Is There Any Proof Vision Boards Work?

I’m in this phase of questioning if the things that I’ve thought were cringy are just seen that way because they’ve been primarily associated with women. Seeing Canva templates for desktop and phone vision board wallpapers made me wonder ..

Am I secretly a bit sexist for dismissing something out of hand as “woo”, simply because no tech CEO swears by it?

Where did vision boards come from?

Merrium webster records the first use of the words “Vision board” in 1999, in the United Kingdom, and used in relation to city planning. They seem to use “vision board” in the same way we might use the words “kanban board” or “to do backlog”.

“Tuffley Community Centre for an informal session at which people will be able to place action cards on to the council’s “vision board.”

— The Gloucester Citizen (Gloucestershire County, UK), 30 Sept. 1999

So not quite what we mean by the term today.

The Secret, Pinterest, and the cringe factor

Where the term came into popular usage in the way we think of – as a collection of inspirational images that we hope to become our future reality – is in the early 2000s, with the release of the book “The Secret”.

(I feel a lot better about myself now, btw.)

The Secret’s author, Rhona Byrne advocated using vision boards – an actual corkboard with images and cut-out quotes or other sentimental items – to “attract” the future you wanted.

But let’s not forget how huge “The Secret” was. There were plenty of slick men in suits promising to teach people how to implement the law of abundance into their lives.

Book on vision boards from 2009.

The gendering of vision boards probably came from Pinterest. Launched in 2010, it became the easiest way to make digital vision boards from photos online. The site was frequently mentioned by Abraham Hicks – who eventually overtook Byrne in popularity- as something you should do to “manifest” your future.

And Pinterest is hugely dominated by women. 79.5% of Pinterest’s global users are female

by late 2010’s we’re strictly using it as a meme or cultural joke.

Are there any studies on vision board uses?

I can only find citations of studies in articles on them, rather than primary sources in google scholar. (I should have searched for “visualisation”.)

The primary sources I do find are based around youth counselling and as a therapeutic tool where they talk about it being useful to teenagers because they are still in the process of constructing their identity and might not have the language or self-awareness to know what they want in life. Vision boards are a creative and visual self-discovery and expression tool that helps counsellors understand their goals and values better.

This is important, but not what I’m looking for.

Of course, an opinion piece on Huffington post thinks they work. and compares it to how Olympians use imagery as mental training. ** so eyeroll **

But Olympians don’t imagine themselves standing on the podium as winners (as most vision boards would have you visualise); they imagine weight lifting and swimming and running. In other words: doing the work.

Distilling from several citations across many articles and one podcast episode- here are when and how vision boards do and don’t work.

When do Vision boards work?

1. Changing Deeply Ingrained Behaviour.

In the podcast, The Pineapple Project, the host Clair Hooper describes how our spending and saving behaviours are rooted in the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours of the adults in our childhood.

It’s like a financial attachment style, and that’s what makes changing our behaviours so hard.

Some of us associate having desirable items with seeming more trustworthy or likeable – and that belief keeps us spending when we shouldn’t.

Others have deep associations that people who don’t live frugally, who have extra cash to treat themselves are “bad people” – and that keeps us from allowing ourselves to live comfortably and enjoy what we’ve earned.

“In the course of your day, about 40% of the things you do are habits,” says Dr. Moran Cerf, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University. “All of this happens behind the scenes without you being aware of it.”

~ Dr. Moran Cerf. Neuroscientist at Northwestern University. How to change your money habits–

What podcast researchers found worked best to motivate people to change their behaviours around saving? Was having a visual reminder of what they were saving for on their phone wallpaper.

It’s also important to recognise how a vision board would need to take into account money personality types to not make them worse.

For example, a money worshipper should exclude status items, and focus more on the big picture goals (photos of a home, or kid graduating college, etc.).

While money avoidant types should probably include pictures of some decent basics that they’re denying themselves. Perhaps a modest holiday nearby.

(Note: just like attachment styles, you may find that you fit between two money personality types– for myself I flit between money worship and money vigilant).

2. When it Uses Action Steps Images, not End Goals

This comes up a lot. It’s important to visualise the steps (like athletes visualise the training), not the results.

If my goal were make new friends locally and to grow my blog and vlog, the images should be of writing, making videos, and maybe attending meetups or local events. A meetup logo is actually perfect.

NOT pictures of the end results, like 8k subscribers, or a picture of a cosy cabin holiday with close friends. If I wanted to run 10k again, it would be pictures of running shoes, dawn, and my 5k to 10k app. Not pictures of someone winning at a finish line.

Those end-goal images make us feel good, but also increase anxiety and cause us to take less action.

“When you put an item on your vision board, your brain reacts as though you’ve already gotten it — you imagine yourself across the finish line.” The result is that vision boards can actually make us less motivated to strive to achieve our goals.”

~ Amy Morin, a psychotherapist and author of “13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do.” Washington post: Why a vision board might help you get through the rest of 2020 

3. When There’s A Written Game Plan

Inspiration can start the fire and motivation is what keeps us going.

And there’s something motivating about breaking a big goal down into small, actionable steps, and seeing progress as those habits are and tiny milestones are checked off.

“One study highlights the importance of creating a written action plan to enhance personal success. It states that the action plan should consist of specific goals, success values, and the necessary tasks to achieve those goals, along with target dates for completion. 

This process of creating actionable plans will build momentum and enhance the likelihood of success while cultivating a sense of personal agency and empowerment, both of which reinforce your belief in your own capabilities, not just luck.”

Pyschology today: 3 Ways the “Lucky Girl Syndrome” May Be Hurting You

I’ve always used project management tools to break down any idea I have into action steps, but this is the first time I’ve read that just writing the project outline, and success values/metrics are motivating.

I’ll definitely be updating my notion pages for my blog and novel to include:

  • posts per month
  • sharing to social per month
  • email / follower counts
  • Commenting on other blogs I read
  • writing time for my novel per week
  • word counts per week for my novel

And then milestones like:

  • Published 40 blog posts
  • Finished book outline


Previously, I’ve only done this for business-related plans or projects.

4. When you plan for obstacles and bad habit Triggers

Every habit we want to change, staying up late scrolling, to snacking, or skipping workouts, or not sitting down to write that novel – all starts with triggers. The trigger can be emotional, like boredom – which causes us to scroll social media. Or it can be environmental like the coffee shop with fresh croissants that lurs you in.

Understanding and preparing for the things that could derail your desired routine, has been shown in studies on different journaling methods, to have the best outcome. For example, I’m a stress eater. If something happens that upsets me, I’ll want to snack. I can plan for this by:

  • not having junk in the flat
  • having healthy snacks in the flat and h in my bag

But it seems that the act of journaling about following that ideal behaviour in the morning, results in better follow through, in addition to taking those precautions.

This form of reflective journaling is a form of self-monitering.

It also found the students were better at noticing when they procrastinating and change their behavior in the moment.

When don’t Vision Boards work?

1. Visualising the Outcome

The problems with vision boards are the same problems with manifesting itself: living like you already have what you want, or that it’s on its way simply because it’s been asked for has the effect of making people less motivated to do the actions that the goal is associated with.

From a study from University of California ran a study on three groups of students

Group 1 : Students were asked to spend a few moments each day visualizing with a clear image how great it would feel to make a high grade on an important midterm exam that would take place in a few days time.

Group 2: Students were asked to spend a few minutes each day visualizing when, where, and how they intended to study.

Group 3: Control group of students not asked to visualize doing especially well on the exams.

Students visualizing being A students (Group 1), studied less and made lower grades on the exam. They felt better about themselves but achieved less.

Students visualizing studying, prepared better, studied more, scored higher grades, and were less stressed.

2. “I’ll be happy as soon as..”

Vision boards also strengthen the arrival fallacy, the idea that when you reach a certain level of comfort or success (or weight loss, or muscle mass, or a stable relationship), happiness will follow. Studies have found that thinking this way causes people to be unhappier.

“Research has found an association between depression and the belief that attaining a certain level of prestige or acquiring certain belongings will bring happiness, according to Marilyn Fitzpatrick, a counseling psychologist and professor emerita at McGill University.”

The Washington post- Why a vision board might help you get through the rest of 2020

As a person who used to use productivity and ambition as a method of avoiding having to deal with her feelings, I can see how this one works. It was only when I got too sick to be productive, and years later being on maternity leave, that I absolutely had to find ways of being happy or at least content with the here and now.

3. Dreaming Too Big

Vision boards encourage you to dream BIG. You put down the dream house abroad with an incredible view. The customised car. The understated but luxury clothing.

But it turns out it’s important for motivation and follow through to set realistic, achievable goals.

“A study found that individuals with misaligned or uncertain ambitions at age 16 experienced higher unemployment rates, lower educational achievements, and lower wages in adulthood, highlighting the negative impact of such ambitions on long-term goals and financial success.”

2011 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that fantasizing about an idealized future decreases the likelihood that someone will expend energy trying to turn their fantasy into a reality.

~ AMY MORIN : Why Vision Boards Don’t Work (And What You Should Do Instead)

Dreaming too big can be demotivating.

It’s ok to dream smaller, and increase your goals over time as you check the smaller goals off.

The Take-home: How I’m Using a Vision Board

Vision boards work when they are used to visualise the actions needed to obtain a goal, have habits and a plan in place to keep accountable, evaluate progress and keep moving forward.

In this way, it’s not dissimilar to self hypnosis and other visualisation techniques.

But since I am a visual person who already journals and plans, here what I’ll do:

  1. Put things that represent what I want to cherish more of in my daily life on there: a picture of a family day our with our daughter in nature.
  2. Put images of things I know I need to do more of: pause, rest, hydrate, and take in what’s around me. Get out into some sunlight around sunset every day.
  3. Images of small pleasures to enjoy today: fancy herbal teas, books, cosying up on the sofa.
  4. Put images of action steps towards my goals (a woman recording a video, writing.).
  5. Put a picture of an expensive thing I want my savings to go towards. (It’s a camera, baby!)
  6. Use Notion for writing an outline of a plan for each goal (eg, writing my novel, my youtube account, this blog) and include deadlines and other success metrics.

I’m terrified of deadlines for non-essential projects, because I barely have enough time as it is with a small kid, a husband who travels a lot, and unreliable energy levels, but I do want to finish this book and I need to get over my dysphoria around seeing myself on video.

Vision Board, or an Action Board?

Maybe I’ve moved closer to that 1999 definition of creating a visual to-do board, but it’s cute and motivating. And it’s my lock screen wallpaper.

“The brain assigns a higher ‘value’ to images than written words on a ‘to-do’ list,” says Swart, “And the more you look at those images, the more those images move up in importance.”

Dr Tara Swart, Neuroscientist – The science behind vision boards

Articles cited and sources

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