Models for coaching

Life Timeline

Life Timeline activities, exercises and templates. A powerful, NLP-based approach to exploring your past and helping you define your future.

Useful in coaching for Healing, Self-Awareness, Setting Goals, Understanding Behaviour 

Life Timeline Template and Model

What is the Life Timeline?

The Life Timeline is a NLP technique used to explore your past and desired future to build greater self-awareness, set goals and understand the events that have affected you. It’s a way to take a snapshot of your life to date, exploring memorable points that may be useful to your current and future growth.

Although it is often used by therapists to explore the past in the context of trauma, this is in no way its only use. In fact, it can be used to explore the past to find moments where you felt most happy or content – helping you define your goals in the future.

It’s a visual coaching tool, when you can be as creative as you’d like to paint the picture of your life to date or a future you’d like to see. Often people will plot it out as a line and note important events as they go.

How is the Life Timeline used?

The Life Timeline is a reflective and planning tool, to help you visualise parts of your life (in the past or future) and explore them in greater depth. It can work as a framework for making change or understanding current feelings due to past events.

Exploring the past

The Life Timeline can act as a useful tool to explore and review your past – uncovering the most memorable points and using these to understand your current state of mind or emotional happiness.

Defining the future

As well as looking to the past the Life Timeline can also be used to plot out a desired future and help build a more concrete picture of your aspirations or goals. This can be used to focus on the short-term, or build a timeline far into the future.

Uses for the Life Timeline include:

  • When you want to explore your past and understand when you were happiest – using this to define goals in the future.
  • To explore past emotional trauma and understand how it might be affecting you today.
  • To build a picture of how you’d like your future to look and build an idea of how to get there.

How to use the Life Timeline

The Life Timeline can be used in a variety of ways – looking at the past or the future, and the positive or negative aspects of your life. For this reason I’ve broken this guide into two sections – reviewing the past and defining the future.

Reviewing the Past using the Life Timeline

This may sound obvious but it’s important to clarify exactly what you want to get from the exercise. This will effect how you approach the Life Timeline. Agree with yourself or your coach exactly what you want to get from the exercise before you start.

1. Map out broad stages in your timeline

It’s entirely up to you how far you choose to go back in time, but it can be useful to start with a complete Life Timeline to date – beginning in your early years and then breaking down your life into developmental stages. This can help you fill in the blanks a little later on in the exercise.

Life Timeline Template and Model

You’re aiming to build the timeline based on what feels most important to you, rather than just a chronologically accurate one.

You might, for example, hardly remember a 10 year long job but remember vividly your earliest career moves. With some self-reflection this is often useful in itself – you’re defining points in your life that had the biggest impact on you, or your subconscious remembers most vividly. Take note of what you remember and what you don’t, and take a little time to ask what this might mean.

You might include points like:

  • Your early childhood and earliest memories.
  • Your pubescent teenage years.
  • Going to university or starting your first job.
  • Meeting your first love.
  • Important points in your personal growth.
  • Significant changes in your personal or work life.

2. Tell your story and fill in the Life Timeline

The next stage is to work through your Life Timeline and begin to tell your story. It’s useful to tell this as a story or narrative, as you will find it brings greater texture and depth to your memories.

Life Timeline Template

For example, as you talk through your early years don’t be afraid to linger on memories or points that stick out to you. It might only be a small event that made you feel a certain way but your brain is retelling these memories for a reason – it’s helpful to pay attention and acknowledge these as important, even if only in your subconscious.

There will naturally be more traumatic or difficult events in your life too. It’s important you agree with your coach/therapist how much depth you want to go into with these. The purpose is to acknowledge and explore them without having to relive something that will cause you additional trauma.

Keep an eye out for moments when you felt a real sense of accomplishment or achievement too. These are useful guides to help you understand what’s missing or preferable in your life today.

You might include highlights like:

  • Moments when you felt most alive or fulfilled.
  • Times when you learnt something about yourself.
  • Points where you were challenged or found life difficult.
  • Points where you felt least fulfilled or most lost.
  • Overriding feelings you felt for large parts of your life – joy, loneliness, confusion, pride, etc.

3. Acknowledge how these might affect your present state

The purpose of the stages above is to give you a visual representation of what might be affecting you in your present. Depending on your objectives with the exercise you may want to start asking questions about how these event are influencing you today.

Times when you were happiest / most fulfilled

Understanding the times you felt most alive can help you understand what might be missing today. These don’t need to be major life events – often they can be simple or fleeting moments. The key is to explore what it was about those times that made you feel that way.

Times you felt hardship or trauma

Past trauma will often influence how we are today. It’s useful to acknowledge these points in your life and reflect on how they might be influencing your behaviour, attitude or growth in the present. It may be that you feel you need professional support in exploring these events in greater depth to heal or resolve them.

Times you learnt most about yourself

There may be times in your life where you feel you leapfrogged in your personal growth. This may be down to a person, an event or a turning point in your life. Take note of the catalysts that helped you learn and grow in yourself.

Some useful questions might be:

  • What are the most memorable moments of your life so far?
  • What might be missing today that you’ve had before?
  • How are these past events affecting your present self?
  • How would you define what you wish you had today?
  • What part is past trauma playing in your life today?

Defining your future using the Life Timeline

This version of the Life Timeline looks at a future you’d like for yourself. It’s about defining the steps you would need or like to take in order to get there. It can be useful if you’re exploring where you go in your life, career or relationships.

1. Choose where you’d like to be

The future Life Timeline is a little different because it aims to define a point in the future you’d like to aim towards. It’s worth building this up into a picture and spending time talking with your coach to fill in some details. You’ll find the exercise most useful if you can be specific.

This may be focused on your career, your family life, relationships, or a combination of all of these.

If the focus is on feeling differently then it might be worthwhile to do the Past Life Timeline (above) first to understand what might be missing in your present.

If you struggle to define a future state it may be useful to explore why. Is there any fear or apprehension getting in the way of defining how you’d like your life to go? Have you spent enough time reflecting on what you actually want, or do you find it intangible?

Some useful questions might be:

  • What does your future situation look like?
  • What is a “must have” in this future?
  • What wouldn’t it have?
  • What would a normal day in this future look like?
  • How might it be different from today?
  • How “on track” are you at achieving what you want?

2. Map out the broad strokes

Next, we’re going to explore the broad stages you’d need to take to get there. We’re looking to build a bit of a route map for how you get from what you are today to where you’d like to be at a future date.

Depending on whether your Future Life Timeline focuses on the short, medium or longer term, this may be very detailed or be more generalised.

It’s also useful to acknowledge that life, invariably, changes and that you may need to adapt and revise these steps a little.

Choosing the first steps forward

There are more effective tools for building a comprehensive plan for building the future you would like to see. The Life Timeline is more useful to build broad strokes and then decide on the initial steps to get there. For this reason I usually follow a simple, three stage approach with clients before doing any in-depth action planning.

The process I use with clients looks like this:

  1. Choose a direction of travel
  2. Pick the first three steps forward
  3. Pick three things to stop

1. Agree your direction of travel

All this means is making a commitment to where you’d like to aim. You don’t need to develop a huge plan for world domination or the next 5 years of your life. You simply need to take the reflections and observations you’d made and choose a rough point in the future you’d like to aim for. This might be a promotion, or feeling more connected with family, or finding a new passion. The key is, we’re not trying to choose every step to get there, just knowing that you’re pointing in the right direction.

2. Pick the first three steps forward

The next stage is to choose the very first three steps you need to take to move in that direction. It’s useful because it helps break down larger goals into smaller parts, and means we focus only on the first few steps.

What are three, small steps you can take this week/month to help you move forwards?

There’s lots of research out there that suggests these small, gradual changes in our life are easier to manage and build the habits needed to sustain longer, more permanent change.

3. Pick three things to stop

Finally, we’re going to choose three things to stop doing. Think of these as the anchors that are preventing you moving forwards. What, based on your reflections, are the things that will cause you to stumble or hold you in place. It’s critical that these are specific, achievable and ideally small (SMART goals). Make them too big or too broad and it’ll make them far harder to achieve.

What are three, small things you can stop to help you move forwards?

That’s it!

You’ve followed the steps to build your own Life Timeline, and hopefully learnt some lessons to improve your present or define your future.

Example Life Timeline Template

To help you get started, I’ve put together an example you can start using today.

Life Timeline Template

Use this template as a starting point for building your own Life Timeline.

Life Timeline

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