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This simple technique can help you get things done … and grow in virtue while you’re at it

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Visualization is related to meditation, and it can yield amazing results.

Confession time: I hate to-do lists.

This is a legit confession because I’m pretty sure I’ve written (here at Aleteia or elsewhere) about how much I love to-do lists and how helpful and effective they are. But y’all. I lied.

I’ve never loved to-do lists … they always make me feel simultaneously trapped, bored, and sad — even when they’re filled with tasks I’m looking forward to doing.

However, they have long been the most effective way for me to keep myself on task and get through things rather than starting something and giving up halfway through to do something that sounds more fun or interesting. The older I get, the less I tend to procrastinate beginning things, but I haven’t made much progress in the arena of consistent follow-through. This is doubly true for work that bores me — like extensive applications, obligatory emails, or (my nemesis) spreadsheets.

So I’ve kept up with the to-do lists, especially when I have a full day with lots of little tasks that are time-sensitive. I had a day like that on Sunday, so I dutifully made my to-do list on my phone and then set about accomplishing it. But as the day wore on I began to realize something unpleasant about the list … I still had that sense of satisfaction when I crossed something off, but literally every single thing I did that day felt like a chore. It felt like I had been given a list of unpalatable chores and was dutifully working through them, which was alarming because the list was actually full of things I’d been looking forward to doing. And that’s when I realized that my animosity toward to-do lists had manage to seep into the contents of the list, tainting everything with faint tinge of drudgery.

So yesterday I tried something new: visualization. It was a risk, because I was trusting a random article on the internet that endorsed visualization on another day full of important time-sensitive tasks, but I tried it anyway. I couldn’t stand one more day of tedium. And lo and behold, y’all, Better Homes and Gardens came through and showed me that visualization is as effective, if not more so, than making a list and checking it twice:

Visualization isn’t just a technique for big goals. You can use it in your daily life to help your day go more smoothly. Next time you’re facing a long list of tasks you need to get through, try picturing getting each one done before you do it. Subjects in one small study reported feeling more accomplished and in a better mood on days when they practiced mental imagery techniques for their tasks than on days when they wrote out a to-do list.

If you’re interested in trying visualization, you’re not alone: A survey from TD Bank found that 86 percent of people surveyed visualize themselves achieving their goals. Once you have a specific goal in mind, visualize everything you need to achieve it, not just the final result. In one study, college students were more successful at adding more fruit to their diets if they set a goal to do so and visualized themselves getting and eating the fruit. Play out your intended scenario in your head: What will you wear? Who will be at the meeting? What materials will you need? Psychology Today also recommends using all of your senses when you’re visualizing, so don’t forget to picture things like the temperature in the room or any smells there could be … While you’re doing this, don’t forget to also imagine the obstacles you may encounter. You’ll be less nervous about something derailing you if you’ve already prepared for that possibility.

I specifically focused on the when yesterday. For several weeks, I’ve been struggling to get necessary follow-up done immediately after camp. So yesterday morning I pictured myself coming home and doing the follow-up before anything else. I thought about what might delay me — a phone call, being hungry, that giant pile of neglected laundry — and imagined myself turning my phone on silent, staying in the dining room where my laptop was, and getting it done before even stepping into the kitchen or laying eyes on the laundry.

It worked like a charm. For the first time possibly ever, I got connections and follow-up done right on time. I was prepared for every event that happened yesterday because I had imagined myself doing the preparations when they needed to be done, and then I actually did them. I didn’t forget a single thing, either, which had been my main fear. Somehow, picturing myself doing every single task cemented them into my memory.

It’s probably not a huge surprise that visualization is effective — after all, it’s related to meditation, which has long been practiced in Christianity both as a way to focus our minds on Christ as well as a way to build virtue. And in the end, doing the work laid out before us is a big part of virtue — one that visualization can definitely help us learn to build and maintain.

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