or as a print in your room, serves as a constant reminder of what we’re striving towards. It’s a real-world anchor, similar to how visual thinkers might use mental images, reinforcing our intentions and guiding our actions toward our goals.

But just envisioning your desired future – through mental visualization or seeing an actual photo – doesn’t assure you’ll take the steps needed to reach that goal. It simply increases your desire to achieve it. Turning that desire into concrete action isn’t necessarily about your imaginative capacity. It’s about strategy, commitment, perseverance, and other more practical aspects of goal attainment.

Challenging the Efficacy of Mental Imagery in Goal Actualization

There’s no denying the piles of evidence that mental imagery plays a role in motivation. The more vividly you imagine the goal, the higher you anticipate the reward of achieving it. Yet, it’s important to remember that anticipation doesn’t always lead to action. Without action, there can be no “act”ualization. 

Interestingly, that same study by Holmes et al. found that the motivation-enhancing effects of mental imagery did not transfer to behavioural-level follow-through. The task completion rates in the motivational imagery group were not significantly greater than those of the no-imagery no-reminder control group.

“A caveat here is that the completion rates were not significantly greater in the motivational imagery group than those of the no-imagery no-reminder control group who received neither explicit imagery guidance nor reminders” (Holmes et al. in Mental Imagery as a Motivational Amplifier to Promote Activities).

So mental imagery helps people feel more motivated to engage and get something done, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll actually follow through on the necessary steps towards achieving it.

There may even be a negative side effect to using imagery for motivation. What happens when reality and your mental pictures are misaligned? When your imagined expectations aren’t met? When you imagine failure, and that prevents you from taking action? 

The Double-Edged Sword of Mental Imagery in High-Stakes Performance

Let’s explore the complexities of mental imagery through a real-world scenario I uncovered during a revealing conversation with a coach of elite athletes. Meet Alex (fictional name), an accomplished marathon runner whose experience exemplifies the intricate balance between mental preparation and performance.

The Marathon Runner’s Mental Hurdle

Alex is an elite-level athlete training for a marathon. He is known for his rigorous training regimen and strong mental game, often using visualization techniques to enhance his performance. He would visualize every aspect of the race: the start, the stride, maintaining pace, overcoming fatigue, and, most importantly, crossing the finish line triumphantly.

However, during a routine training session, Alex experienced an unexpected setback: he tripped and fell. This incident, though physically minor, had a profound psychological impact. Following the fall, Alex’s previously positive and empowering visualizations took a negative turn. He began to repeatedly envision himself tripping and falling during the marathon. This mental image became so vivid and frequent that it started to overshadow his previous positive visualizations.

I learned about Alex’s struggle through a conversation with his coach, who expressed concern about this shift in mental imagery. The coach noticed a change in Alex’s demeanour and performance; he seemed more anxious and less confident. The repetitive visualization of falling was not just a fleeting thought; it became a mental barrier, instilling a sense of fear and apprehension that hindered Alex’s training. The coach had to work intensively with Alex to help him overcome this mental hurdle. They focused on reshaping his mental imagery, turning the focus back to positive outcomes and using the incident as a learning experience rather than a harbinger of failure. 

Alex’s experience highlights the dual nature of mental imagery. It can be a motivational amplifier, but when misaligned with reality, it can also become a mental hurdle, especially when it fixates on negative outcomes or failure. 

This example highlights the fact that mental imagery isn’t always consciously controlled. In fact, it can commonly be an involuntary reflex that may contribute to heightened distress in many mental disorders such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety, and can both instigate and aggravate pathological episodes (Kosslyn et al. from Mental Imagery: Functional Mechanisms and Clinical Applications).

Reliance on mental imagery can sometimes become a mental barrier. These challenges might be less prevalent without visualization, something the aphantasia community might find some comfort in. Recognizing this, it becomes crucial to explore other effective methods of motivation, for those of us with aphantasia and for those whose mental imagery may be impeding their progress.

3 Ways to Motivate Yourself Without Visualization

The following are three alternatives to help motivate you to acheive your goals without visualization. The following motivational strategies can be applied with or without aphantasia: 

1. Start With Why

Ever since I read Simon Sinek’s book ‘Start With Why‘, I’ve been profoundly influenced by the concept that understanding your ‘why’—your purpose, cause, or belief that inspires you to do what you do—is pivotal in driving your actions and decisions. This idea resonates deeply with me, especially considering my journey with the Aphantasia Network.

When I started the Aphantasia Network, my ‘why’ was crystal clear: to transform aphantasia from a little-known condition confined to academic discussions into a mainstream topic. I am driven by the desire to foster greater awareness, encourage research, and build a supportive community. This ‘why’ has been my guiding star, helping me navigate through challenges and keeping me motivated even when the path seems uncertain.

I understand that working towards your goals is easier said than done, especially when our inner critic starts to question our capabilities or when we aim for perfection in everything we do. But remember, it’s not about being perfect; it’s about being driven by what truly matters. Our motivation should stem from our values, not from fear or the pursuit of perfection. Let your ‘why’ be the force that moves you forward, even in the face of doubt or fear.

So, I encourage you to reflect on your ‘why.’ What is the purpose, cause or belief that guides you? Let these guide your actions, and you’ll find a more authentic and sustainable source of motivation—no visualization required.

2. Get 1% Better Each Day

James Clear’s concept in ‘Atomic Habits‘ about mastering continuous improvement has been a game-changer for me. The core idea is simple yet powerful: make small, incremental improvements consistently, aiming to get just 1% better every day. It’s about embracing the process of continuous, minor adjustments rather than chasing monumental, overnight changes.

In building the Aphantasia Network, embracing continuous improvement has been key. We’ve not always got it right. Sometimes, our messages missed the mark, or we had to change our strategy. Dealing with aphantasia, a field filled with unknowns, demands flexibility and an approach geared towards gradual progress.

Our Aphantasia Network community has been central to this. Every piece of feedback and shared idea has guided our small, daily improvements. These incremental steps—refining our message, creating new content, or finding new ways to support each other—are all part of this journey of getting 1% better.

In the process I’ve learned to appreciate the subtle but powerful impact of small, consistent changes. It might not be glamorous or headline-worthy, but it’s effective. Steady progress, no matter how small, leads to significant results over time. This helps me stay motivated, without visualization.

3. Focus on Things You Can Control, Ignore the Rest

Stoic philosophy, especially the principles articulated by great thinkers such as Seneca, Epictetus, and my personal favourite, Marcus Aurelius, has deeply influenced my perspective on motivation.

The core of Stoicism’s teaching is the ‘dichotomy of control’—focusing on what you can control and letting go of what you can’t. This aligns with modern psychology’s concept of ‘internal locus of control,’ where you believe you’re responsible for your actions and their outcomes. By focusing on what’s within my control, I’ve navigated personal and professional challenges more effectively, finding greater happiness and fulfillment.

In contrast, an ‘external locus of control’—blaming outside factors for your circumstances—leads to frustration and disappointment. Stoicism teaches us that our response to events, not the events themselves, determines our outcomes. This philosophy has been a beacon for me, especially during tough times. It echoes in Reinhold Niebuhr’s ‘Prayer of Serenity’: accepting what I can’t change, finding the courage to change what I can, and seeking the wisdom to know the difference.

Embracing this Stoic principle has been transformative. It’s not just about achieving goals; it’s about cultivating a mindset of resilience, responsibility, and focus on the actionable. This shift towards an internal locus of control has been essential in both building the Aphantasia Network and navigating the complexities of life with aphantasia.

Recap: How Motivation Without Visualization Is Possible

We’ve explored the landscape of motivation without visualization, a journey particularly relevant for those with aphantasia like myself. While visualization is a common tool in the toolkit of motivation, it’s not the only one, and its absence doesn’t spell the end of the road to personal development and achievement.

We delved into three non-visual strategies that are effective for those who live without visualization and offer fresh perspectives for anyone seeking motivation. These approaches: starting with ‘why’, mastering continuous improvement by getting 1% better each day, and focusing on what we can control, provide a framework for motivation that relies more on internal conviction and less on mental imagery.

Renner, F., Murphy, F. C., Ji, J. L., Manly, T., & Holmes, E. A. (2019). Mental imagery as a ‘motivational amplifier’ to promote activities. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 114, 51–59. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2019.02.002
Pearson, J., Naselaris, T., Holmes, E. A., & Kosslyn, S. M. (2015). Mental imagery: Functional mechanisms and clinical applications. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 19(10), 590–602. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2015.08.003
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