‘Dream it’ is more than a motivational poster — it’s nothing less than a universal concept. Present at the cradle of humankind’s brightest inventions, our greatest masterpieces, and revelations, dreams are, to paraphrase Shakespeare, the stuff we’re made on.

The ‘dream it’ mentality figures broadly in our lives. From the first imaginative experiences of childhood play to the shapeshifting daydreams of a still vague future in our teenage years to that nagging “what about you” voice in our head when we hear of another fantastic entrepreneur who beat all challenges because he/she once ‘dreamed it’.

What we often overlook though, is that successful people use ‘dream’ as shorthand for a much more detailed (and complex) mentality. The path to approaching those dreams lies through several mental techniques and details that really matter.

Outcome vs. process visualization

According to Psychology Today’s Jennice Vilhauer Ph.D., there are two powerful visualization techniques or ‘simulations’ that are as inseparable as peanut butter and jelly. The problem is when we think of “visualization”, we either roll our eyes immediately (please don’t do that just yet!) or apply only half the solution. The weaker half.

The first part of visualization is called outcome simulation and it’s what we naturally think of when we see that motivational “dream it” poster. Instantly, we imagine (or rather fantasize) the dream we want to achieve, like being the CEO of our own business, making it to one of the Forbes lists, or buying a perfect house in [enter perfect vacation destination].

All of that is actually great but hardly productive in itself. Outcome simulation only works in pair with another visualization technique that’s kind of overshadowed by the instant endorphin gratification of the outcome simulation. That one’s called process simulation.

Process simulation is kind of like the shy sister of outcome simulation. When you apply process simulation, it means you visualize concrete steps you’re going to take to achieve the outcome. It’s not as fancy as outcome simulation, but it’s definitely the smarter of the two.

While outcome simulation is sensory based, which means you’re using just your imagination to “see” the goal, process simulation means applying both your senses and mind to work towards the goal.

Think of your goal as the destination. To arrive at that point, you need to know the address (outcome simulation) and define the route (process simulation). To do the latter, you’ll be using your best GPS (your mind) while also taking into account the details of the landscape you’re driving through (using your senses).

Apply just one, and you have the destination minus the route or an infinite route without an end goal.

Don’t confuse visualizing with fantasizing

A reason why many people fail at achieving their visualized goals (and the occasional idea that visualization is self-help fake) is a frequent attempt at identifying outcome visualization with success per se.

According to research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, this so-called “positive visualization” is actually detrimental to achieving goals. In the study, people who were told to visualize a positive outcome had achieved much weaker results than the control group which was allowed to grind through the challenges as is.

That’s because simply fantasizing a positive outcome sends the brain the wrong signal that “everything’s [already] fine”. This makes it slow down the “challenge-solving” process essential to critical thinking.

The problem with “positive visualization” is that fantasizing about success isn’t the same as mapping out success. Productive visualization has nothing to do with fantasizing.

When visualizing both the outcome and the process of implementing your goals/dreams, don’t simply imagine how you’d like things to be. Imagine the reality of both the process and outcome you’re building, necessarily including all of the foreseen challenges (or roadblocks) you can meet along the path.

Dive into the environment of your dream

Unless you come as close as possible to the actual environment you want to be in before taking the plunge, chances are your dreams will be more about imagination than visualization.

For example, if you want to be an online entrepreneur, you have to dive into that environment and connect to real people who’re already doing it. Don’t put this “test drive” on hold until later, do it at the stage of mapping out your visualization. Find blogs addressing specifically your goal, enroll in a course on Coursera, talk to entrepreneurs in the same niche, bother them with specific questions. Do anything to become a specialist in the subject.

Do your best to now immerse yourself in the kind of atmosphere you dream of being around later. This is the best way to both learn what you’re getting yourself into and avoid fantasies taking over your visualizations.

Develop a 66-day plan

Defining goals for a set period is a realistic way to move on from process visualization to process implementation. As an added bonus, working on a deadline is one of the best ways to motivate yourself.

If you don’t know where to start, begin with writing down the goal for your 3-month period and a bulleted to-do list with all the little things you have to daily do to get there.

If a 3-month period sounds too big, start with 66 days. That’s the scientific time-frame it takes for a new habit to really stick.

As of now, this means you’ve got just enough time before Christmas to build some great habits.

Don’t neglect incremental growth

We’ve all heard that implementing any sort of change by 1% per day makes for a 37% difference by the end of the year. This is especially true when it comes to mapping out the process and outcome of your goals.

When engaging in mental techniques such as visualization, the mistake we often make is wishing to move mountains in one go. Thinking in terms of 1% seems so small that it’s never supposed to amount to anything much.

Scientifically, these two behaviors are called incremental and exponential mindsets. Incremental and exponential mindsets can be applied to most fields of life but particularly to growth (including business growth).

An incremental mindset means mapping out the step-by-step journey towards your goal and facilitating steady growth. It’s about addition. An exponential mindset thinks in terms of doubling what you already have (the effort, the quality, etc.). It’s about multiplication.

Incremental mindsets are great at the stage of planning and learning. All of the learning we do is incremental — you take what you know and build on that steadily. If you don’t yet know something, you start from scratch and build.

Exponential mindsets are great at the point when you’ve already got a functioning idea, business, or product and really need to push it out into the world.

The takeaway is to keep the incremental and exponential mindsets balanced within you when developing your dream into a concrete idea. Daily engage in the 1% incremental growth while always staying open to breakthrough life opportunities.

When life gives those, you know it’s time to make the preparations you’ve been adding up and just act.

Final word

I firmly believe that the Universe has a way of guiding our dreams and giving us all what we consciously aspire to. I believe the Evangelical concept that the one who knocks will see the door open. Both my own life and that of many different people can testify to the power of faith and courage when it comes to acting on our dreams.

Like a toddler who may still stumble but already sees himself running like his older siblings, adding targeted effort to a clear visual image will get us far ahead of those who never dare to dream. However, just as in childhood, doing our personal best throughout the year is essential to getting the goodies (fulfilled goals) during the holidays (the high point of success).

As a grown-up, this means consciously encouraging our skills/talents (both discovered and hibernating), mental faculties, and capabilities — creativity, productivity, faith, intelligence, perseverance, love, patience— and mapping out definitive steps towards approaching that personal horizon, one step at a time.

It’s those small baby steps and a solid plan underlying them that will bring us a whole lot closer to our inner child’s dream of seeing miracles, and not just around Christmastime.

Angela Yurchenko is a business journalist and classical musician. In her personal writing, she shares stories of the human experience through the lens of emotional intelligence, philosophy, arts & culture. Find more of Angela’s writing on Medium and on her blog, Birdsong.





Image courtesy of Vlada Karpovich.