How to Create an Effective Timeline Chart

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One measure of project success is meeting agreed-upon timelines. Here, we discuss how timeline charts help keep projects on schedule and how to create one.

Do you know the daily overrun cost of a $3 million, six-month project? Almost $17,000. That’s why completing a project on time is almost as important as completing it at all. And it explains why project managers rely on an assortment of project management tools to keep a close eye on the project schedule.

One way to ensure that a project, process, or campaign is tracking as planned is by using a visual tool called a timeline chart.

Overview: What is a timeline chart?

Project management is a balancing act, and project managers need project management skills and tools to keep every ball up in the air. There’s the vision statement that clarifies the project’s purpose, a cost-benefit analysis that compares the costs and benefits of a business action.

And then there’s the timeline chart that illustrates the project’s schedule to keep the project on track.

A timeline chart orders events sequentially. Time can be measured in any unit, from mere minutes to months to years. Important dates or milestones are plotted chronologically along a vertical or horizontal time scale to provide a quick but comprehensive view of the sequence of past or future events.

Timeline charts and visual project management

Visual project management, as its name suggests, is a practice that incorporates visual tools and data visualization methodologies with traditional project management techniques to make complex data points easier to communicate and understand.

Timeline charts show project teams and stakeholders at a glance which milestones have been completed or yet to be achieved, and the due dates associated with upcoming milestones. Charting deliverables as visible milestones is an industry best practice and stresses their urgency.

Timeline charts illustrate project task or activity duration, start and end dates, the time between tasks, any task overlap, and the dependencies between tasks, if any. And it’s a great resource to detail and highlight your work in summary reports for stakeholders.

Types of timeline charts

Timeline charts come in many forms, but the most common are:

Standard timeline chart

Standard timeline charts illustrate events accompanied by explanatory text or images. They’re used for a variety of purposes, one of which is to narrate historical events.

Timeline Chart - History of Social Media Platforms

This standard timeline graph shows the launch year of each of the popular social media networks. Image source: Author

Gantt chart

A Gantt chart uses bars of varying sizes spread across a timeline to represent a task’s start date, duration, and finish date.

TeamGannt Project Management Dashboard

Gantt charts provide essential project information, such as milestones, tasks, and due dates, in an easily understandable visual format. Image source: Author

How to create and use timeline charts for project management

A project’s timeline is typically mapped out during the project planning phase. Once you have your timeline or schedule figured out, you’re ready to create a timeline chart.

In many cases, the timeline will be altered numerous times throughout the project’s life cycle because of changing priorities or scope creep. This means your timeline chart must be adjusted to reflect scheduling changes.

You can create a timeline chart in Excel or Microsoft Word, use diagramming tools such as Venngage or Vizzlo. Or you can take advantage of the built-in Gantt chart feature in most project management software -- the steps will depend on which method you go for.

Here, we’ll be creating a project Gantt chart using TeamGantt.

TeamGantt has a free-forever plan that allows you to collaborate on one project with two other members of your team. For unlimited projects and premium features, such as customizable project templates and unlimited guest users, paid subscription starts at $7.90/month per user.

Step 1: Create your project

If you’re new to TeamGantt, fear not. The platform is user friendly and keeps you focused on project management best practices. Just sign up, follow the instructions, and click to the next page when ready.

Tips for creating your project

To create a new project, find and click the + button on the menu on the left of your screen. There’s one next to Me and another next to Active Projects. Either will work. Next, click New Project. Give your project a name, select the days of the week you’ll be working, and save the project.

TeamGantt Dashboard

From the sidebar menu on the left-hand side of your screen, locate the + button next to Me or Active Projects to add a new project. Image source: Author

  • Take advantage of TeamGantt’s project templates: TeamGantt offers multiple templates you can use right out of the box, which means you don’t have to start a new project from scratch.
  • There are other ways to add a project: You can add a project in three ways: create a new project, duplicate an existing project, or create one by uploading a CSV file.

Step 2: Add tasks to your project

Now you’re ready to add tasks to your new project. Tasks are the building blocks of your project, and they’ll show up as bars in the Gantt chart.

Tips for adding tasks to your project

Whether you opted to use a pre-made Gantt chart template or not, you can add project tasks by clicking the + Task button. Type the task’s name, and add as many as you need.

TeamGannt Task Management

Clicking + Task lets you add tasks to your project. Image source: Author

  • Organize tasks into subgroups: You can group certain tasks together to keep your tasks and project organized. Do that by clicking + Group of Tasks.
  • Add project milestones: Aside from tasks, you can add milestones to your project. Do that by clicking + Milestone. You may also convert an existing task into a milestone by hovering on the task, clicking the icon with three dots to the right of the task, then selecting Convert to Milestone from the menu.

Step 3: Schedule your tasks

Now that the project’s tasks have been added, you’re ready to assign a start and end date to each.

TeamGannt's Schedule Project Task

Click and drag a task to schedule them. Image source: Author

Tips for scheduling your tasks

There are two ways to schedule your project’s tasks:

  • Click and drag: Make sure the bar representing a task is occupying the right position on your Gantt chart. If not, click and drag it to the right location to set the start date. Once done, click the task again and drag for as long as it takes to set the end date.
  • Enter the start and end dates: Double-click a task on your Gantt chart for the edit window to appear. Or click a task, click the icon with the three dots, and select Edit from the menu options. Then set the start and end dates. You may also edit the name of the task, assign it to a team member, add notes, enter a comment, upload a file, and change the task’s color or parent group, etc.

Step 4: Create task dependencies

Sometimes, certain tasks cannot be started until another is complete. That’s called a dependency. On a Gantt chart, dependencies are represented by lines linking two tasks. Dependencies can also be between project tasks and milestones.

Tips for creating dependencies

To create dependencies between tasks, mouse over a task, click the gray dot, and then drag the dependency line to connect the task to another task.

Create task dependencies on TeamGantt

On your Gantt chart, you can use either the left or right gray dot to illustrate dependencies. Image source: Author

  • Left vs. right gray dot: Use the left dot if you want the task to come after another task and the right dot if you want it to come before another task.
  • Rearrange out-of-order tasks on the timeline: The dependency line turning red indicates that tasks are out of order. Adjust the timelines for those tasks by moving them individually on the Gantt chart. If dependent tasks need to be adjusted, click, shake, and release the first task in the series. All the tasks will then automatically reorder.

The best project management software for creating timeline charts

Most project management software tools will include Gantt charts that you can use right out of the box to create your project’s timeline. But charts and visualization tools are just a portion of what project management systems offer.

They can also help you stay organized, giving you a centralized workspace for all your project files and documents, communication, updates, budget, schedule, contact information of the project’s stakeholders, and so on.

No need for multiple disparate systems to monitor and control every step your project must undergo from start to finish.

Below are a few of the Gantt chart software options that The Ascent has reviewed so far -- aside from TeamGantt above.

1. Scoro

Scoro lets you turn your project plan into an easily editable timeline that shows you and your team what should be done, in what order, when, and by whom.

You see the entire project at a glance -- activities, milestones, deadlines, task dependencies, who’s responsible for what, etc., making sure no team member is overbooked or underused.

Team members can refer to the timeline using the device of their choice: smartphone, laptop, tablet, or desktop.

Scoro’s project timeline

This is how Scoro’s project timeline view looks like. Image source: Author

Scoro is packed with enterprise-grade features essential for collaboration, sales, finance, and reporting. Subscription tiers offered are Essential, Work Hub, Sales Hub, and Ultimate, with pricing starting at $26/month per user. Try the free 14-day trial to see if it’s the project management tool your team needs.

2. Mavenlink

Mavenlink transforms your project plan into a visual timeline depicting everything that goes into your project throughout its life cycle: tasks, schedules, budgets, dependencies, milestones, and deliverables. Your team knows how the project is progressing at a glance.

If you need to print your Gantt chart, click the Print button from the header and configure your print settings.

Mavenlink’s Gantt chart

Mavenlink’s Gantt charts are divided into two sections: the project or task list on the left-hand side and the schedule on the right side. Image source: Author

You can try Mavenlink for 10 days for free. After that, subscription starts at $19/month for up to five users.Besides Gantt charts, features include task and schedule management, critical path analysis, a mobile app, and 24/7 live support.

3. Smartsheet

Smartsheet creates Gantt charts using a blank sheet, an existing sheet, or a pre-built Gantt chart template, provided you have the start and end date columns filled out. Tasks display as bars on the Gantt chart, and you can adjust the dates by updating the date columns or clicking and dragging the task bars.

Smartsheet allows you to adjust the timeline’s zoom level (day, week, month, or quarter) and organize rows into collapsible sections.

Smartsheet's Gantt Chart

Click and drag a task on your Gantt chart to make changes to your timeline, and Smartsheet automatically adjusts the affected dates. Image source: Author

Smartsheet provides a free 30-day trial. Paid plans start at $14/ month for the Individual plan and $25/month per user for the Business plan. You get collaboration tools, iOS and Android apps, and integration with commonly used business applications.

Keeping your projects on track with a timeline chart

Project managers are judged not just by the finished product but by meeting a delivery schedule. It’s a project management basic that timeline charts can help them achieve.

That’s what the timeline chart is for. Knowing how to use and create one is crucial for projects to stay on schedule.

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