Visualize your way to a better retirement

Athletes often visualize achieving peak performance in competition, whether it's a golfer seeing herself sink a putt or a football player seeing himself make a diving touchdown catch. Visualization of reaching a goal also works for retirement savers.

According to a recent study by TD Bank, people who visualize meeting their future goals are much more likely to succeed at achieving them. To find out if a picture really is worth a thousand words (or thousands of dollars), the bank surveyed more than 1,100 individuals and over 500 small-business owners to learn about their visualization practices.

The survey found that people who keep images, photos or vision boards of their goals are almost twice as likely to be confident they'll meet their goals compared to people who don't (59 percent vs. 31 percent). Getting more specific, visualizers were found to be more likely than nonvisualizers to be very satisfied or satisfied with:

  • Their physical health and well-being (48 percent vs. 21 percent)
  • Their emotional health and well-being (63 percent vs. 32 percent)
  • Their financial health (38 percent vs. 18 percent)

When asked about the benefits of visualization, the visualizers mentioned:

  • Inspiration (63 percent)
  • Help with staying focused (58 percent)
  • Belief that seeing their dreams helps them succeed (50 percent)
  • Documenting their achievements (37 percent)

"Financial advisors may tell you to keep your emotions out of money, but the psychologists will tell you that's impossible," said Dr. Barbara Nusbaum, a psychologist who partnered with TD Bank to analyze the study. "You're better off bringing emotions in positively to help your financial planning."

How can you use psychology to improve your retirement? While you're working, imagine how you'll look and feel if you don't have to work as hard, and imagine the things you'll do with your newfound freedom. That might give you the motivation to ramp up your savings and spend more time planning for your retirement income portfolio.

The reality facing many retirees is that they'll need to reduce their spending on living expenses because they'll have less income compared to when they were working. If this describes your situation, you can imagine inexpensive experiences and events that give you satisfaction with life, such as spending time with family and friends and low-cost travel and interests. Remind yourself of these future events with photos and other memorabilia.

Many retirees may need to work in their retirement years. In that case, you can visualize work that's satisfying as well as having friends at work. Imagine how you'll feel if you have work that helps other people.

Many retirees use their newly found time to take steps to improve their health. Imagine how good you'll feel when you exercise or lose some weight (and you'll look better, too!).

Visualizing helps connect the current you with the future you. Research suggests that the more connected you feel with your future self, the more likely you want to take steps now to take care of your future self.

One way to identify with your future self is to look at photos of how you might look in 10, 20 or 30 years. One free, online tool that can help you do that is the Face Retirement tool from Merrill Edge. You can even display photos of your future self if you really want more motivation to help you reach your goals.

Dr. Nusbaum added the following tips: Visualize how you'll feel if you meet your goals, picture your goals in detail and visualize often. Repetition helps.

Boomers face many retirement planning challenges, and they'll need all the help they can get, including creating a more realistic and fulfilling vision for their retirement years. Taking the time to picture yourself meeting your future goals certainly can't hurt, and it may give you a better shot at a successful future.

When it comes to planning a successful retirement, it just may turn out that seeing is believing. Or maybe, believing is seeing?

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    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.