The Power of Intention

Take your mind back to a time when you’ve been at a social gathering. Imagine you’re chatting intently to someone, filtering out the background noise of the many conversations around you. But when someone within earshot says your name, your attention catches it in a flash. Have you ever had that experience? It’s the Reticular Activating System (RAS) at work, scanning incoming sensory data for anything important. The RAS filters your sensory world. There’s a massive amount of data coming in through your senses: Your skin has about a million sensory nerve cells and your eye captures more than 300 megapixels of information every second. Your conscious awareness can only process a fraction of that, so almost everything your senses pick up gets ignored. Anything novel, potentially threatening or otherwise flagged as significant is prioritized. If something is very familiar – like that ‘Post-It’ note reminder you put on the door a month ago – it gets filtered out. That’s old news!

Let’s try a little experiment. I want you to take a quick look around you and count how many patches of green you can see. Just take a moment to do a quick 360 degree scan. Done that? Note you score. Now, without looking, guess how many patches of red there are there around you. You just did a 360 degree scan, so your eyes ‘saw’ the red, but your RAS filtered for green so your conscious mind didn’t register it. Now take another look and notice just how much you missed last time!

Because the RAS constantly scans for what you think is important, it plays a key role in motivation and goal setting. Whatever you decide to focus on will be added to the short list of things the RAS will bring to you attention. So if, for example, you’re looking for a new job or relationship, you’ll start spotting opportunities to make that happen. The RAS can work a bit like a GPS; you set the destination you want to get to and the RAS gets to work. Intention is the key here. First, you need to get clear about exactly what you want. That can be easier said than done, but is crucial to success. Once you have real clarity about your aim, write it down, preferably by hand: Research suggests that hand writing engages the mind more deeply than typing does. Then spend a few minutes thinking though the intention you’ve set. Why is it important to you? How will it feel when you’ve achieved this goal? What difference will it make to your life? This process primes your subconscious mind to look out for anything that might help.

Success won’t magically drop into you lap just because your wrote down what you want! When the RAS brings your attention to something you need to assess it and decide what to do next. If it’s an opportunity that’s worth pursuing you have to take action; speak to that person, make that call, write that blog post or whatever else it is. You might also find that useful ideas start to pop up in your mind, so be ready to note them down for action later.

This might all sound somewhat familiar. The so-called ‘Law of Attraction’ was doing the rounds a few years ago., claiming that you magnetically attract whatever you focus on. A few savvy people made a lot of money promoting this idea and to be fair there is something in it. The principles I’ve set out here are the Law of Attraction without the hype and based on solid neuroscience research. Science is all about experimentation, so try it for yourself: Invest some time in defining a simple goal, set your intention and watch what happens next. I’d be delighted to hear how you get on!

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Visualization for success – or failure!

Imagine for a moment that your holding half a cut lemon in you hand. Feel the weight of the fruit, see the citrus yellow of the textured skin. Now imagine bringing the lemon up to your nose and smelling it. Now imagine putting it in your mouth and sucking the sharp, bitter juice. Most people will be salivating by now because the unconscious mind doesn’t recognize the difference between an actual event and a strongly visualized one. That’s why visualization works; visualizing doing something activates the same neural pathways as when you actually perform that action.

There’s solid research showing that visualization is valuable for developing practical skills and it’s widely used in sport psychology. Visualization is a valuable tool in coaching and used correctly it can significantly enhance performance. Public speaking is classic example of a situation where visualization can help. Once you’ve done all the preparation – edited the Power Point slides and crafted a brilliant presentation – visualizing yourself successfully giving the talk can give you the edge.

It’s commonly assumed that because visualization is such a powerful tool we should use it in every situation. Simply visualize yourself passing your exams, and ‘hey presto!’, you pass. This is a myth and a dangerous one at that, because it can lead to failure. Research shows that simply visualizing success may be counter productive. Why? What if you were to consistently visualize exam success? You see the pass mark you want written next to your name; you imagine how good that feels and hear your friends congratulating you on your success. You’re telling your unconscious mind that you’ve already passed the exam with flying colours. That may be great for alleviating your exam anxiety, but it isn’t going to motivate you to do any studying! The research shows that these kinds of positive fantasies are de-energising, so are are likely to lead to worse outcomes overall. The bottom line:

“Instead of promoting achievement, positive fantasies will sap job-seekers of the energy to pound the pavement, and drain the lovelorn of the energy to approach the one they like” (Kappes and Oettingen).

There’s a crucial lesson here. Visualization can significantly enhance your chances of success, but if you choose the wrong context, visualization can just as certainly lead to failure. When should you practice visualization and when not?

  • Visualization can help reduce stress and anxiety, so ideal if that’s your short-term goal.
  • Visualization is great for mentally preparing for a practical task as part of a broader training programme. In my public speaking example, I emphasized that you need to have done all the preparation before you start visualizing success.
  • Visualization is not magic and you will not pass the exam, get a partner or a better job just by fantasizing about it. Sad, but true!

Using the power of intention is a different but related skill. There’s a lot to be said about that, so I’ll explore it in my next post. Meanwhile, if you’d like to experience the power of visualization, get in touch.


Kappes, H., and Oettingen, G. (2011). Positive fantasies about idealized futures sap energy. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47 (4), 719-729

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Welcome to the adventure!

Sure I’m a Life Coach, but above all I’m an explorer. That’s how I got interested in coaching, psychology, neuroscience and a seemingly endless list of subjects I can’t get enough of. This blog journals my journey across the landscape of coaching. You’ll learn mind hacks to make your life more rewarding and coaching tools that’ll help you discover and navigate your own path. I’ll challenge some of the accepted wisdom about coaching and highlight the latest research to open your eyes to the future. Welcome to the adventure!

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