Updated on 09.14.10

Outcome Visioning and Personal Finance

Trent Hamm

It seemed so incredibly simple. But it actually worked.

Last week, I visited a local bookstore. As I’ve mentioned many times, bookstores are one of my biggest weak spots. I can easily go into a bookstore and find myself picking up two or three interesting books before I’ve even really thought about it.

My usual line of defense against doing that is to simply limit my visits to bookstores. I’ve stopped going to the local bookstore with any degree of frequency and only visit them when I need a book on a specific topic, which is why I went there that day. (Are you ready for this? I was looking for a book about knitting.) However, that “reason” never seems to stop me from browsing the shelves, finding a book or two I “need” (meaning I don’t really need it), and buying it anyway.

Before I entered the store this time, though, I tried something different.

I sat in my car for a moment and focused on picturing myself walking out of the bookstore with only a book on knitting. I tried to imagine it in as much detail as I could, picturing the cover of the book and my otherwise empty hands, my pace out of the store, my sense of happiness in not buying anything extra that I didn’t need.

Then I stepped out of the car, went inside, and did just that.

The most interesting part is that I didn’t even consider buying anything extra while I was in there. Instead, I just had a strong, almost overwhelming sense that I was just going to pick up a knitting book, buy it, and walk out the door – and that’s exactly what I did.

Since then, I’ve been using outcome visioning with success (of varying degrees) in other aspects of life. I’ve visualized myself completing an article that seemed really challenging (it worked well). I’ve visualized myself cleaning out the garage (started with enthusiasm, but trailed off after kid distraction). I’ve visualized myself paying bills (worked very well). I’ve visualized myself cleaning out all of the basement closets (started well, got tired and went to bed).

What I’ve found is that, at least for me, outcome visioning works really well for small things – tasks that can be completed in two hours or less. If I use it on larger tasks than that – like ones that have to be broken down into multiple sessions – it can still work, but I usually need to envision the outcome again before I start up on a later session.

Another element that is useful for success at this is focusing on envisioning things that are easy to mentally picture. It’s hard to envision things like “being debt free” or “feeling good about myself.” Instead, focus on tangible things that lead to the outcome you want. Instead of focusing on “being debt free,” focus on specific acts of frugality that you’re not used to and let the outcome from that flow towards your goal. Instead of focusing on “feeling good about myself,” focus on an activity that will cause that good feeling – like exercise.

Also, never forget that visualization is a mental aid, not a substitute It doesn’t matter how bad you want it or how much you visualize it, you still have to pick up your feet and do it.

Give it a shot this week on something small that you know you’ll struggle with a bit, then move in full steam ahead. You’ll probaby be surprised how much it helps.

Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...
  1. Steve says:

    Professional athletes do this as well. In my youth I read about a hall of fame pitcher (whose name escapes me) who used to meditate before every start and imagine the entire game, every pitch, from start to finish. Then, in his mind, all he had to go out there and replicate what he’s already done. The task seems much easier when you feel like you’ve done it before.

  2. karen says:

    So what’s up with the knitting book? It would be like nirvana if you would combine knitting with personal finance issues and this would become my all-purpose go-to blog! Looking forward to it!

  3. This is indeed a handy skill to have. It does help to be able to picture a concrete action or outcome instead of a generalized idea. I use this technique constantly for many things and find that most of the time it succeeds.

  4. Gal @ Equally Happy says:

    By the way, waking up in the morning and then spending 5 minutes still in bed envisioning the good things you will accomplish that day, also works wonders. If nothing else, it’s a way healthier substitute to coffee for getting you excited about your day.

  5. Brad says:

    Works for my golf game sometimes….

  6. zoranian says:

    I was always a poor foul shooter at basketball (but could hit 3-pointers well). I visualized for a while before a game and when I was called on to shoot technical fouls hit 100%. For some reason though, I never really used visualization again. Maybe I was scared it wouldn’t work again or didn’t have the patience for ongoing visualization.

  7. I’ve used the visualization technique a lot in life. The night before a big job interview, I visualized shaking hands with the interviewer and being congratulated on getting the job – even though I doubted that I would actually be offered the job right away. The next day, I had a great interview and was offered the job on the spot!!

  8. J.O. says:

    I have done this with shopping as well, and it works for me. Gives a great feeling of self-control as well as a lower cost at the cash register.

  9. Courtney says:

    Visualization helped me through natural childbirth several times. I’m not much of a new age-y type person, but I do believe that visualizing made the labors go quicker and the pain more tolerable (well, a little bit more tolerable, anyway).

  10. Sounds like you’ve picked up this theory from Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich book.

    It truly works for many things.

  11. bethh says:

    Well I sure have been procrastinating cleaning my apartment. Perhaps I’ll conjure up a clean bathroom and actually get it done!

  12. LP says:

    Visualization works!

    Also: (I can’t figure out a way to word this without potentially coming off as snarky since the advice seems so obvious, but) next time visualize yourself finding an interesting title in the bookstore, writing it down, and then promptly picking it up or putting it on hold at the library.

  13. JK says:

    By visualizing every purchase in the equivalent lost travel experience I can talk myself out of virtually any expense.

    Admission to the Louvre in Paris vs fast food meal?
    Hotel night in Venice vs. (quality) jeans or shoes?
    1 month beach villa in Thailand vs big screen tv…

    In my book it’s never even close and travel wins every time. All I have to do is remind myself what else I could be getting for the same money.

  14. sewingirl says:

    My problem is that my unconscious visualizing makes the task look much worse than it turns out to be! I always think of the things that could go wrong! Then its hard to replace that with good thoughts. Maybe I need visualization and Prozac?

  15. MacKay says:

    There are different ways of visualizing. On the days when we don’t go to work, my husband and I usually start the day with a conversation about the things we hope to accomplish in a day. Sometimes I make a list at the beginning of the day and try to cross each off by the end of the day.
    I had some fussy interior painting to do. One area was the final paint on a patch we did on the kitchen ceiling last winter. Tops, it was under an hour of work, including getting stuff ready and cleaning up after. But I have procrastinated. So today I started my day by putting on painting clothes. I wasn’t about to put on painting clothes and not get around to those painting jobs.
    I did them first thing this morning, and it feels good they are finally done.
    I also use a chart method to visualize. Some people do this to track their savings, or pay off a debt. I am more likely to do it to lose weight, when ten pounds has crept back on. I get out some graph paper, mark it off for number of pounds I hope to lose, and how many weeks I want to lose it in (a pound a week), and then most importantly I draw a light line for the downward trend I plan on doing. This light line is also a form of visualization.

  16. L says:

    I agree about checking out the library first. Unless there was a specific book you were picking up as a gift for a friend.

  17. valleycat1 says:

    I don’t see knitting as a frugal activity any more, unless you’re making something with the $1.99 basic yarns available at big box stores. The ‘good’ yarns are incredibly expensive!

    The problem with borrowing at knitting book at the library is the time limit – most projects take more than 3 weeks.

  18. valleycat1 says:

    I can be a lost cause in bookstores too, but couldn’t you accomplish the same thing by making a shopping list & sticking to it? [The first time I went into a bookstore & actually left without buying anything was a huge step for me….]

  19. Bill says:

    I need to use this power for good not evil. I can visualize the burrito I will get tomorrow for lunch.

  20. Misty says:

    I love knitting! But I dislike paying for patterns. Someone mentioned it earlier, good yarn is expensive, but there just is no compare for a beautiful handmade item that is personal a special.

    I’m not sure if you’re getting the book for a gift or learning to knit yourself (I do hope you tell us more about it!), but I would like to share the links to my two favorite knitting sites.


    Knittinghelp.com has tutorials and videos to help the self taught knitter (like me!) how to do just about anything.


    Knittingpatterncentral.com has lots and lots of awesome and free patterns!

  21. Janet says:

    Outcome visioning is a powerful tool that I use when I am planning a painting. It can also help move me beyond a creative block. My daughter is a musician & teacher and outcome visioning is important in her work with students & choir members. Our minds have huge areas of potential that are often not developed. Good for you!

  22. Suzy says:

    In addition to visualization I find that writing it down makes it happen for me. When I think I may procrastinate on a task, I make it a point to write it down on a list of things to do. Somehow the action of writing it down sends a message to my brain that it is a required action. Then it gets done.

  23. LP says:

    Re: valleycat1 and the library time limits:

    Just call and recheck it. 2 minutes of time for another 3 weeks, or indefinitely until someone else places a hold on it.

  24. Rache G says:

    This off the topic of visualization but addresses your bookstore habit. I love going to the bookstore just to wander around and think of all the great things I could be reading. In order to prevent myself from spending tons of money that I don’t have on books that it will take me at least five months to read with my busy schedule, I have come up with a way to not feel so bad about not buying that really really interesting book.

    I just make a notation of the title in my phone, I don’t have a fancy phone so I just put it in a text message draft. Then the next time I’m at the library I see if they have it, if they they don’t then I utilize interlibrary loan. In Texas we have interlibrary loan where any book all over the state can be sent to another public library by reques. Wa-la! I have a book I was really interested in didn’t spend any money on and can enjoy guilt free.

  25. Interested Reader says:

    You also might want to try practicing mindfulness and being aware of what you are doing.

    It might help you with your self control issues in bookstores.

  26. Sara says:

    Thanks for another great post! I agree with Karen’s comment (#2).

    But you didn’t say what knitting book! Which one? Are you learning to knit? Yay!

  27. Karen says:

    Knitting and personal finance? You are my new hero! And by the way, I was going to suggest knitting with your article about personal homemade gifts.

    I have a few ideas for that if you need/would like them. I make my own gifts every year.

  28. BeccaT says:

    Most people get a rush when acquiring a new thing. I only get the rush when the new-to-me item costs $1 instead of $20. I so enjoy the thrifty rush, that I get no pleasure from paying retail. To buy a book at the retail price to me seems like a failure, and having it on my shelf forever is a reminder of that. So I will exhaust every possible way to get that book cheaper, so I can get the rush. If I pay retail, I feel deprived of the rush.

    Almost always a retail book can be found on the secondhand market really cheap within six months, so waiting is the main strategy. I do buy used books online, but only after I have seen an actual copy to know if it is worth the price. So any book I see at the library, that I still feel is worth owning after I have read it for free, can be found secondhand on ebay, or abebooks.

    When my sister has requested a new book through inter-library loan, she has found her library usually just buys the book. So after she is finished reading it, she knows she can just go back to her library and borrow it again.

    I enjoy used-book stores as much as retail book stores. But with the used-book store, there is a real chance I will walk away with a treasure for just a few dollars. Depending on the bookstore, and the rarity of a specific book, used prices can be higher than retail. There is an antique mall in our area with a huge selection of used books, and many are priced at $1 to $5. In general, a book has to be spectacularly amazing for me to spend over $10. The used-book selection tends to be different than retail, often more bland, but I have found some books more unique than I could have gotten retail.

    As far as gifts go, we do occasionally buy some new books, but mostly we buy each other used books. The “gift” part is the effort required in finding a great book for very little.

    A few years ago I bought a new book on quilts from a retail store. It was big and thick, and had a lot of color photos. It was in the bargain section, and so at $20 I felt this was a good price. But in fact, I have looked at it very little since. Last summer I saw the exact same book at a yard sale for, no kidding, ten cents. The friend I was with bought it, but if she didn’t, I would have bought it, then ebayed the one I bought new. It would have been more satisfying to have that book for 10 cents.

    I guess when I go into a retail bookstore, I visualize getting the same book used for 10% of the price. It is easy for me to walk out empty handed.

  29. Carrie says:

    A tactic my husband and I use is to review all the items in our cart/basket and ask ourselves if we really need it.
    Recently we went to a department store because I wanted a fall themed table runner. Of course, while in the department store, we came across other items we thought we needed, and we had fun coming up with ways we could use it all.
    Before reaching the checkout, we looked over everything and ended up putting back all but 2 items. That review saved us $50 in impulse purchases.
    We still had fun shopping but ended up taking home only the 2 items we really wanted and had a purpose for.

  30. Lili says:

    This is the best article of yours I’ve read. I can really “envision” this technique working. I’ve got a lot of small projects to try this on….but also a few biggies (like losing weight, amongst other things). I could even “envision” this working for really tough things like quitting smoking, which I already did years ago, but I sure have other bad habits to get rid of.

  31. Jessica says:

    Visualization helped me pay off a few debts.

  32. Brian Bain says:

    Difficult phone calls. I’ll go over the conversation in my head, what I expect for the outcome, different ways the conversation may go…

    And then I have to pick up the phone.

  33. michael bash says:

    “Outcome visioning” — Oh, my. Gotta make things complicated like Frasier Crane. The term I like is “self discipline”. Or character … or being a responsible adult …

  34. Matt says:

    Trent, you could expand on this idea and turn it into a series of books and seminars that you sell to corporations for big bucks.

    I’m semi-serious. Five or six years ago, at a former employer, all employees were allowed to take part in a program called “Imagine 21”, which was developed and sold by The Pacific Institute, a company headed by Lou Tice.

    If I remember correctly, it was a two or three day class that involved lectures and group exercises. I found it to actually be fairy interesting and fun (although not all my colleagues felt the same).

    But anyway, the core of the program was basically what you described in this post. The program spent a lot of time encouraging people to visualize success in whatever goal it was that they set for themselves.

    One notable difference is that the program actually took it a step further: it didn’t limit it to small, immediate-term goals like not buying more than one book in a store. A typical example was losing weight. The first step was to make the goal as specific as possible, e.g.: “I’m going to lose 20 pounds by the end of 2010”.

    From there, you created “affirmations”, which are basically just statements that reinforce behaviors that support your goal. The statements have an emotional component, i.e. one that makes you feel good about working towards your goal. Examples for the weight-loss would be: “I feel delighted when I only eat carefully measured portions” or “Exercising daily makes me feel energetic and relaxed.”

    Those affirmations were supposed to be written or printed out, and posted in places where you’d see (and re-read them) often. E.g. in your wallet/purse, on your bathroom mirror, the steering wheel of your car, framed on your desk, etc.

    The whole theory behind this is that these affirmations, over time, “manipulate” your self-conscious. If you constantly remind yourself that eating only carefully controlled portions makes you feel good, then you’ll naturally start to eat exactly that: your self-conscious will direct you to do those things that bring you pleasure. You’ve “tricked” yourself into making goal-supporting behaviors automatic and natural.

    I think the visualizations Trent mentions and these affirmations are just different sides of the same coin. The program I went through is really just Trent’s post turned into a multi-day course.

    And of course, you could easily replace the familiar weight-loss goal with one that is directly related to this site: personal finance success. I would speculate that a typical long-term goal for readers of this site is as follows: “by year 20xx, I will have no debt except my home mortgage, and have XXX dollars in a savings account as an emergency fund.”

    This whole blog gives ideas every day on how to reach exactly that goal. So take one or two e.g. debt-reduction techniques, and make affirmations for them: “I am thrilled when I go a whole week without eating out more than two times” and “I love the feeling of keeping my income/expense spreadsheet updated every week”. Two typical short-term behavior modifications (limit eating out and keeping track of money flows). Focus on just those until they become routine. Use affirmations/visualizations to help you turn them into habits more quickly and easily. And once you do them automatically, create a few more. Lather, rinse and repeat.

    I assume that there are courses that are basically just like the Imagine 21 course I took, but with a pure personal finance slant. I don’t think it would be too terribly hard to put such a course together.

  35. Heidi says:

    Delurking to say, congrats on enabling the knitterly arts, whoever might be practicing them!

    Also, in response to the claim that knitting is an expensive hobby, consider this: If I go to a movie, I’m dropping $10 for two hours of entertainment. That’s $5 an hour. If I play a round of minigolf with friends, I’m dropping $5-$10 for two or three hours: $1.75-$5 an hour. If I knit a pair of socks using high-quality, hand-painted yarn, I’m dropping $25. If it takes me two hours an evening for a month to knit my socks, that comes out to less than fifty cents an hour for my entertainment, and at the end of the month I have a pair of socks to boot. I think that’s pretty frugal when it comes to entertainment costs.

    Of course, as with any hobby, knitting is as frugal as you make it, but I would submit that you can do so without buying icky cheapo yarn from a big-box craft store.

  36. Marcus Murphy says:

    I think you just summed up the entire movie “The Secret”. Well except for the last paragraph, they left that part out of the movie.

  37. sjw says:

    Am I the only one who wants to know what the book was?

    Anyways, knitting can be frugal at a variety of different levels. Some knitters are always destashing, so you can pick up yarn for cheap/free. Some people go to second hand clothing stores and buy old knit sweaters, unravel them and then make something new and beautiful. Some people buy expensive wool ($25-40), but then spend many hours on something beautiful and complicated (perhaps lace).

    I don’t think I’m being defensive, but I’d admit that I spent $200 on a semi-premium yarn (noro silk garden) for a blanket that is turning out beautifully. I’ve been working on it for almost two months now, a little each night. Cost per hour is pretty good (and I bought the yarn at my local yarn store for 15-25% off).

  38. Hugin says:

    Visualizing works in many ways. For me it is an important tool in finding motivation for long-term goals that I want to achieve. I want to get into a certain mood and feel how it would be if I reach my goals. Since I finished my career as an athlete, I’ve noticed, though, that I have almost stopped using visualization for the actual performance in certain situations. This is something that I have to get better at now when I have another career.

    It’s fun to see that others share the same weaknesses as me, namely bookstores :)

  39. Kai says:

    I hope the book was a gift – any knitting info you want is easily available at the library, or on the internet.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *