Goal Setting and Vision Boards: The only method researchers said can make your board work

If you Google the words goal setting and vision boards, you’ll get really confused.

The more you read on the subject, the more confused you’ll actually get.

Self-help gurus will say vision board works. Some scholars will claim it doesn’t work.

Researchers will conduct experiments and assert it works. Some researchers will conduct experiments and actually conclude that vision boards do more harm than good.

Psychotherapists will tell you it’s all a bunch of feel-good crap. And some health therapists will tell you it works for their patients.

The reports on vision boards will take you back and forth that you literally start feeling dizzy.

And here I am, about to contribute my own portion to fuel your confusion.

That’s not my aim though.

I set out to use this article to reduce some of the confusion with what I’ve gathered from peer-reviewed and authentic researches and real-life experiences on the subject of vision boards and goal-setting.

But I guess you’ll have to stick till the end of the post to find out if I have helped you de-clutter or if I have enhanced your confusion towards vision boards.

Goal setting and vision boards of a girl

The story of two guys who worked their butt off

We all encounter a vision board story one time or the other.

Anybody that has watched the law of attraction movie called “the secret” would have seen the story of how Jack Canfield used vision boards to sell hundreds of millions of copies of his book series.

Also featured in the movie was the story of how John Assaraf ended up buying the same house he had on his vision boards all those years ago.

Truth be told, these stories are magical and bordering on fantasies. And that’s exactly the problem with how people use their vision boards.

If you had paid more attention while watching the movie, you’d have known that hundreds of millions of copies in book sales didn’t just fall on Jack’s laps.

You’d have heard Jack talk about meeting with a reporter from the Inquisitor as part of a rigorous book marketing campaign.

As I later found out, he and his partner Mark Hansen have the habit of doing five book marketing tactics EVERY DAY. They call this strategy “the rule of 5”.

They sent five e-mails to prospects, contacted five newspapers for interviews and exposure, they send out books to five people for review, made five calls, and they did this consistently for over two years. Mind you, they still do this till date.

With this type of effort, was his story a fantasy or an expectation of success?

John Assaraf, on the other hand, had to set up appointments with every single real estate business owners when he was about to start his own real estate business.

They kept laughing at him and kept walking him out of their offices. But he kept at it. Kept on doing this daily prospecting for four months before he got a single call….

But I’ll come back to Jack and John’s story later.

Let’s forget about the law of attraction and the heroes of ‘the secret’ for a moment. Let’s look at the several scientific evidence-based research and the psychological schools of thought on vision boards.

Psychological schools of thought supporting the influence of mental images and visualization on human behavior and performance

  1. Priming effects experiments [Supports vision boards]

Priming phenomena is when exposure to an image or an idea prompts a related idea, which later has an effect on your conscious and unconscious decision making.

The brain is an associative machine.

An idea that is currently on your mind will cause the brain to do a search in a vast network of ideas and memories already stored in your brain. This will bring forth similar memories or similar experiences and ideas with the primed idea.

Priming effects are not only limited to ideas. It can translate into the way you act.

This was first seen in action when the psychologist John Bargh and his colleagues asked students at New York University (who are aged 18-20 years) to assemble a set of words associated with old people.

When they completed this task, the young participants were sent down the hall to participate in another experiment. It was this short walk down the hall that Bargh and his team were actually trying measure.

They found that the young students who had been recently primed by elderly related words walked significantly slower than their counterparts who had not been primed.

In other priming effect experiments, pictures were found to be a very efficient behavior primer. When people were exposed to images of classrooms and school lockers, the tendency of these participants to support a school initiative is significantly increased.

In another experiment, when undergraduates were exposed to images of money (or money-related themes like the money used in playing the monopoly game) on a computer screen background, the following behaviors were observed in the money primed participants;

  • They became more independent than they would be without the image priming,
  • They persevered almost twice as long in trying to solve a very difficult problem before they asked for help, which is a good demonstration of increased self-reliance,
  • They became more selfish, and
  • They also showed a greater preference for being alone.

It can, therefore, be deduced from these priming findings that surrounding yourself with images of things you want (in the form of a vision board) will definitely have some impacts on your daily decisions and your behaviors.

  1. Mental rehearsal by top athletes [supports vision boards]

Mental rehearsal is the act of visualizing a certain event repeatedly in your mind. It’s sort of like practicing in your mind. You imagine how you’d do it, over and over again.

Many studies have shown that since the brain can’t tell the difference between Imagined mental images and actual-event mental images, neural pathways are built in the brain either way.

With time, when combined with physical rehearsal, this visualization exercise starts influencing your behavior and performance in the long run. As a result, you can easily attain an expert level.

Mental rehearsal is now commonplace among top athletes (like Olympians and Golfers), musicians, and (unexpectedly) writers. Who all use it to either shoot the perfect stroke, stick the perfect landing, get the perfect dance routine, get rid of the writer’s block, and so on.

“Training the mind is as important as training the body, if not more important” — According to New York Times interview of Emily Cook, United State Freestyle Ski team Olympian

Why mental rehearsal is currently trending is because it works. People from different works of life are now currently using this technique to get better at their crafts.

Even more effective according to psychology today is that if you add movement, it gets super effective.

One of the most effective visualization tools is vision boards. When you use your vision boards to mentally rehearse a presentation or a creative process, you are actively doing a form of mental rehearsal.

  1. Cognitive Ease and Decision making [Two edged sword]

The more familiar you get with the pictures on your vision board, the more familiar the concepts depicted on the board becomes.

The more familiar they become, the more you’ll feel good about it.

The more you feel good about it, the more your brain starts feeling a certain “ease” around the ideas on your board.

This phenomenon is known as Cognitive Ease.

As time goes on, when it comes to anything related to the idea on your board, the more intuitive you get in making decisions related to those ideas.

The two side effects of this for your goals are;

  • Sometimes, the intuitive brain is right. But more often than not, it’s wrong (according to statisticians). So, when you keep making intuitive decisions about your goals, you can end up far worse.
  • Because you’ve seen it so many times and you’ve created cognitive ease, your brain starts believing you already have it. Whenever you have to do something (that requires work and stress) about the goal, because of the cognitive strain it will have on your brain, it’ll be rejected and your brain will search for the easy thing to do. So, you might procrastinate or continue fantasizing/daydreaming because those are easy to do.

Cognitive ease is a double edged sword really. It can help you have more belief (more positive expectations) in your goals.

This can in turn increase motivation to go for it.

The flip side is that it can trick your brain into believing that you’ve already attained what you are seeing every day. And this can lead to procrastination and putting the important things off.

Mental images are powerful in shaping beliefs.

Let’s leave the schools of thought and go on to examine actual studies that have been carried out on vision boards and see what the results were.

Researches supporting vision boards

  1. Research 1: The TD Bank Survey

In a survey on 1,127 individuals, it was found that people who have vision boards are twice more confident of achieving their goals than people who don’t have vision boards.

People who visualize their goals feel more accomplished and happy than those who don’t (73% vs 50%).

People that visualize their financial goals are far more satisfied with their financial health than those who don’t (38% vs 18%).

“Images connect us more immediately and emotionally to our personal and financial goals, and to our setting and achieving them. And images help us in our thinking and moving toward these goals.” — Dr. Barbara Nusbaum (A psychologist that treats people having problems associated with the emotional and psychological implications of money)

When the researchers surveyed 500 small business owners, 63% reports that visualizing their goals helps them develop and map their business plans.

20% of these business owners use vision boards in their business and 82% of these small business owners have accomplished more than half of their goals so far.

  1. Research 2: Vision boards for therapeutic purposes

Fantasizing and positive thinking makes us feel good and gives us hope. Vision boards have a way of inducing these feelings in us.

There have been several reported cases of having more hope and feeling better about the future with the use of vision boards.

Dr. Jane Biehl gave a personal accounting with 25 other cancer patients about the positive power of vision boards.

Researches against vision boards

  1. Research 1: Effects of Visualizing the process versus Visualizing the outcome on students’ grades

It is known that mental simulations facilitate the link between thoughts and action. But researchers wanted to know the difference between the effects of visualizing the process versus visualizing the outcome.

When college freshmen were asked to mentally simulate either the process involved for doing well in an exam (like good study habits) or mentally simulate the outcome (getting good grades) or mentally simulate both, it was found that simulating the process comparatively increased studying and this consequentially improved grades than in the other groups that were mentally simulating outcomes.

  1. Research 2: The Visualization experiment on four different case studies

In 2002, Oettingen published a study on the predictive power of Positive expectations versus Positive fantasies and their effects on the actual outcome.

Positive expectation according to the researchers are the beliefs that are held about the future that assesses the probability of occurrence. Expectations are drawn from past and present achievements and performances.

Positive fantasies, on the other hand, are positive images that contain future events as they appear in the stream of thought.

When testing for expectations, future hardships and efforts are taken into consideration while fantasies focus only on a positive best-case-scenario type of future.

The research consists of four studies and this was what they found;

Study 1 (Entering professional life)

When 83 male students in Germany with one year left to complete their education were given questionnaires to measure their rate of positive expectations and positive fantasies towards their hope of getting adequate job offers in the future, it was found after two years that participants with higher positive expectations of success received more job offers and were earning more money than those that indulge in visualizing positive fantasies. Students that engage in positive fantasies reported sending out fewer job applications than those that had positive expectations.

Study 2 (Crush on opposite sex)

103 American college students who had a crush on a fellow student of the opposite sex were measured for positive expectations (by asking them to rate how likely they will get involved with him or her) and positive fantasy about initiating a relationship with their crushes. The fantasies were rated from negative (we are never ever going to be a thing) to positive (locking eyes with you and falling in love). Five months later, it was found that students with a positive expectation of success were far more likely to start an intimate relationship with their crush. While those that have positive fantasies were less likely to start an intimate relationship with their crush and also less likely to confess their love.

Study 3 (Academic Success)

When 117 students were assessed based on their positive expectations and positive fantasies for their grades in the upcoming mid-term exams, it was found that those with high positive expectations did put in strong efforts towards the exam and as a result got far better grades. Whereas those with a high level of positive fantasies applied weak effort and got lower grades.

Study 4 (Recovery from surgery)

When 51 adults aged between 49 to 84 years who were just admitted to a hospital in Germany to undergo hip replacement surgery were rated based on positive expectations and positive fantasies for their recovery, it was found that those with positive fantasies experienced less successful recovery after two weeks of surgery.

So, do vision boards have any impact on goals?

The takeaway from all the researches above and their relation to vision boards is that when you have vision boards, it will always force you to mentally visualize the outcome of your goals.

So, with all the researches and schools of thought we’ve examined so far, do vision boards affect goal setting?

My humble opinion?

Yes, it does!

One thing that’s absolutely certain that we can deduce from all of the quoted stuff above is this;

In one way or the other, if you have vision boards, it will definitely have an effect on your beliefs, your psychology, your behavior, and/or your decisions.

And this will, in turn, have an effect on your goals.

It’s either the vision board help you achieve them, or they help you not achieve them.

And this is depending on your approach towards creating and utilizing your vision boards.

What will make your vision board not work for you?

The culprit that has held a lot of people back from achieving the goals they have on their vision boards is Fantasizing.

According to Oettingen and other researchers (and the researches you’ve read so far), fantasies restrain effort and preparing for hardships and obstacles.

Staring all day at your vision boards and fantasizing about a perfect future will stifle effort, increase procrastination, and when real life hits the goals straight in the forehead, you tend to give up.

The evidence of this type of situation is all around us. We see it every day.

I’ve been an example of this type of person in the past. I’ve had vision boards forever and visualized forever without ever achieving any of those things on my vision boards.


Because I kept believing that if I can dream it, I can achieve it (the popular law of attraction slogan).

I kept visualizing and dreaming it, but I wasn’t acting it. So, I wasn’t getting it.

But I’m still a huge believer in LOA and Vision boards (I still have them for my goals).

Because later, when I figured out that it’s really my daily habits and decisions that determine what I attract into my life, things started changing for the better and my vision boards started working for me (instead of against me).

What will make your vision board work for you?

When it comes to vision boards, you have to know where to draw the line between fantasies and expectations. Or better yet, make a vision board that will encompass both states of mind.

Sure it’s good to indulge in a healthy dose of fantasy about a better future every now and then, but you need to be able to draw the line between fantasizing and reality.

When done correctly, vision boards are meant to inspire you to take action. But if all your vision board represents are fantasies, it’ll be hard to act and fight for what you want in the perfect world you’ve created in your head.

The best form of visualization is the one focused on the process. It’s evident in how top athletes use mental rehearsal and how writers use it to overcome the much-dreaded writer’s block.

So, for you to create a vision board that will motivate you to take action and eventually achieve your goals, you should keep these two things in mind when creating your vision boards;

  • Make your vision board half process, half outcome: If your goal is to have more money for instance, find pictures that shows the process involved in having more money (like pictures of a happy CEO when he’s working his butt off) and the outcome of having more money (a happy CEO that has worked his butt off chilling in his vacation home).
  • Make your vision board plan-oriented: You can do this by being conscious of the plan of action on your goals and including those on your boards. That way, you get to think about obstacles, challenges and everything else related to that plan of action.

Conclusion on Vision boards and goal setting: The story of the two people who worked their butt off continued

Before we got into all the scientific stuff, I was telling the story of two fascinating people—Jack Canfield and John Assaraf. Their stories seemed like fantasies in the summarized version as it was told in the movie.

But when you dig deeper, you’ll see all the hard work, all the efforts that went into achieving their goals.

If you look deeper into all the stories featured in the secret, and all the stories you’ve ever heard about the law of attraction and vision boards, you’ll see the processes and positive expectations, rather than outcomes and positive fantasies.
The magic is there. It’s only when you act that you get to experience it.

The universe only helps those who help themselves. Not people with the most colorful vision boards.

Thoughts, criticism, comments, counter-research, counter-experience, are all welcome in the comment section below.

And if you have a family member or a friend you’ve been trying to get this through his/her thick skull in the past, feel free to share this post. Don’t be a stingy person!

Till we speak again, remember to STAY GOAL-ORIENTED and STAY WEALTHY.