Timeline – White Paper


The concept of ‘time’ is fundamental to how we understand the world. In this case we’re not talking so much about clock time, as basic ideas like ‘before’ and ‘after’, ‘past’, ‘future’, and ‘now’.

Because time is not something we can see, hear or touch, we have to resort to metaphors in order to talk or think meaningfully about it. The most commonly used metaphors, so common that we hardly notice them in our communication, are those that refer to time in terms of distance.

We say things like ”We are coming up to the holidays”, as if time is a road that we are travelling along, and dates and events are specific places along that road. Alternatively, we can talk about time as if we are standing still and events and dates are moving towards us from the direction of the future, passing us, and moving away into the past:
“Winter is coming”, “The New Year is nearly upon us”.

In either case, we talk about time in terms of distance. We say “Further on down the road”, “a long time ago”, “the near future” and so on.

In industrial and post-industrial cultures we are still more familiar with time as being a line – think of any graph that has time as an axis.

When they think about it, some people imagine the future ahead of them and the past behind them, with now being where they are, so they are embedded in their timeline. As a generalization, these people are more ‘in the moment’, more engaged in whatever they are doing at the time, and consequently often are not great at managing their time. Often, they turn up late for meetings because they get so involved in whatever they are doing that they don’t see the next item on their schedule until it is right on top of them. In neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) terminology this configuration is often called ‘in time’ because the person is embedded ‘in’ their timeline.

For other people, the past is to one side (usually the left) and the future to the other side (usually on the right) while ‘now’ is just in front of them, so they can see the whole of their timeline from left to right in front of them. Because they can see the past and the future laid out in front of them, they tend to be good at time management and will often show up early for appointments. This configuration is often called ‘through time’ because the person is ‘looking through’ their timeline.

There are many variations, with no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of having a timeline organized. Some people switch between the two timelines, or can even have both running simultaneously.


Time processing: Past, present and future

Depending on their own way of organizing their timeline and thinking about time, some people tend to live more ‘in the moment’, others have a tendency to think more about the future and “things to come”, while others seem to be stuck in the past, constantly thinking about and reliving some of the events that have already happened.

Generally speaking, “time” represents a high level construct that grows according to how one thinks and feels about past events, current happenings and possible future events. Cultural, racial, religious and family definitions about “time”, about which “time” zone one should live in, has permission to live in, etc. also critically affect this “operating system”. Also, trauma tends to keep most people “locked into the past”, trying to finish an event that ended in a way that they didn’t like.


Sorting time

In neuro-linguistic programming, the way we process time in terms of the zones of awareness – the time zones we prefer to pay attention to most often – is a part of our meta programs. Meta programs are advanced patterns of thinking that control what we perceive, or in other words, they are mental processes which manage, guide and direct other mental processes.

A computer’s software programs can be a good way to describe how meta programs work. It is often the case in computer programming that one program controls the execution of a number of other programs, selecting which ones will run at which times, and sending them the information they need in order to function properly. This happens much in the same way with people, and the way we sort time is a part of our higher mental processes which affect some of our other patterns of thinking.

In order to sort and distinguish between events that have already occurred, those that now occur, and those that will occur, most humans in most cultures sort in three central “time” zones. These show up in the linguistic tenses as well as the temporal tenses of the past, present and future.

The questions to ask when it comes to understanding how a person perceives time are: “How does the person have his or her “time-line” coded in terms of past, present and future? and “Where do they put most of their attention – on the past, present or future?”



People who live a lot of time in the “past time” zone think about what they have experienced and what those experiences or events meant to them. They use a lot of past references and past tenses in their language. History seems to carry a lot of weight for them, as does tradition.



People who live in “today”, in the “now”, have a more present time orientation in the way they talk and reference things. When overdone, they may live “in the now” to such an extent that they fail to think consequentially of future results or goals. Jung labeled them “sensors” because they prefer to use their senses in the present moment.



Those who live in the “future”, conceptually, focus primarily in the use of future tenses and references. When overdone they project themselves and their consciousness so much into the future that they fail to make plans today for that desired future. They are also sometimes referred to as “intuitors” as they forever attempt to intuit about tomorrow and the future.


In order to communicate better and create rapport with people who sort time differently it is recommended to speak to the “time” tense that predominates the person’s language patterns.



Examples of IntenCheck text analysis results for timeline


Analysis results showing representational systems mismatch in a conversation:

Consultant: Hi, I’m Martin, how can I assist you?

Client: Hi, I’m looking for a used car in the $5000 to $10,000 price range.

Consultant: Sure, our used cars are in this section. Are you looking for a car, truck, or SUV?

Client: I’m looking for a 4-door sedan. My old car broke down last week and I’m looking for a replacement. I might even be interested in a station wagon.

Consultant: OK. Do you have any make preferences?

Client: Not really. I just want a safe, reliable car, like the one I had before. Until last week I had very few problems with my previous car and for many years I could drive it anywhere, anytime, without having to worry about it breaking down on the road. I am looking for something just like that.

Consultant: Sounds good. I’m sure we’ll find something that you will like soon enough. We have this really nice car over here. It’s also got low mileage and low fuel consumption, I think that’s important too… considering the future of our economy, with gas prices going up year after year.

Client: It looks good, but does it run well? And, since it has such low mileage, did the previous owner have any problems with it before?

Consultant: It definitely runs well. There were no problems reported, and the other owner just didn’t drive it much because he used it only as a town car. With such a vehicle you won’t have to spend much on repairs and maintenance in the next few years.

Client: That doesn’t sound bad, but I’d like to see what else you’ve got. Perhaps some used cars that have proven in the recent years that they are very reliable.

Consultant: Of course. Let’s go look over there then.



Client Timeline Analysis

Consultant Timeline Analysis

Past:  therm-high  therm-normal
Present:  therm-normal  therm-normal
Future:  therm-normal  therm-high

Explanation: As displayed in the table above, the client and the consultant seem to process time differently and this is reflected in their communication as well. The client is constantly drawn back to his past experiences, and his criteria for deciding on which car to purchase is based on past evidence of reliability and safety. On the other hand, the consultant disregards past evidence of reliability and safety, and tries to make the sale based on future advantages. The mismatch between “time zones” in their communication makes it difficult for the client and the sales representative to come to an agreement.



  1. Hall, L. Michael & Bob G. Bodenhamer (1997), Figuring People Out: Design Engineering with Meta Programs, Crown House Publishing Ltd.
  2. Hall, L. Michael & Bob G. Bodenhamer (1997), Mind Lines: Lines for changing minds, E.T. Publications.
  3. http://www.nlpls.com/articles/metaPrograms.php
  4. http://nlp-mentor.com/meta-programs/
  5. http://nlpuniversitypress.com/
  6. http://nlppod.com/an-introduction-to-timelines-in-nlp-how-to-use-them-for-learning-and-review/