Create an Effective Project Timeline in 5 Simple Steps

A project timeline acts as a road map, helping guide you and your team members to successfully complete your project in a timely manner. Here’s how to create one that works.

Updated September 2, 2020

Managing a project is no easy feat. You’ve got to brainstorm, plan, delegate, execute, and evaluate — making sure your team members don’t fizzle out in the process, all while keeping your eyes on the end goal. It’s a daunting process, to say the least.

The key to successfully navigating the project management process is to create a timeline. This project plan timeline, as simple as it may be, will act as your project’s map, directing you to your final destination with minimal obstacles and detours along the way.

In this step-by-step guide, we’ll discuss the basics of a project timeline, how having one will benefit your mission, and ways to tweak yours for maximum effect.

Just remember, you wouldn’t dream of embarking on a cross-country road trip without a map or a GPS; therefore, don’t start your project without a detailed, concise, easy-to-understand timeline.


Overview: What is a project timeline?

A project timeline is an outline that breaks down any project into manageable, chronological steps, with realistic deadlines and check-ins set along the way.

Everyone involved in the project should be well-informed of the what, why, and when of the project. The timeline outline will cover all bases — detailing the objectives, the overall goal, and the final deadline.

This ensures that every team member can fully grasp how their individual participation and actions will help bring the project to fruition.

Think of it this way: A troop of Boy Scouts heads out into the woods for a week-long adventure. Not only does a detailed schedule allow everyone to anticipate what’s going to happen and who’s in charge of what, it also eliminates repetitive questions, such as “Where are we camping tonight?”

It’s all right there, spelled out in great detail. (Of course, a bear might stumble onto the path, so it’s wise to be prepared for the unexpected).


5 benefits to creating (and sticking to) your project timeline

An effective timeline for projects should inspire your team members to tackle their tasks with gusto and vigor. Here are some of the benefits you’ll notice when creating (and actually using) your project timeline.

1. Keeps everyone on track

Creating a project plan will help avoid ambiguous directions. The more clearly expectations are defined, the more effectively your team members can work. Furthermore, having specified deadlines throughout the project will help the project sail along smoothly.

2. Ability to assign tasks appropriately

Writing out a detailed plan is definitely worth all the time and effort involved. You’ll be able to assess the project as a whole, determining who’s the best fit for each task. More importantly, team members can chime in when needed, such as volunteering for a job where they have expert knowledge, or referring you to a specialist.

3. Gauges how much work needs to be accomplished

The timeline acts as a detailed blueprint for your project. At any moment, you can glance at it and see how many tasks have been completed and how much work remains.

This is especially helpful if you have stakeholders or investors involved, allowing you to report, “We’re halfway through the project,” or, “We have two weeks left.”

4. Delivers results in a timely manner

Nothing’s worse than plowing through a project with no end in sight. The timeline takes away all guesswork, keeping the tasks aligned with the final deadline. Because all tasks are completed in a chronological order, you can alter the end date well in advance if earlier tasks are taking longer than expected.

5. Helps avoid feeling overwhelmed

It’s easy to become overwhelmed with intricate, highly-detailed projects, especially ones that stretch over a longer period of time. This is why splitting the project into bite-sized chunks is ideal.

With a timeline in place, you can focus on the tasks listed for just a week — or even a day — at a time, helping you resist the urge to obsess about the project as a whole. Remember, every single task leads to the next — you can stress about next week’s tasks when the time arrives.


How to create an effective project timeline

It doesn’t matter if you’ve led multiple projects before or if this is your very first one — it’s always overwhelming at the start. Always. That’s because looking at a project head-on, taking in every detail at once, is bound to give anyone a headache.

This is why the project timeline is your lifeboat. And don’t worry, we’re here to help you create a timeline that ensures a successful project execution. Because, well, we want you to succeed!

An effective timeline should be informative, easy to decipher, clearly defined, and hopefully a little fun! The goal is to have team members excited about every step, feeling proud as they check off their accomplishments along the way.

Most importantly, try to avoid creating a long, boring, or overly complicated timeline template.

Here’s a quick overview of the steps we’re going to discuss:

  • Outline project scope
  • Define work breakdown structure
  • Estimate time needed to complete each task
  • Delegate efficiently
  • Keep the design fun and engaging

Remember, your end goal is to make the project’s tasks seem realistic and attainable. Now, let’s dive into making a project timeline that really shines.

1. Outline project scope

The first step in your project cycle management is to clearly define the project scope.

The project scope is a fancy title for a list of objectives, goals, deadlines, and specified tasks all associated with your upcoming project. You can also call this the “scope statement” or “statement of work.”

It’s important to provide the entire team with a clear outline of every aspect of the project. This way, team members can contribute ideas, resources, and motivational support — helping keep the project on track for completion.

The scope doesn’t have to be completely rigid or set in stone, either. In fact, it’s normal to tweak it as you go. Perhaps the project seems more complex than originally thought and needs to be split into even smaller stages, or the end date needs to change. All plans are subject to reality.

The most important adjustment you can make to an unexpected development is to keep everyone in the loop. If the project scope changes, make sure to give adequate notice so everyone can adjust their current plan, extending deadlines as needed.

2. Define the work breakdown structure

Every project, big or small, comes with a list of tasks. Breaking down these individual tasks is crucial to the success of any project. Otherwise they’re all lumped together, making it hard to determine what exactly needs to be done, or worse, not knowing how long the project will take.

This is why you need a work breakdown structure (WBS). In a nutshell, you need to list every single task that needs to be accomplished. Even though it may seem tedious, it’s important to get it all down in writing so everyone can assess the project in its entirety.

A graphic depiction of a work breakdown structure, with multiple tasks listed in seven columns.

Using a work breakdown structure can help divide tasks into manageable chunks.

Source: workbreakdownstructure.com.

In the end, the WBS helps avoid any surprises along the way, ultimately keeping your project on track.

3. Estimate time needed to complete each task

One common obstacle in project management is not allocating enough time to complete each task. Sometimes the final deadline is flexible, but often it’s not. Therefore, it’s crucial to properly calculate the time needed to finish the project without sacrificing quality.

A project planning template from monday.com.

Use project management software to determine how long each part of the project will take.

Source: monday.com.

Once you’ve defined the exact tasks in your WBS, it’s time to lay them out in a chronological timeline, assigning each task actual dates. To get started, determine your project’s ultimate deadline, then work backward to define the project milestones.

For example, if your company is writing and designing a book, write down the date that the final copy needs to be printed. Then, calculate how much time the editor will need, how long each revision will take, as well as how much time it’ll take to write the individual chapters.

We suggest using project management software, such as monday.com (see image above), to keep track of all the details.

Here’s a sample time estimate using the book publishing example:

  • Writing: Estimate how long each chapter will take and how many chapters you need. If you have a single writer and want 10 chapters, it’ll take approximately 10 months. If you can delegate to multiple writers, then adjust the timeline accordingly.
  • Editing: How many edits do you envision? How long does the editing process usually take? Discuss this in detail with your editing team.
  • Revisions: Allow enough time to incorporate the editor’s feedback. You don’t want to rush the end result, so add in extra buffer time to be safe.
  • Reviews: How many people will be on the review panel? Do you need to schedule meetings? Do your best to come up with an accurate time estimate for this step.
  • Production: Make sure to discuss the publishing process before you get started. That way you can be prepared if there’s a long wait time (this’ll also give you more wiggle room in the editing process). Knowing the end date is especially important if your book has a seasonal angle, such as promotional materials needed for the Christmas season.

If you’re unsure how long a specific task will take, research it online. In the end, it’s better to overestimate the time needed — nobody complains about finishing a project early, but people tend to be disgruntled if a task takes twice as long as expected.

4. Delegate efficiently

The key to any successful project is making sure each task falls into the correct hands. There’s no point in assigning a tedious book editing task to Jim from accounting, unless he’s an editor on the side (and only if he has time to do the job properly).

Once you have your WBS clearly defined, as well as the project milestones and time estimates written up, it’s time to start delegating those tasks.

Start by understanding the ins and outs of resource allocation. Resources can include employees as well as contract workers, equipment, software, technology systems, and more.

The best way to improve team efficiency and to track individual progress is to use project management software, such as Trello, which allows you to schedule tasks, set prioritization levels, share a team calendar, track time, and assign tasks to specific individuals (or to a collaborative team).

There’s something quite satisfying about moving a card into the “done” column, giving your team members a sense of accomplishment after each task is completed.

Most importantly, schedule in regular check-ins or meetings. A break in the flow could back up the entire project, so it’s important to know if a team member is struggling with a certain task or if more time or resources are needed.

5. Keep the design fun and engaging

So far we’ve discussed all the logistics that go into creating an effective, powerful, easy-to-use project timeline. However, we saved the best part for last: making it pop!

There’s no reason to use a boring, lackluster design for your project timeline; you want to motivate your team members to keep plugging ahead. Above all else, you want the tasks to seem achievable. Using a fun design will go a long way in creating a positive and uplifting work atmosphere.

A colorful project timeline in Asana.

Use bright colors and profile pictures to make your project timeline more inviting.

Source: Asana.com.

For example, the project management software Asana allows you to create vibrant, interactive timelines with arrows showing the flow of the project. You want to make it easy for team members to find their names, see the list of assigned tasks, and get to work. It’s easy to get a project started using Asana’s timeline.


Create your timeline and actually use it

Your project timeline is essentially your road map. Without it, you risk going off on tangents, miscalculating the final deadline, or getting lost completely.

Set aside enough time to thoroughly define the project’s goals, calculating how long each task will take, and determining who’s best suited for each job. Then compile all that info into a bright, easy-to-read, interactive timeline.

Don’t forget to use project management tools to track everyone’s progress, allowing you to make adjustments as the project moves forward — even the most organized projects need some tweaking along the way.

Your project timeline should help save time, enhance productivity, and minimize those overwhelming moments where everything feels like too much. This in turn will make everyone more excited when the next project rolls around.

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