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Outside the Box: Could this be the secret to saving for retirement?

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We save too little, spend too much and what we buy often disappoints. Is there an antidote for this financially self-destructive behavior? One intriguing possibility: visualization.

If you’re like me, the word itself makes you a little queasy. It conjures up images of both self-absorbed, navel-gazing yuppies (not something I aspire to be) and Olympic athletes getting in the zone (not something I’ll ever be). Still, I think there’s value in spending serious time pondering our financial goals.

Visualization is often used to boost confidence, reduce anxiety and take a few mental practice runs before we try something for real. Think about high-pressure situations like making a speech or interviewing for a job. By imagining these events in detail beforehand, we’re likely to perform better when it’s time for the actual thing.

But for financial goals, probably the biggest benefit of visualization is increased motivation. It can help us overcome our hard-wired tendency to favor today and shortchange our future self, while also helping us to get a better handle on what we truly want from our money.

The idea is to picture a goal—perhaps it’s retirement, buying a home or switching careers—in as much detail as possible. This doesn’t mean we should spend a lot of time pondering the thrill of achieving our goal. Why not? That, alas, could prove to be demotivating because the vision itself satisfies us emotionally. Indeed, some have argued that instead we should visualize the consequences of failure—because we get more pain from losses than pleasure from gains and thus fear may prove to be a stronger motivator.

Better still, we should spend less time visualizing success or failure, and focus more on the steps we’ll need to take along the way. After all, those steps are the key to getting ahead. If the goal is to buy a home, we might visualize saving up the down payment, getting our other debts under control, improving our credit score, scouting for the right place and so on. This sort of visualization has the potential to stir us to action.

Struggling to paint a full picture because you don’t know much about a topic? You may need to talk to others or read more about your desired goal. As you fill in the details, the goal will become ever more real, its emotional intensity will grow—and you’ll be more motivated to go after it. As psychologist Jennice Vilhauer writes in Psychology Today, “Being able to do something in your head, greatly increase your chances of being able to do it in real life.”

Folks use all kinds of visualization techniques, such as writing down their goals in great detail, creating a collage of images that bring their goal to life or spending a few minutes each day visualizing what they need to do. But however you go about it, it strikes me that visualizing our financial goals is almost a necessity—because the allure of immediate spending is so powerful.

Thanks to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, we’re hard-wired to consume as much as possible today, while giving scant thought to the long term. It’s easy to imagine the fun of a Caribbean vacation or a new Lexus. Nobody needs visualization techniques for that. If saving for retirement or the kid’s college is to have any hope of claiming even a few percent of our paycheck, we need to make these goals at least as enticing as the shiny Lexus, so we’re willing to make the necessary short-term sacrifices.

But this comes with a caveat—one peculiar to financial goals. If a top-notch athlete visualizes hitting a home run or crossing the finish line first, and that comes to pass, there’s little or no downside.

But if we visualize a financial goal and all the steps necessary to make it happen, and we get our wish, it could turn out that the reality simply doesn’t live up to what we visualized. Early retirement turns out to be a bore. The vacation cottage is a horror show of home repairs and extra chores. The new career is even less fulfilling than our old job. The big home in the suburbs turns out to be a commuting nightmare.

My advice: If you’re struggling to motivate yourself to save, by all means visualize your goals. But in your daydreaming, give some thought to the potential drawbacks, so you don’t waste thousands of hours and dollars going after a goal you never should have pursued.

This column originally appeared on Humble Dollar. It was republished with permission.

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