Set Your Internal Compass: Create a Five-Year Timeline

image represents grounding
My Favorite Grounding Exercise
April 21, 2021
New growth on tree after a fire.
How to Come Back from a Crisis
May 5, 2021

Set Your Internal Compass: Create a Five-Year Timeline

Closeup of hand holding compass.

Several years ago, I drew out a five-year timeline and decided that my simplified goal was to live a lowmaintenance life that allowed flexibility to travel and time with my extended family. This became an internal compass and informed my choices along the way – big decisions, like closing my counseling practice, and small ones, like not installing a hot tub. (Neither a small agency with a physical office nor a hot tub are low maintenance.) More recently, I have repeated the process and have a new compass. 

I have found the practice of creating a five-year plan useful throughout my life, setting out my first timeline at the end of college. Looking back at this practice, I realize how it has helped me. Regularly setting my compass in this way has helped me to manage stress, make life decisions, and stay connected to my priorities 

Managing Stress

Knowing what I want my life to be like five years from now helps me titrate my stress levels. As difficulties arise, I can ask myself whether they are a big deal or just a bump in the road. Will they matter 5 days from now? 5 months from now? 5 years from now? If no, I don’t need to use much energy stressing about it. If yes, then the challenge deserves my attention and energy.  

Making Decisions

With a destination in mind, I can plot out my desired route. It helps me say ‘no’ to what is outside my goals and ‘yes’ to what supports my goals. This means less energy is spent making smaller decisions. My focus gets me closer to the life I am seeking to build.

Clarifying Priorities

Across my life, these five-year timelines have been like lily pads or stepping stones. They keep me focused on where I am heading and give me a sense of purpose. This purpose encourages me to keep going when I hit a rough patch or I feel like quitting 

A five-year timeline is not a map. It is a sketch. I can revisit it at any time. I can either revise the timeline or revise my activities to be in line with my goals.  


The following is a four-step process for creating a 5-year timeline:  

1. Finding Perspective

How old will you be in 5 years?  

How about those closest to you? Spouse, children, parents, siblings?  Extended family members or very close friends.  How will their needs and activities change?   

How about your pet(s)?                            

What potential changes do you see in your job, industry, or other areas of life?   

2. Clarifying the Goal

As you look at the five-year mark, how do you describe your desired destination?  Write it down in as few words as possible.  Don’t dwell on the details.  Take a fresh piece of paper and draw or write it out.   

3. Opening the Imagination

Think out loud by drawing and doodling.Use a plain piece of paper and draw your family in 5 years. Stick figures or symbols are fine. This is for you. Imagine what day to day life might be like. What significant goals or milestones will be reached?  How will finances or obligations change? Drawing your future self helps to better imagine reality. Look ahead the best you can.  

Play with possibilities. Imagine options and decisions. Extend your imagination out beyond five years.  What life experiences do you hope to enjoy? Is there a legacy you want to leave?   

4. Mapping the Route

Now that you have a destination consider your route. Talk to your future self. Consider what needs to be done to head in the direction you want to go. How can you focus your time and energy to move toward your desired goals? Your destination informs when to say ‘yes’ and when to say ‘no.’   

Does the plan ever work out as expected?  No.  However, it does inform the journey. Having a plan in place lessens stress, steers decision making, and clarifies priorities. Use this tool. Start the next 5 years of your journey with a clear destination in mind.