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How to create a project timeline in 8 easy steps

Last updated on
September 22, 2022
How to create a project timeline in 8 easy steps

Projects can be a tricky beast. There are a lot of logistics, elements, and moving parts involved in the process. In order to execute on your meticulously detailed project plan, you’ll need the right elements to keep you and your team organized on and track. That’s where having a project timeline comes in. In this post, we'll walk you through the steps involved in creating one. But first, let’s start with breaking down the nuts and bolts of what a project timeline actually is, and why they’re a must-have for any successful project.

What is a project timeline?

In essence, a project timeline gives project managers and their team – along with any relevant stakeholders – a basic visual overview of what needs to happen during the project, and when. It lays out all of the project’s deliverables in chronological order, via a quickly digestible timeline format. Each project has multiple moving parts that can quickly become hard to keep track of. Your project timeline helps you map out for your team exactly how the project’s key initiatives should unfold, all the way from the very first task until you get to the finish line. The aim is to create a top-level visual representation of the project that gives every stakeholder some certainty about where the project is headed. How a project timeline looks can vary, but they are typically comprised of the following elements:

  • A visual format that breaks down the project’s tasks over a specific time period
  • Milestones to communicate when certain objectives are to be hit
  • Deadlines
  • Dependencies, which flag instances where one task needs to be finished before another can be completed

Unlike a heavily-detailed, more granular project plan, your project timeline will give anyone working on the project instant visibility into when their part is due. It also gives stakeholders a bird’s eye view of when deadlines are happening, or what the status of certain initiatives are. This way, you can quickly get everyone aligned on timelines and milestones, without getting caught up in the finer details.

So, why do you need a project timeline?

There are many reasons why teams of all types would adopt a project timeline into their overall workflow. But when you boil it down, project timelines allow your team to see a full overview of which deliverables are coming up, helping keep all of your tasks on track. They make it easy for you and your entire team, as well as any stakeholders, to see:

  • Which deliverables are coming up in the pipeline
  • Who’s been assigned to individual tasks
  • Each task’s priority level
  • Key project milestones
  • The deadline for each task

Each member of your marketing team can see at a glance what they need to get done for a specific project, and more importantly when it is due. That means less stress and fewer missed deadlines.

Different types of project timelines

1. Gantt timeline

Gantt charts are horizontal bar charts used to visualize the timeline of your project’s upcoming deadlines and milestones. Gantt charts aim to give everyone a visual of the project progress so you're all on the same page – each bar in the Gantt chart stands for a single task, while the length of the bar signifies the amount of time it’s expected to take. Gantt charts can offer an at-a-glance overview of which tasks are dependent on each other, as well as the assignee, so team members can get a quick overview of what they’re responsible for and how all of the pieces of your project fit together.

2. Historical timeline

A historical timeline maps out all of the tasks and key dates involved in the project in chronological order, either from top to bottom or left to right.

3. PERT chart

A program evaluation and review technique (or PERT) chart is a great way to visually map out timelines for more complex projects and their dependencies. As the flowchart format is a little less rigidly structured than the typical Gantt chart, they’re generally most useful during the project planning stage or when you’re seeking timeline signoff from stakeholders.

Getting started with creating a project timeline

In a moment, we’ll run through a step-by-step process for creating a project timeline. But first, let’s briefly cover:

What you should include in your project timeline

No matter what type of project you’re planning, every timeline should have the following details:

  • Project tasks
  • Task dependencies
  • The duration for each task
  • Start and finish dates for each task
  • Team members responsible for seeing tasks through to completion

Step 1. Establish the scope of your project

Defining your project scope is a key first step to a complete project timeline. Write a project scope statement that clarifies exactly the goals, deadlines and deliverables you’re working towards for your project. This will help you get a sense of the resources available to you, and cut down on the dreaded scope creep.

Step 2. Create a work breakdown structure (WBS)

Following on from your project scope statement, your work breakdown structure is where you break down your overarching project objective into smaller sub-deliverables, outlining the key dependencies as you go along. You’ll want to refer back to your work breakdown structure once you get to the point of splitting out individual tasks based on dependencies (more on that in step 4!)

Step 3. Estimate how long each task will take

Here’s where you make a prediction of how long each standalone task will take. If you use a time-tracking tool, estimating how long things will likely take can be informed by similar tasks completed in past projects. This will give you a stronger understanding of the resources you’ll need on your project from start to finish.

Step 4. Map out any task dependencies

When work is ongoing on your project, it’s inevitable that some team members will have to wait for someone else to finish their portion before they can get started on theirs. Mapping out these dependencies before you kick off any project work is of critical importance when building the project timeline. This way, you’ll be able to catch any potential time conflicts and get the sequence and timing of your project timeline in the right order.

Step 5. Determine key milestones

Now that you’ve figured out how long each task will take, as well as any task dependencies, it’s time to pinpoint any important moments in time as your project progresses. While there’s no set number of milestones a project needs to have (and you get to determine what exactly these are, whether it’s a critical task that gets completed, or the end of a major phase of the project), they should help you figure out whether or not your project is successful.

Step 6. Figure out who’s doing what

Before you can actually allocate tasks to individual team members, you’ll need a strong understanding of who’s actually available to work on this project, and who has the necessary skills to complete each task. So, take the time to get to grips with your team’s capacity and make sure that no one is being overloaded with work. Otherwise, you could be faced with a project where work is falling through the cracks or team members who are in danger of burning out. With the Tasks add-on in Timely, you get a complete picture of your team’s capacity and individual workloads, so you can make decisions about assigning project tasks to the right people with confidence.

Step 7: Decide the tool you need to visualize your project timeline

This usually depends on the scope and complexity of the project, but here’s our general rule of thumb:

  • Smaller, more straightforward projects. A simple project timeline using a spreadsheet or project timeline templates should suffice.
  • Bigger, complex projects. The bigger the project, the more tasks and dependencies there are to manage. Something like a Gantt chart or similar alternative can help you easily visualize the project and break it down into smaller tasks for your team. For this, you’ll want to use a dedicated project management tool, which will help you spend less time setting everything up.

Step 8. Build your project timeline

Here’s where your hard work pays off – it’s time to map out that beautiful project timeline! If you’re using a project management tool, it’s as simple as selecting a timeframe to complete your project, entering all of your tasks in list format, adding start and end dates as well as an assignee to each, marking dependencies between tasks, as well as any milestones you’ve earmarked along the way. Your tool should then do the heavy lifting for you, transforming your project into a visual timeline.

A few final words...

Now, you’re ready to share your timeline with major stakeholders and approvers so plans are clear and everyone is bought in. And, best of all, as your team members complete and update tasks, your project timeline will stay current so everyone can see where the project stands. 👏

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