How do you get that extra push toward achieving your goals — beyond simply writing them down and developing a plan? What kind of tools are out there that go further than the ones we’re all familiar with? Well, there is a tool out there that can give you that extra push. And it’s one you can start using today.
Actually, you’re probably already using this tool. We all are. But many of us are using it without knowing it. And the way we’re using it is harmful — in that it keeps us from achieving many of our goals.
But if you can learn to use this tool in the right way, and direct it toward achieving your goals — it becomes an invaluable part of your journey of personal growth. It’s called synthetic experience.
What is Synthetic Experience?
One of my favorite underappreciated sections from David Allen’s classic productivity book Getting Things Done is one in which he talks about how our thoughts and feelings affect our productivity.
“It’s really the smartest people who have the highest number of undecided things in their lives and on their lists. Why is that? Think of how our bodies respond to the images we hold in our minds. It appears that the nervous system can’t tell the difference between a well-imagined thought and reality.”
Because creative people are so good at imagining crazy scenarios in their heads, they can trick their minds into all sorts of anxiety — and thus not do anything at all. You begin to think of all the obstacles or pitfalls on your way to achieving a goal, and it tricks your mind into thinking those things are here in front of you.
This is called synthetic experience. It’s not experience that’s happening to you in reality, but rather, experience you’re imagining. But as Allen points out, and numerous studies confirm, your body can’t tell the difference very well.
Allen gives an example to show the power of synthetic experience. He asks the reader to close his or her eyes and imagine being in a grocery store, picking up the ripest, yellowest lemon, and then slicing it into juicy wedges — then biting into it. Most likely, your saliva content increased a little. That is your body interpreting your imagination’s output as real. You were able to get a physical response merely by imagining a fake lemon.
This mental power doesn’t stop with produce, it also works with more important things, like how you’ll do on that big presentation tomorrow. It works with how your date will go on Saturday. It works with whether or not you will achieve your big goals for this year. Your imagination helps to shape how things turn out.
If you doubt it, consider the fact that it’s already working; you’re just not aware of it most of the time. Every time you imagine all the things you have to do tomorrow, or imagine how badly a call with a client will go — you’re getting your body to respond. The problem is that it’s responding negatively. All you have to do is begin using the process to get positive results, instead of the negative ones you’re already getting.
How Synthetic Experience Works
When you imagine scenarios in your mind, you are, in fact, influencing things. Primarily, you’re influencing your body, but you’re also influencing your future thoughts and emotions. And so, if you are able to imagine positive things happening, you then create positive influences on your body, as well as on your future thoughts and emotions.
This establishes a positive feedback loop. You feed yourself positive images and sensations, which yield more of the same, which then help you to push more and thus achieve more. And the achievements create more confidence and positive experience that you can use as motivation.
But it all starts with imagination: making things up. That’s why it’s called synthetic experience. You’re not drawing from things that you have already experienced — at least no directly. You’re imagining that you have gotten the positive result already.
Some coaches and consultants call this having a vision of success, but so many of us fail to take that word as seriously as we should. What I’m suggesting here is actually create a literal vision. Close your eyes and see what things will be like when you have achieved your goal. Imagine that big talk you have to give in front of the whole company — but imagine you knocking it out of the park! Rather than imaging the long, hard road of training for that big race, imagine yourself successfully running it, and killing it!
What If This is Too Weird for Me?
At this point, some of you may be thinking: this is weird new-age stuff, and I think I’d be better off just writing out a plan and working on it. Allow me to ask you this: what do you have to lose by trying this?
So many of us get so bogged down in the day-to-day rat race, that we lose our motivation, procrastinate, or get distracted. Using synthetic experience is a great way to re-energize yourself. It changes your mode of thinking, and gets you back in touch with your goals — and why you’re chasing them in the first place.
Simply sitting for a few minutes and imagining — really creating the experience in your head of what success on this goal would look and feel like — will almost always get you motivated to work on it.
BUT, for synthetic experience to work, you need to imagine success. Starting to think of success, but then falling victim to imaging all the possible pitfalls and disappointments along the way is not helpful. Neither is falling into planning and strategizing. Visioning and planning are two completely different exercises. Keep them separate.
A Simple Way to Do It
There’s no single way to use synthetic experience. It will differ depending on which of the 5 senses your mind best responds to, how good you already are at using your imagination, and what your energy and cognitive powers are like in general.
For some, the quiet of the morning, with a cup of coffee, is the best time and place to do some visualization. For others, it’s at night, before bed. For some, sitting in the office chair between meetings is the best time. Some may just imagine scenes visually, some may lean toward imagining conversations, soundscapes, and specific words. It will vary for everyone.
The important thing about visualization is that you do it, and you make the synthetic experiences you imagine as robust as you can. That’s the only way to derive benefit from them.
Here are the bare bones of a synthetic experience session:
- Get yourself into a comfortable place, where you can relax your body and avoid external distractions for at least a few minutes. Close your eyes.
- Do a few “fourfold breaths”.
Inhale while counting to 4, hold your breath for 4 seconds, exhale while counting to 4, and wait 4 seconds before repeating the cycle with an inhalation.
- With your eyes still closed, pick an outcome that you really want to achieve — whatever goal has priority for you right now. Imagine yourself succeeding at it. Let it play out like a movie in your mind, but put yourself in it, as much as you can. Imagine sights, sounds, smells, or whatever else you would experience if you were really there — achieving that goal. Let yourself get excited and emotional and ride those feelings. Be careful not to try to plan out how you’re going to achieve this thing, or think about pitfalls or anything. The point is the imagine the goal achieved, and get yourself excited about it.
- Visualize as much as you can, but also tap into as many senses as you can. Really try to imagine how a successful outcome looks and feels to you.
- It may be difficult to really get into imaging at first. It may feel like daydreaming, or avoiding the necessary work of planning. Remind yourself that this is part of an effective process, and do your best to really visualize success.
- Your best indicator for how well synthetic experience is working is how it makes you feel. A session of visualization should make you feel powerful and energized. That feeling should blend in with a feeling that this achievement is well within your grasp — and that you can make it happen, regardless of the obstacles that come up.
- Don’t bee to rigid with this practice. The point is to allow your mind to psyche itself up by thinking about success as if it is already happening. Whatever way you best imagine this, that’s the way to do it.
- If you doubt yourself, just remember that you already engage in creating synthetic experience for yourself regularly. You just tend to do it automatically, and about negative things. Here, you’re changing your existing habit to make it more intentional and positive.