How to create a project schedule: A complete guide
Project scheduling is a critical and crucial part of project management and planning. It’s the yellow-brick-road that, when followed, will lead you to the gleaming project closure right on time.
While project scheduling can feel like a daunting task, it’s an important step to project management and planning and will keep your project from quickly falling off the rails. But don’t worry. After this guide, you’ll be prepped and ready to create a fully-functioning, smooth-running project schedule that will send you clicking your heels and heading home by dinner time.
What exactly is a project schedule?
A project schedule breaks down a large goal into smaller milestones and tasks with start and end dates so that the whole project will be completed on time.
But project scheduling is rarely as simple as creating a sequence of events. It’s more like a balancing act. You’ll need to manage time, cost, and quality while still making sure the project benefits can be realized.
Not only does a project schedule include what needs to be done, but it identifies who needs to be doing it, how the task will get done, and when it will be completed.
Unfortunately, project scheduling isn’t a one and done job. There’s a lot of educated-guess work involved and then continuous updating and re-arranging as the project progresses.
That’s why it’s so important to have a solid project crew and even a well-staffed Project Management Office. An effective and time-saving project schedule depends on accurate estimates from the project team. Different approaches to schedules should be taken for different types of projects. But what they all have in common is a few essential steps (we’ll get into these below) and reliance on accurate milestone estimates from your team.
Why project scheduling is so important
Just like a personal calendar or schedule, creating and managing a detailed schedule for your projects will make sure that nothing falls through the cracks or ends up delayed past the project’s due date.
Without a schedule, projects fall apart–especially the big ones with a lot of moving parts. To assure your organization and stakeholders that you can accomplish and enact your project plan and to keep your team on the same page, you’ll need a detailed project schedule. So, where do you start?
Plan to plan and schedule in your scheduling
If you’re a planning-junkie like us and Leslie Knope, you’ve probably already made room in your schedule, to schedule. In fact, if you talk to any manager, they won’t make this habit seem so absurd. Creating a plan and a schedule for your projects is what project management is all about. It’s a crucial chunk of your work week.
Project scheduling should certainly not take a back-page in your planner. Don’t even write it into the notes section. This task can be time-consuming (the longer you spend on it now, though, the smoother and faster the project will run later). So do your future self a favor and block off some time for creating your project schedule.
How to create a bullet proof Project Schedule
1. Get all your pieces in order
This step is the prep work. It’s like spilling all your puzzle pieces out on the table and making sure you’re not missing half of them before you start assembling. Some people call this the “Schedule Management Plan.”
During this step, you’ll define the policies, procedures, and documentation that will affect your project schedule. You’ll want to find answers to a few questions regarding the project’s contingencies, resources, task dependencies, organizational procedures, and stakeholders. Ask these questions:
How big will your contingency reserve be, and how will it be calculated? Will your project require a robust contingency or backup plan?
Are there any big resources whose availability has a major effect on the schedule?
What about the order of your steps? Are there any major task dependencies necessary in your project, like, for example, pouring the foundation of a home before framing the walls?
Are there any organizational procedures set in place by a Project Management Office for creating and updating your schedule?
Who needs to approve the schedule and who needs a copy? Who are the stakeholders involved?
Answering these five questions will greatly inform your project schedule. You’ll use the information you collect to move into step 2.
2. Define tasks, activities, and milestones
At this point, you’ll need to start figuring out what activities and specific actions need to be performed in order to complete the desired project and its benefits. Here, you’ll be breaking down the work so it’ll be easier to estimate, schedule, execute, monitor, and control the project overall.
A simple list of tasks will do. What’s most important at this stage, though, is your thoroughness.
3. Order your tasks in a sequence
Next, determine the relationship between your defined tasks. You’ll want to note things like, can task A be completed at the same time as task B? Does task C have to be completed before task D can begin? Some tasks can overlap, some cannot.
Placing your tasks in a sequence and noting their relationship to each other will help your project move efficiently. If you’re using a project scheduling tool, you’ll be able to easily lay out and visualize these tasks and their relationship to each other.
4. Determine the resources needed for your activities
There are four main types of resources: people, tools and equipment, facilities, and fixed cost items like subcontractors. Other resources include financial resources, contingencies, and overtime pay. In this step, you’ll look at each individual task and determine its required resources.
5. Estimate the duration of each activity
Next, you’ll need to determine as close as possible how long each task will take. To get a close estimate, you can look back at similar projects. Many project management tools allow time tracking, which will give you the data you need to estimate time limits for future projects and tasks. Or you can find the average length of time between the highest possible duration and lowest possible duration you think the task could take.
Additionally, during the project scheduling process, project managers oftentimes create a resource calendar, which shows when your resources will be available. For example, building a website requires a lot of collaboration between the front-end and back-end developers, as well as a design team. When building a website, then, you’d have to make sure you know when your developers and designers are available and how long it will take them to complete their tasks.
When creating your project schedule, you’ll need to note when each resource is available. Ask yourself: Will particular funding come on a certain date? Are there tools, people, or other resources needed that are only available for a set period of time?
6. Identify the critical path
Now you’re ready to develop the most efficient and accurate schedule for your project. Here, you’ll be inputting the official start and end dates for each task.
There are a number of different techniques to chart the information on your schedule. But one of the most popular techniques is called the critical path method, which, when finished, looks something like this:
The critical path is the longest route through the network of your activities. Using this method, you can identify the longest stretch of dependent activities and measure them from start to finish.
Why is it helpful? It will identify which tasks, if delayed even a day, will delay your entire project, and which tasks won’t affect your project end date if delayed. This information will be hugely helpful later on when you’re managing the project.
Don’t be a tardy team leader.
No one likes to turn in a project late. Ever since school, we’ve been taught how to finish our work within a time limit. And now, as a professional, you can’t exactly get away with missing your deadline by telling the organization’s external stakeholders that someone stole your backpack.
Creating a solid project management schedule can be challenging and time-consuming. But these six steps will make sure you get it done on time.
Thankfully, not everything about your job needs to be as laborious. Like right now, for example, when you’re about to get 30-days of free access to an all-in-one project management platform.
No more missed deadlines or hectic catch-up. Enjoy a month of easy project management from start to finish, on us.