The Purpose Timeline Workshop

6 minute read

People are often asked or expected to have one clear purpose driving them. We know that this is just not feeling right, or possible, for many of us, for a multitude of different reasons.

The purpose timeline is a workshop designed to allow you to identify the multiple values, passions and purposes that drive you, and to identify how to build what’s missing to connect all of them to your current situation.

It’s about mapping out what you really want in your work and life, and connecting the dots to design the right strategy. It’s about fulfillment and balance.

The exercise is meant to be done as a 1:1 workshop with a coach, but can also be done in groups with multiple trusted people. The level of trust with the coach and the other people present in the workshop will be a factor influencing how deep certain discussion can reach.

2-4h total time.

1. The past: achievements (20-40′)

Initially it’s important to assess the achievements reached up until this moment. This is important not just to contrast the impostor syndrome, but also give a solid background of reflection for the next step.

Take 10’ of time and write down, in silence, one item per post-it:

  • Lead Achievements — goals and projects, big or small, that you drove yourself and reached.
  • Support Achievements — goals and projects by someone else that you got involved into and helped succeed.

Once the 10’ passed, take time to explain and narrate each one of the achievements. While explaining, if you’re a humble person, try to contrast that feeling, and if you’re boasting, try to be more realistic.

In the follow up discussion then reflect on the big picture. You can use these questions to drive the discussion:

  1. What just “happened” to you (passively), why?
  2. What skills do you have that helped you on the way (go through each post-it if needed)? Alternatively: what was the top skill you used in each of the achievements?
  3. How did you choose the projects you drove yourself?
  4. How did you choose the projects you got involved into?
  5. Why people looked for you in these instances?
  6. What have you done that satisfied you? Get into some details of experiences, tell stories.

2. The future: goals (50-90′)

The timeline is a visualization of all the interests and passions framed as explicit, concrete goals, projected over a long timeframe.


Goals Explosion (20-30′)

Take 10’ of time and write down, in silence, one item per post-it:

  • Own Goals — projects that you want to do and achieve yourself. Your own ideas.
  • Support Goals — projects that you want to join or you’ve been asked to join. Someone else is driving these, you’re a key support person.

These goals:

  • can be entirely new, or build on other ideas.
  • can be partially started or yet to start.
  • can be just random appealing things that you though once.
  • can be things that obsessed you in the last few months.
  • don’t have to be unique (uniqueness is a strategy not a goal per sé).
  • should be concrete things, artifacts, material in a sense.

Once 10’ passed, take time to show and describe each one of the goals.


MEASURE (10-20′)

Go through all the post-its and for each one of them annotate, possibly on the post-its themselves:

  • Time — How much time would that goal take to complete. The important bit here is to estimate in terms of elapsed time, not full days. However, it’s even better if each goals has attached both elapsed and full time equivalent (i.e. a project with wait times and small activities every day can last month, but in practice it’s just an hour every day).
  • Metric — A clear, measurable, slightly challenging value that can mark clearly when this goal is done. If the goal is an event, it’s simple: it’s just doing the event. In other cases can be more challenging: grow your personal network by 2 key people every month, get access to a specific company, get $X of funding, print Y copies, sell Z things, and so on. In technical terms, this is a KPI. Black on white measurement. This scoping is a simplified version of the OKR approach.

Prioritize for Importance (10-20′)

Go through all the post-its and reorder them in a timeline: from the most important thing to do right now, to the least important thing to do (left-to-right). From short-term to long-term.

  • Ask yourself: “Which one of these I want to do RIGHT NOW?” and move from there.
  • No two post-its can be at the same time. It has to be a strict sequence.
  • Some post-its might be time-dependent (i.e. they might be irrelevant if done too late). You have time annotated on each post-it from before, so use that information. If there’s something before them that is really more important, then drop that post-it out of the timeline: it’s just not doable.
  • In this whole activity talk aloud on the reasons why things are shuffling around and why you’re taking certain decisions.

Once the timeline is done, take a few minutes to reason on the outcome.

  1. Was anything difficult to place? Why?
  2. Are there any surprises?
  3. Is there anything that fell far away from the most important side of the timeline?
  4. How do you feel about the specific order and the big picture?

Prioritize for Impact (10-20′)

In the exercise before the outcome is a single line of post-its. Now, imagine that the position where each of the post-its is means “little impact” and move them up accordingly on the vertical axis: the higher you put them, the highest the impact that activity has on your life, the life of the people/community around you, and the life of the people impacted directly by the activity.

Once done:

  • Which projects have the highest impact?
  • How do you feel about their placement? Do they happen too early or too late?
  • Did you realize before the difference of impact each one of these had?
  • Are you tempted now to move certain items to a higher priority (to the left)?

3. Cluster (10-20′)

Now time to destroy this timeline of priorities and impacts, and instead group together projects that:

  • are related
  • can contribute to each other

In the process talk aloud and reflect on the groupings that are happening.

  1. Do you have one big group or many smaller groups?
  2. Is there any way to make the activities to build up on each other more?
  3. Where was each cluster on the timeline? Are there entire clusters that are closer to now and others in the far future?

4. Next Steps (10-20′)

Take a few minutes to reflect on the outcome and the top items at the beginning of the timeline, the clusters that you have formed late.

Then take either the top three items or the items that fit the next two months and, one for each post-it, write two actions that you can do right now to make these things move forward.

The outcome of this workshop isn’t usually immediate because it takes time to assimilate what has been made explicit. It’s usually worth taking a photo or noting the outcomes of each phase, to allow for further reflection later.

In terms of frequency, this could be done every time the needs is felt to turn a page, but can also be applied periodically to reassess the progress made up until that moment, and plan again.

This workshop was created with Meg Pagani in 2015 as a support tool for longer term personal and team mentorship and coaching work, and was found so effective that we felt the need to formalize it more and share it.

If you want to run this workshop for you or your team, you can reach out here.