How to use the NLP timeline exercise to change your future

Love to have the power to change your future – and decide the outcome YOU want? Find out how to use the NLP timeline exercise to do just that.

Many years ago, I qualified as an NLP Practitioner. The experience was a life-changing one for me. When I started the seven-day residential course I was trapped in an abusive, violent marriage. I was miserable but couldn’t see any way out.

By the time I walked out of the training seven days later, I had resolved to leave my husband – and doing so felt like (and was) the easiest thing in the world. Within four months I had a decree absolute and was free.

There were a number of ‘aha’ moments that liberated me from the feeling or belief that I was trapped in my marriage that week. But the most powerful exercise, and the one that finally freed me, was the timeline exercise.

So it will always have a special place in my heart!

Of course, you don’t only need to use the timeline exercise to escape an unhealthy relationship. Its powers can be used to change or even explore any potential future you want. It can help you to change how you feel or act in a future event, or just generally. And it can help you plan a new future, and make it more possible for you.

It’s so powerful that I wanted to share it with you, and demonstrate some examples of how you can use it to manifest the future you want or deserve.

In this article you will learn:

What is NLP?

Before I show you how the NLP timeline exercise works, it might be helpful to quickly explain what NLP is. Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is an approach to communication, personal development, and psychotherapy created by Richard Bandler and John Grinder in California in the 1970s. 

The basic premise behind NLP is to model the mental skills of people who are successful (professionally, personally and emotionally) and teach other people who to replicate them. 

NLP has its critics and is dismissed by some as a pseudoscience. But from my own personal experience as a qualified NLP Practitioner using it to help people, and as someone who has been helped by NLP Practitioners, it can undoubtedly be powerful. 

NLP is used by many therapists to enable fast and effective change. In the wrong hands it’s also used by people to manipulate and coerce! In this article I am going to teach you how to use it for YOUR good using the NLP timeline exercise. 

What is the NLP timeline?

Your timeline is a mental construct that you use internally to understand and organise the concept of time. (If this isn’t clear, it will become much clearer once you read the instructions on how to use it!)

NLP uses an exercise to help you identify your timeline and then use it to create feelings or goals to plan the future you want. The is the NLP timeline exercise.

It’s a bit like moving through time in your head and designing what you want your future to look like. If it sounds fun then that’s great – because it is! It’s also incredibly powerful and can help you to make important decisions about your future, as I did all those years ago.

How to prepare for the NLP timeline exercise

Before actually doing the NLP timeline exercise it’s important to read through these instructions several times so you feel confident that you know how to do it without having to stop and remind yourself of the steps. 

This way you’ll be able to fully concentrate on and commit to the exercise, and will benefit more from its power!

How to ‘find’ your timeline

To start the NLP timeline exercise you first need to ‘find’ your timeline. To do this, close your eyes and visualise an event in your life that happened in the past – around five years ago. Recall this event as clearly as you can, and make it as vivid as possible. 

Now notice where in space you ‘see’ that image. For example, is it to your left or right? Is it behind you or in front of you? Above or below you? And how far away is it?

Once you’ve identified where the event is positioned, do the same with an event that happened in the past week. Then imagine an event that will happen in a year’s time, and finally do the same with an event that will happen in five years time. (If you struggle to think of an event, try a significant date like your birthday or Christmas.)

Now imagine these events are like a dot-to-dot and connect them up. This gives you your timeline. It could be straight or it may be curved – either is fine!

There are no fixed positions for NLP timelines, but in general they seem to follow three common patterns: 

  • From your left to your right
  • From behind you to in front of you 
  • From below you to above you

Once you’ve found your timeline you can start doing some NLP timeline exercises using it. 

How to use anchoring and the NLP timeline to take resources into your future 

One popular use of the NLP timeline is ‘future pacing’. This takes resources from your past and carries them into your future so they’re available for you there. 

Let’s say, for example, that you have an important event coming up. Maybe a job interview or you need to speak to a room full of people, and you want to feel more confident. 

You can use your timeline to go back to a time when you felt and had confidence. Recall that situation as clearly and vividly as you can. Remember how you felt, what you heard and saw. Live in that moment and feel what it was like – really enjoy feeling that confidence very strongly.

As you are reliving that feeling, you need to set an ‘anchor’. This is an NLP term that basically creates something that acts as a trigger and attaches itself to that feeling. So whenever that trigger is activated, you experience that feeling again. 

We unknowingly create anchors all the time. For example, if you have a horrible boss who always wears a particular scent, whenever you smell that scent it will remind you of that boss and bring back the feelings you had working for them. 

In this situation we are going to consciously create a trigger. So, while you are reliving the confident feeling from your chosen event, make a movement with your hand. You can touch together a finger and thumb, or pinch a finger. Whatever you do, continue to do this with some force (though not enough to cause pain, obviously!) while you recall the feeling. 

Once you are done, take a rest and think of something else or do something to break your emotional state. Then test whether the anchor has worked by doing the movement with your hand again. If the anchor has worked, you should feel the confidence you felt when recalling the event. 

If you do, your anchor is ready! If not, restart the anchoring exercise again until it’s worked. 

Once your anchor is ready, think ahead to the time when you’ll need it – the job interview or your talk. Imagine that event, and as you do, trigger your anchor by doing the hand movement. Do this several times to really set the anchor for the event. 

Now visualise your timeline and focus on the present moment. Trigger your anchor and start moving your awareness slowly into your future, keeping the powerful feeling of confidence with you. Allow that feeling to settle at any times or events you would like to access it. 

You can move down your timeline in your head or, if it helps, physically walk down it. See your timeline on the floor, in whatever direction it lies for you and step down it as you visualise events in your future.

How to use anchoring to work more in flow in future

Ever have those moments when you feel like you can do anything? When you’re fully in flow and working effortlessly to your full abilities? Wouldn’t it be lovely to access this whenever you wanted or needed to in future?

Well that’s just what the NLP timeline exercise can help you to do. To do this, we’re going to follow the same process we just did with confidence, but this time you’ll recall a time when you worked in flow, and anchor that feeling. 

Then visualise your time line and focus on now. Trigger your anchor and move your awareness down your timeline again, while feeling in flow. Again, allow that feeling to settle on occasions you may think you need it more. 

For example, if you have exams coming up, you can anchor the feeling of flow to revising and taking the exam. Or if you’re planning the launch of a new product, service or course for your business, you can anchor the feeling of flow to preparing and running your launch. 

How to use your timeline to plan more powerful goals

Your NLP timeline can also help you to set and achieve bigger goals. To start, create a powerful, compelling visualisation of you achieving the goal. Make the picture as real and vivid as possible. 

Now visualise your timeline and slide the picture into a position on it. Does the position match when you would like to achieve that goal? And how does it feel? Does it feel comfortable?

If it does, try moving the closer to the present, until your feeling changes. The idea is to move your goal as close as possible to now, without feeling that it is unrealistic.

Once you are happy with the position of your goal, break it down into stages, and create images for three or four of these goal stages. For example, if you imagine yourself as a bestselling author, you may choose to break it down into finishing writing your book, securing a publishing deal, and publication day. Once these images are vivid, start with the latest and place them on your timeline, making sure you are happy with their positions.

Now anchor a really strong motivation state. Trigger the anchor and move your awareness along your timeline into the future, keeping the feeling of motivation with you, and add the feeling to your goal stage images as you pass them.  

How to use the NLP timeline exercise to make a big life decision

Do you have a big life decision to make? Are you weighing up whether to end a relationship or accept a job offer? Or if going freelance might be a good move? If so, you can use the NLP timeline exercise to help you make that decision.

To do this, start in the present moment with one of your choices. Let’s say you decide to take the job you’ve been offered. Now visualise your future in front of you, and start moving down it as if you’ve made this decision.

How do you feel? What do you see? How has your life changed? What are you doing? Who are you meeting? How has this changed the lives of other significant people, such as your partner or children? Really explore what your life looks, feels and sounds like having made this decision.

And move further down your timeline. What does your life look like in a years’ time? Three years? Five years? Ten years?

Once you have fully ‘experienced’ your life with this decision, now do the same with an alternative decision. For example, turning the job down and staying where you are. Go through the exact same process. (If you have more than one alternative you can go through the same process again with other options.)

Once you have finished, weigh up how you feel about your different experiences. Which life would you prefer? How does that make you feel about the decision?

Once you have made a decision you can then use one of the exercises above to set goals for how you’d like your life to be with that decision, and anchor any feelings or resources that may help you along the way.

How can the NLP timeline exercise help you?

As you already know from my own experience, used properly the NLP timeline exercise can be incredibly powerful. And now you understand how to use it, it’s a free tool at your disposal whenever you need it.

So how can you use the NLP timeline exercise to change your life for the better?

Photo by Matt Duncan