Introduction: Creating a project timeline is an effective way to keep projects on track, especially larger projects with many moving parts. A project timeline can help break a large project into manageable portions with clear roles and mapped-out task dependencies. Timelines also help project managers keep track of milestones, ensure deadlines can be met, and more. This guide will walk you through the benefits of project timelines and how to create your own.
Quick Overview: A project timeline is a visual representation of tasks to be completed and key milestones within an individual project. Project timelines keep teams aligned and on track through complex projects. There are many digital tools available for quickly creating, modifying, and sharing timelines with the members of a project team. Creating a physical timeline is also an option, especially for in-person teams.
Benefits of Project Timelines
A project timeline is a helpful tool for visualizing the scope of a project, the tasks required to complete it, and the relevant milestones along the way. Project timelines provide a clear overview of the road ahead and help identify a clear beginning and end to a project. Project timelines are also helpful for visualizing the full scope of the project alongside the individual tasks required to complete it.
Project timelines are also helpful for keeping teams aligned and on track toward completing the project. Each team member can visualize how their work contributes to the final product. Team members can also see their task dependencies and how their tasks build on others as the project goes on.
A project timeline can also help identify roadblocks and potential obstructions. Because each task is accounted for, it’s easy to see missed deadlines and other issues that may delay project completion.
Types of Project Timelines
There are several types of timelines to choose from when creating a project timeline. These are some of the most common:
- Chronological Chart: A timeline can be as simple as a chronological chart, especially for projects with linear activities and few task dependencies. This type of timeline typically maps tasks in chronological order to create an overview of the project.
- Gantt chart: A Gantt chart displays tasks, task dependencies, and milestones against time. It provides a clear overview of the project schedule by showing tasks, relevant dates, resource allocation, and progress over time.
- Kanban board: On a Kanban board, tasks are sorted into columns representing different stages of the project workflow. Kanban boards typically include at least one column for work in progress, one for tasks with an impediment or block, and one for completed tasks.
- Scrum board: Scrum boards are similar to Kanban boards but typically only capture the tasks required for a “sprint,” which is a shorter, more focused time frame or aspect of the project. A sprint often focuses on one element of a project rather than the entirety, whereas other project timelines might capture the full spectrum of tasks for completion.
- Vertical or bar chart: This timeline features a horizontal axis representing time and a vertical axis showing resources. This type of timeline helps track time against quantities, such as money, growth, or other quantifiable elements of your project.
Digital and Physical Timelines
Creating a timeline can be done digitally or physically. Digital timelines typically use project management software or an online tool. Physical timelines are either drawn by hand on paper or use other physical visual representation tools, like sticky notes or flip charts. Deciding which medium to use depends on personal preference, but both options have advantages and disadvantages that may influence your decision.
A digital timeline offers several benefits. Digital timelines are easy to edit and allow for quick and efficient changes. Additionally, digital timelines can be shared with a project team via email or cloud-based online platforms. The sharing capability makes digital timelines particularly useful for collaborative and remote work when multiple people can contribute to the same timeline from different locations.
There are several different websites and software solutions for project timelines. Some of the most common include Asana, ClickUp, Miro, Smartsheet, and more. Each offers various features and capabilities to suit project teams of different sizes and functions. Most of these tools are simple to use, but some have a learning curve. In addition, some digital solutions may be costly, though most digital options will offer a free version of their program.
Physical timelines have their own set of benefits. They offer a more tactile experience than digital timelines, allowing for a hands-on approach to organizing tasks and milestones. Another benefit of a physical timeline is that they do not rely on team members having to master a separate digital tool.
However, physical timelines also have some drawbacks. They are more difficult to edit than digital timelines, and changes require manual adjustments. If the timeline needs significant adjusting throughout the project, a physical timeline may have to be redone completely. In addition, physical timelines do not suit remote teams that primarily collaborate online.
Digital Timeline Tools
We’ve mentioned a few popular timeline tools above. Now, we’ll share a little more information on our favorites:
Asana: Asana is a digital project management tool with a timeline function. You can use Asana Timeline to build a timeline with realistic deadlines to spot timing conflicts and make easy adjustments as work progresses. Asana Timeline can link to current projects already underway in the app, so adding new tasks and dependencies is quick and easy.
What it’s best for: Projects with a defined duration or deadline
Clickup: Clickup offers a robust task organization feature for complex project timelines. With ClickUp, you can organize tasks by status, priority, or department; making it easier to balance workloads and optimize workflows. You can also view tasks as a list, on a Kanban board, as a calendar, and more. In addition, you can build automation to create recurring tasks or task dependencies.
What it’s best for: Complex projects with many tasks or team members
Miro: Miro is a good choice for teams that work best with visuals. Visual task management tools like Miro help teams visualize which tasks should be completed and when to keep the project on track. Miro is also helpful for visualizing where work is slowing down or stopping and if any roadblocks need to be removed.
What it’s best for: Project teams that prefer a visual tool for task management
Smartsheet: Smartsheet is a spreadsheet-style project timeline tool that helps teams plan tasks, capture work in progress, automate repetitive tasks, and more. Smartsheet helps teams make good use of data in managing projects and has a wide range of templates available for customization.
What it’s best for: Project teams that use data to influence decisions
Creating your timeline
Follow the steps below to get started on your project timeline. These steps are suitable for both digital and physical timelines.
Step 1: Determine the scope of your project
It is important to have a clear grasp of the project scope before creating a timeline; otherwise, the project runs the risk of evolving into unchecked complexity.
For example, let’s say you are in charge of a company-wide rebrand. Before you begin the project, you’ll need to make sure you have established clarity among stakeholders regarding the goals for the rebrand, understand the deliverables you will need to provide, and other important details. Because of the complexity of the project, it can be tempting to start building out a timeline with only partial information. This often makes the process more difficult as additional details emerge that have not yet been accounted for.
For some teams, this may be the longest step in the process of creating a project timeline. However, taking the extra time to prevent ambiguity and avoid miscommunication will lead to a much smoother project workflow.
Step 2: Determine which type of timeline to use
Choosing the proper timeline for your project is the next step to success. Here are a few questions to ask as you determine the type of timeline you’d like to create (you may have some of your own, too):
- Is your project complex or relatively straightforward?
- Are multiple departments working together on your project, or is everyone on the team from the same department?
- Do you need to keep track of multiple due dates or project milestones?
- Do you need to monitor additional variables, such as budget?
How you answer these questions will help determine which timeline will best fit your needs. For example, a complex project with numerous involved departments might benefit from a Gantt chart to keep track of the different elements, moving parts, and team members. Projects with many individual tasks or projects where each task has dependencies may also benefit from a Gantt chart.
For heavily task-focused projects, a Kanban or Scrum board might be the best option. These will allow the members of your team to keep track of both their tasks and their team members’ tasks. This allows team members to easily check on the status of their work, which is especially helpful if their work relies on another member of the team completing a previous task.
A chronological timeline can be effective for projects where tasks have few dependencies and should be completed in the order they appear on the timeline. This can be an effective choice for projects with multiple due dates or date-based milestones because it provides a visual cue for the order in which tasks or milestones should take place.
Finally, if tracking a budget is important as your project progresses, you might want to create a vertical or bar chart timeline.
Step 3: Determine the tasks and dependencies required
Next, you need to determine the individual steps required to complete your project. These are the project tasks and they make up the bulk of the project timeline. If listing the individual tasks required for your project feels overwhelming at first, it can be helpful to break the project up into phases first. List out the required task to complete each phase of the project and then move to the next phase. You will then have a comprehensive task list for the entire project.
After your task list is complete, you will need to determine who is responsible for completing each task. Your project team may include members who work for different departments or have different job functions. They may have other important tasks to complete separate from your project. Once you have created a list of tasks and assigned a team member to each, look over the list to make sure there are no overwhelming workloads.
Another consideration to keep in mind: task dependencies. Some tasks can be completed at the same time as other tasks, but others cannot be completed until previous tasks are finished. One of the benefits of creating a project timeline is that you can map tasks with and without dependencies, and optimize your team accordingly. Thinking through task dependencies ahead of time can help the entire project workflow run smoothly.
Step 4: Determine key milestones
Milestones are an effective tool for monitoring project progress. Think of milestones like checkpoints—they ensure your project is on track for completion and meeting your original objectives. A milestone could be as simple as a date in the future—you might want to map a milestone one month into the project to check progress. A milestone could also be a specific deliverable or completed task.
Selecting milestones is crucial because they represent benchmarks for success. Make sure that your milestones are relevant to the scope of the project, and not just arbitrary dates or deadlines. Don’t be afraid to adjust milestones as the project progresses, too—one task or phase of the project may prove more difficult than others, and adjusting your benchmarks for success will help your team move through the task.
Step 5: Create your timeline
You’re ready to build your timeline!
Start by selecting a timeframe—days, weeks, months, or however long you have determined the project will take to complete. Then begin adding in your project tasks depending on the format of your timeline. Be sure and note who is responsible for which task and if the task has any dependencies.
Next, note your project milestones on the timeline. Keep in mind that a milestone can be a specific date, the completion of a key task, or another benchmark of success; so milestones and tasks may be mapped similarly.
The final step? Share the timeline with your team! As your project progresses, you may need to modify your timeline, especially if you run into roadblocks. Flexibility is crucial in handling unexpected workflow obstructions. Now, go enjoy a more organized workflow!
Common Questions and Answers
Is it worth the upfront time investment to create a project timeline?
Creating a project timeline is a crucial step in facilitating an effective workflow for your team. Mapping individual tasks and their dependencies can help break down a complex project into more manageable portions. As your team completes individual tasks and reaches key milestones, it’s easier to visualize progress with a project timeline. This can help keep your team motivated and on track.
A project timeline can also be a helpful tool for managing scope creep. One major consequence of scope creep is the impact it can have on an expected project due date. An unorganized project is susceptible to stakeholders requesting additional features throughout the development of the project. This can cause delays, budget issues, and frustration with project team members. Establishing the project scope and building a clear timeline can help mitigate some of these issues.
What is the difference between tasks and milestones?
Tasks are the individual steps required to complete the project. Tasks represent the heartbeat of a project timeline and are a visual representation of progress toward the final product. Creating a timeline will ensure that the project team understands the steps required before beginning the project, a crucial step toward a quality final product that meets all stakeholder requirements. In addition, listing out tasks and their dependencies–or, the tasks that cannot be completed until a previous task is completed first–can help facilitate a smoother, more collaborative workflow.
Milestones are a helpful benchmark for ensuring the project is on track for completion and meeting its intended objectives. A milestone could be as simple as a date in the future or as complex as the completion of a specific portion or deliverable of the project. Milestones should be relevant to the scope of the project and are the easiest aspect of a project timeline to adjust as time goes on.