Sketchy timelines: your personal and professional secret weapon

When I need to organize my thoughts, make a plan, see what’s ahead, or understand what happened, I do one simple thing. I draw a line.

On a piece of paper, a whiteboard, or anywhere.

Then I mark today on the line. Where I put today depends on whether I’m trying to see into past:

…or the future:

Usually I’m trying to see the into future. Either for myself, or with my team.

It’s always good to put some time units on the line. Usually I’d label them as well — units might be hours, days, weeks, months, or years.

Next I mark up the line. I use whatever forms and shapes come to me. There are some standard ones, like gantt chart-like lines or bars:

Or I’ll put specific points on the line or activities along the line. I mix up the way I show things depending on whether they span time or represent moments in time. I like to give important deadlines an interesting shape.

Here’s a real-life example of a sketchy timeline I did recently to get my team all on the same page about what our regular design sprints should look like — it’s still on the wall in our work room:

Why am I sharing with you something so seemingly elementary and basic, so rudimentary that a child could draw it?

Here’s why: every time I draw a timeline like this in meetings or with groups, it seems to help calm people down and get them all on the same page. When I draw a timeline like this for myself, it makes me feel more organized, prepared and in-control.

I don’t see a lot of other people drawing ‘sketchy’ timelines like this, and I’m not sure why — perhaps they’re uncomfortable with the free-form nature of a blank page or whiteboard.

But the truth is anyone can do this — you can do it, your dad can do it, your bambino can do it.

Your bambino can do it.

You can make it nice later.

If you really want to, you can put your timeline into a project management tool and make it fancier. That might be a good idea if your timeline is related to a project where you’re working with other people.

I’ve made my own personal timelines nicer by putting them into organization tools like Trello or visual tools like Illustrator.

I visualized my health history and fancified it — you can read more about that here.

But more often than not, my timeline is a temporary, fleeting tool to aid in understanding and ‘seeing’ time. I let the sheet of paper float off into the recycling bin or I allow someone the satisfaction of erasing the whiteboard (so satisfying).

Try it.

Next time you’re in any kind of planning meeting, draw a line. Next time you feel the need to get your affairs in order or plan what’s next, draw a line. Put some stuff on it.

Sketchy timelines!