How to Mentally Rehearse: Practice Through Imagination

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Decoding Greatness" by Ron Friedman. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What if you could practice doing something by just using your imagination? What makes mental rehearsal so effective? What’s the right way to do it?

If you want to get better at something, it makes sense that you need to practice. But Ron Friedman argues that it’s easy to practice incorrectly or inefficiently. So, to avoid wasting your time and effort, he offers several guidelines for effective practice. One of these is to mentally rehearse.

Continue reading to learn how to use mental rehearsal to improve any performance.

Mental Rehearsal

In addition to physical practice, Friedman recommends that you mentally rehearse prior to your actual performance. To do so, he suggests imagining your performance as specifically as you can, including the time and place, the sensory details you expect to encounter, and the nuances of the behaviors you’ll need to perform. For example, if you’re about to prepare a complicated meal for guests, you might imagine each step of the cooking process, from gathering your ingredients to chopping vegetables to finishing a sauce and plating each course.

Friedman argues that this kind of imagery can improve your actual performance in several ways:

  • It locks down important details, such as the steps you’ll need to perform or the skills you’ll need to employ. For example, it’s a chance to “practice” that tricky tournée cut one last time before you actually let loose on your potatoes.
  • It prepares you for the stressors and challenges you’ll likely face. For example, your kitchen will still be too hot and you’ll still be pressed for time, but you might be less stressed because you anticipated these extra challenges.
  • It helps you strategize because you’ll foresee potential problems and find ways to avoid or compensate for them. If your sauce doesn’t turn out, for instance, you’ll be less likely to panic if you anticipated that possibility and you’re prepared to fix it or modify the dish.

Friedman cautions that, when using this kind of imagery, it’s important to imagine your performance, not your success—in other words, imagine the specific behaviors you’ll perform in the kitchen, not how good the food will taste or how proud you’ll feel when serving your guests. He points to a study showing that visualizing success actually makes your performance worse. That’s because when you imagine yourself succeeding, you get an emotional payoff that tricks your brain into thinking you have already succeeded. This payoff lowers your motivation and makes you more complacent, which ultimately makes you less effective.

The Neuroscience of Mental Rehearsal

Research supports Friedman’s contention that mental rehearsal can improve future performance. But what exactly is going on at a physiological level when you mentally practice a skill? Understanding the answer could help you hone your mental rehearsal technique and make sure you get the benefits Friedman describes.

Researchers believe that mental rehearsal takes advantage of two mechanics in your brain

Motor preparation: When you’re about to make a movement—say, to stand up from your office chair—your brain runs through that movement, essentially warming up and instructing the neural network that fires your muscles when you actually stand up.

State-dependent learning: Memory and learning are contextual, which means that you recall information and skills better when you’re in the same situation as when you first learned them (this includes factors such as your physical location and mental state). Mental rehearsal takes advantage of the fact that your brain can also tie skills and knowledge to a specific imagined state.

Putting these two phenomena together, mental rehearsal works by “grooving in” a desired behavior along with the context in which it’s desired so that when you encounter that context, you’re more likely to execute the behavior you want in the way you want. 

That’s why Friedman emphasizes specificity: For mental practice to work, you need to imagine yourself executing a specific physical behavior in a specific physical and emotional context. That way, when you’re actually in that context—standing in a hot, messy kitchen with your stress level spiking because the sauce isn’t coming together—your brain already knows what to do because you’ve already established the neural patterns that cause you to take a deep breath, walk over to the sink to get some water, walk back to the stove, and patiently whisk the sauce together.

Motor preparation and state-dependent learning also help explain why, as Friedman points out, simply imagining success doesn’t work: When you imagine yourself watching proudly as your guests tuck into a gourmet meal, you’re not preparing the neural networks that you’ll need to make that meal.
How to Mentally Rehearse: Practice Through Imagination

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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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