Imagine How Good It Will Feel: How to Use Emotional Imagery to Motivate Yourself

emotional imagery

Do you have trouble motivating yourself to do something? One technique is to imagine how good it will feel once you actually do it.

When it comes to self-improvement, there is often a disconnect between knowing what we need to do vs. having the motivation to actually do it.

This is especially true with depression and mood disorders which are often accompanied with feelings of apathy, fatigue, or low energy.

In this way, many solutions to depression can seem paradoxical. We think to ourselves, “I don’t exercise because I’m depressed, and I’m depressed because I don’t exercise.”

It can be really difficult to motivate ourselves to take action, even when we know that action would be healthy for us and help us get out of our rut.

There are many tools we can use to motivate ourselves to take action and change our habits. One common technique is mental rehearsal, where we imagine ourselves performing a habit so that we are more likely to do it in the real world.

Mental rehearsal has proven to be an effective tool in many different situations, such as an actor preparing for a new movie role, or an athlete improving the mechanics of their game, or a CEO practicing a big speech for their employees.

One new study published in the scientific journal Cognitive Therapy and Research looked into the effects of “emotional imagery” on mental rehearsal.

Instead of only visualizing the physical actions, what happens if you also imagine how good it will make you feel to do it? Does this added “emotional imagery” improve motivation?

First, researchers had participants choose 6 different activities that they would like to do more often. These activities were broken down into two categories:

  • Enjoyable Activities – Activities we generally enjoy doing just for their own sake (playing a game, taking a bath, yoga/meditation, writing, painting, and other personal hobbies).
  • Routine Activities – Activities we don’t necessarily enjoy doing but they need to get done (cleaning bathroom, doing homework, going to the gym, daily chores, or learning a new skill).

Participants were instructed to choose 3 activities from each category from an extensive list.

Each activity had to fit two criteria: 1) It had to not already be a part of your weekly or daily routine, and 2) It had to have a minimum duration of at least 10 minutes.

Participants were then told to choose a date and time for each activity that would fit into their current daily routine. (This act by itself is already a lot more than what most people do when trying to build new habits).

During the experiment, participants were assigned to one of 3 different groups:

  • Neutral imagery – This group was asked to imagine doing the activity step-by-step, including seeing themselves initiating, engaging in, and completing each target activity (also known as a standard mental rehearsal).
  • Emotional imagery – This group was instructed the same as the above group, except they were also asked to imagine the emotions elicited by each activity, especially: 1) Emotions evoked by engaging in the activity (for “enjoyable activities”), or 2) Emotions evoked by completing the activity (for “routine activities”).
  • No-imagery control group – This control group didn’t do either imagery exercise so researchers could measure the specific effects behind the imagery conditions.

Each participant in the imagery conditions received brief training on how to do each exercise – and each imagery session was designed to only take between 2-3 minutes.

Throughout the experiment, all individuals kept an “activity diary” to record when they completed (or failed to complete) each activity, including giving reasons why.

In general, it’s smart to find ways to record and measure your progress, so having an “activity diary” is one way to motivate people to start new habits.

All participants also received text messages a couple hours before each scheduled activity.

For the experimental conditions, this message was a prompt for participants to do the short imagery exercise (“neutral” or “emotional”). For the control group, this message was just a simple reminder (or nudge) to do the scheduled activity.

Lastly, every individual was asked to answer the following questions for each activity on a scale from 1-100:

  • Motivation“How motivated are you to engage in this activity next week?”
  • Anticipated pleasure“How enjoyable will it be to engage in this activity next week?”
  • Anticipated reward“How rewarding do you think having completed this activity will be?”

These questions were asked at the beginning and end of the experiment to measure any differences in responses.

The entire experiment took place over the course of a week, so all of these are very short-term results. In general, all groups showed an increase in engaged activities, averaging about 4 new activities throughout the study.

Differences between motivation levels were significant.

Here are the results (from Cognitive Therapy and Research, 2022):

“Emotional imagery” (or affective forecasting) scored the highest on all three results compared to the “neutral imagery” and control groups, but the difference was most pronounced under the raw “Motivation” category.

The main lesson of this study is that imagining how new activities will make you feel can be an important factor in boosting your overall motivation.

When it comes to inherently “enjoyable activities,” simply imagining yourself in the moment doing them can remind you how awesome it is when you actually do them. For example, think about how good it feels to actually go on a nature walk, or read fiction, or catch up with old friends?

When it comes to “routine activities,” imagine how good it will feel once you finally complete them. No one likes to do chores, or clean the bathroom, or pay bills/taxes, but often after you fulfill these responsibilities you feel a lot better about yourself. This strategy has been mentioned before when it comes to doing things you don’t like.

Overall, emotions play a huge role in motivation and they are worth paying attention to when forming new habits.

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