The Life Timeline: Planning For A Brighter Future

Why not make a "Life Timeline"?


Time For A Change?


Feeling stuck?  Hopeless?  One planning tool I’ve discovered to be remarkably effective in sorting out priorities is the life timeline.  Unlike resolutions or random goals, a life timeline is a great method for bringing a sense of peace to a life in turmoil.  This is especially true for anyone looking to make a major change in life.  In a way, the process is a little like shining a bright light on everything you do.  You’ll uncover all those things you do best and all those goals and aspirations you may not realize are critically important to finding happiness.  Making a life timeline may turn out to be one of the most important steps you’ll ever take.  With the perspective you gain, you’ll be armed with all the information you need to start turning your dreams into realities.


Our Unplanned Plans


Do you have a master plan for your life, describing where you want to be in the future? Few people do. The way that most of us plan is by example. We look at the people around us and choose role models to emulate, or we choose a path in life because we don’t take the time to seek out better options. As a result, our “plan” is not a full life plan at all. Instead, it is a skewed, limited vision of something we think we would like to be or do. For example:


John wears a tie. John’s life plan is “to be a good family man”. John seldom thinks about it, but he was inspired by the example of his best friend’s father, who made a great life for his kids. John works hard at two jobs, but also spends as much time with is children as he can.


Sue wears braids. Susan’s life plan is “to be a successful accounting professional”.  Her parents and grandparents were doctors and lawyers, and they instilled a drive for success into her. She went to a good college, got a masters degree, and landed a job as an accountant. She continues to study and advance in her career track. She is married, but she has no children and few hobbies or interests outside of work.


Richard likes wearing a moustache.♦ Richard’s life plan is “to keep working long enough to retire”. He works in a large factory in a small town. His father worked there, and all of his friends work there with him. Rick didn’t excel in school, so he saw little choice but to join the crowd and go to work at the factory. His job is grueling, but it pays the bills.


Though each of the above people may be happy in their own way, none of them have made a conscious decision to think about their lives in bigger terms. Each has a vision of something they want, but it came from the society they were born into or the people around them as they grew up. Furthermore, none of them has a master plan large enough to cover all of the bases in life.


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What does it mean to “cover all of the bases”?  It means our lives can be so much bigger and more interesting than our present circumstances may suggest.  As great as it may be to provide happiness for our family, to be a good employee, or to work hard on a steady path toward retirement, each of us should also have a chance to:


● Experience as much of the world as we can

● Get to know all sorts of interesting people

● Do worthwhile things to make the world a better place

● Build wealth, or solid financial security

● Continue our education throughout our lifetime

● Become a master at several things we love doing

● Nurture a healthy body, mind, and spirit

● And more…


A person’s life should incorporate all of these things, yet too often it doesn’t. We focus on an immediate crisis or we’re severely limited because our vision of what we want in life is so narrow.  The result is we fail to notice all of the possibilities that open to us. It’s easy to miss the big picture.


As the famous actress and realist Mae West reminded us, “You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.”


It’s so easy to limit ourselves out of fear, uncertainty, or the self-limiting perception that we have no other choices. Because of this, it is very common to wake up one day in middle age, look back, and get hit with an overwhelming sense of regret. There are things we’ve failed to do—things that are suddenly important. We had no master plan, so we got caught up in silly details.  Meanwhile time slipped by us and carried with it an endless stream of missed opportunities.


The Life Timeline


If we can find a means to lay out the “big picture”, our vision of the future will expand to include all the important things we are currently missing out on.  This is critical as we aim to have fewer regrets looking back.


In my own life I’ve found planning to be very difficult, so I’ve tried to come up with creative ways to do it. One idea that makes sense to me is the life timeline. This is a simple tool that helps in developing a broader view of our place in life.  With it, we gain awareness of our hidden and ignored priorities.  This insight allows us to make better, more conscious choices as we travel through life, instead of focusing too heavily on narrow goals or the latest crisis.


A life timeline is like a calendar, but it covers your whole lifetime instead of a single year. Instead of being broken down by weeks and days, it is broken down by decades and years. It becomes a guide for what you hope to accomplish in life, by revealing that it makes sense to do certain things at certain times. You can also extend it backward to take note of what you have already accomplished. For example, here is a sample life timeline for “Rob” who is now in his forties. Rob’s current decade is highlighted in yellow, to emphasize his current goals—i.e. his goals for his forties:


This is a way to break down your life's ambitions and accomplishments.

Here is a basic Life Timeline for Rob.

Your life timeline is likely to be more detailed than this, listing various hobbies and careers you would like to master, plus certain goals for the future. It may help to break down your current decade into years, with goals for each year.


Once you have your timeline, you will know:


♦  What your focus should be right now.

♦  What to be thinking about for the upcoming decade.

♦  What not to worry about yet.

♦  What to move beyond, because that opportunity is long past.

♦  What to avoid doing, so that you preserve your health and mental ability long into the future.


To Discover Your Goals


How can you set goals to include in your timeline? This is a great joint exercise to do with a friend or significant other because it’s bound to bring up a lot of interesting topics for conversation.  However, there’s no reason you can’t do it on your own as well.


The best way to begin is to ask all sorts of probing questions.  If you’re working with a friend, you can quiz each other and take notes.  Later, you can flesh out the details by yourself.  If you’re doing it by yourself, write out your answers in as much detail as possible.


* * *


Here’s a list of questions to get started on, but you’re likely to think of many other topics to add as you begin delving into the details:

What all do I want to accomplish in this decade?  In future decades?

What long-term goals may be easier to achieve by breaking them down into two or more short-term goals?

Do I want to have kids? Grandkids? What difference will it make if I do or don’t have them?

What legacy do I want to leave my kids and grandkids?

What kind of a home do I see myself living in during my 50’s, 60’s, 70’s?

Will I ever move to a different city or country?  What reasons would justify a move like that?

Ideally, what do I imagine my old age to be like?  Will I be healthy?  Rich?  Not so rich?  Will wealth matter to me when I’m older?

How much money will I need to save up by the time I retire?

To reach this money goal, how much will I need to earn each year?

Do I expect to be able to retire, or will I have to work as long as I can?

What educational opportunities should I continue to pursue throughout life?

Would I like a second career after I retire? Doing what?

What hobbies or activities have I always wanted to master?

What hobbies or activities would make sense for each future decade?

What countries outside of my own do I want to visit before I die?

When should I travel to make certain that potential health issues won’t get in the way?

What kinds of people do I like the best and how can I meet more of them?

What groups or organizations should I consider joining to develop more friendships?

What steps to improve myself would help me to find more friendships?

What kinds of lifestyle changes should I be making now to protect my health?

Are there hobbies or activities I can pursue to become healthier over time?

What could I do to help make the world a better place?

To attain a certain goal, what steps do I need to accomplish first?

Note:  If you want to print out a copy of these questions, you can click here for a pdf file.

* * *

If you haven’t seen it yet, “The Bucket List”, starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman is a terrific film about creating joy in the face of adversity.  In the movie, Jack, who plays Edward, and Morgan, who plays Carter, make lists of every crazy thing they ever wanted to do in life, and then follow through on all of them. The life timeline is like a bucket list, except it is even more complete, since it includes the less exciting, but still rewarding things you hope to accomplish.  It also includes the time frame in which you hope to achieve each goal.


Have a cup of Joe and then start working on your list.

Find a peaceful spot and then start creating your Life Timeline and a better future.

This isn’t an exercise that you should expect to perfect in a few minutes.  If you’re worried it’ll take too much time, you can start small by sketching out a basic timeline such as the one shown above, and then improve on it in future sessions. Putting some serious thought into your life timeline is bound to pay rich dividends.  By taking the time to get it right, you’ll begin to uncover and rediscover all those hidden and ignored opportunities.  That’s a whole lot better than looking back with a ton of regret for all the things you wish you’d done differently.


Who knows?  Perhaps you’ll choose to do something new and exciting, such as going back to school or finding a better job.  Your timeline is a road-map to your future.  It’s meant to be a solid guide, yet also to be flexible.  Plan to pull it out and review it from time to time.  Make note of your successes, cross off any missed opportunities, and adjust your life goals as your needs and values change.


By the way, once you have a clear timeline in the back of your mind to guide you, it becomes easier to stay aware of particular goals—for example, sticking to a new diet, starting a savings plan, or quitting smoking. When you have a well-defined vision of your future, it’s much easier to keep your resolve along the way.



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