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Microsoft Project

Complete Guide to Tasks in Microsoft Project

A structured approach to project management is essential. One of the first things successful project managers do is create a task list.

Projects can be complex. A structured approach to project management is essential when identifying work that needs to be completed and making sure nothing is forgotten. One of the first things successful project managers do is create a task list.

A task is an activity that needs to be completed within a defined period of time. Each task in your project should have a start date, finish date, and duration associated with it – and every task should be assigned to a resource. A comprehensive project plan is made up of a detailed series of tasks.

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If you’re new to Microsoft Project, I recommend that you read this article from start to finish. If you’re familiar with tasks and the process of creating a task list and want to jump to a specific section, feel free to click one of the links below:

Getting Started

Before we create a task list, we need to create a new Microsoft Project file. Additionally, you can enter a start or finish date for the project and specify a title in the Advanced Properties dialog box.

It sounds like a lot of work but don’t worry… it’s not complicated!

Creating a Microsoft Project File

All project-related information is stored in a single file. Files have a .mpp extension, which stands for Microsoft Project plan.

Here is how you create a new Microsoft Project file.

Step #1 – Launch Microsoft Project or select File > New, if you’re already working in a project plan.

Step #2 – Click Blank Project.

Blank Project

Step #3 – Click the Save button on the Quick Access Toolbar then specify a filename and location where you’d like the file to be saved.

Entering a Start or Finish Date

If you don’t enter a start or finish date, the current date will be used instead but the date can always be changed later on.

Here is how you enter the project’s start or finish date.

Step #1 – Click the Project Information button in the Project > Properties group.

Step #2 – Make a selection in the Schedule from: drop down list, specify a Start date or Finish date,then click OK.

Project Information dialog box

In this example, I’m scheduling my project from the start date and I’m anticipating that work will commence on January 4, 2021.

Specifying a Project Title

When you specify a project title, it can be used as the project summary task, if you decide to enable it. The project title can also be added to the header or footer of any view or report you print. Like the project start (or finish) date, a project title can be changed later on.

Please note that the project’s title doesn’t have to be the same as the filename. For example, my project’s filename might be ‘tasks.mpp’ but the title could be ‘Plan an Industry Conference’.

In my opinion, it makes sense to add a project title early in the process of building a task list.

This is how you add a project title.

Step #1 – Select the File tab then click the Info category while in backstage view. Click the Project Information down arrow and select Advanced Properties.

Step #2 – In the Advanced Properties dialog box, specify a title for your project in the appropriate place. Fill in additional fields, if desired, then click OK.

Entering Tasks

After you create a Microsoft Project file, you’re ready to start adding tasks to your project. At this stage, we’re not concerned with how long each task will take or who will complete the work, we simply want to list each task.

Microsoft Project is flexible when you’re building a task list. You can start with high-level (summary) tasks then enter detailed steps later on – or you can enter detailed tasks right away and divide the project into logical sections (project phases) afterward.

No matter which approach you take, the end result will be a structured task list that displays the work in your project using hierarchy.

Summary Tasks

First, we’ll add summary tasks. Summary tasks are used to divide your project into phases. They’re like containers – a summary task holds all of the detailed tasks that make up a given phase in your project.

Summary tasks represent your project’s deliverables (or goals). They are used organize tasks in your project into manageable sections, making it easier to delegate work and track progress. The detailed tasks that make up a project phase will be indented below each summary task.

Adding summary tasks early in the process ensures that all project goals are included in your plan. You can expand or collapse summary tasks as needed.

To add a summary task, click an available cell in the Task Name column, type the summary task name and press Enter.

Tasks

All of the work items in your project plan are entered as tasks.

A task is an activity that needs to be completed within an allotted time frame. All tasks need to be specific, measurable, and assigned to resources.

To add a task, click an available cell in the Task Name column, type the task name and press Enter. If a task (or group of tasks) are part of a project phase, they need to be indented below the summary task. We’ll talk about indenting tasks when we discuss building a work breakdown structure.

Recurring Tasks

Some of the activities in your project will happen more than once. For example, project status meetings are usually held on an ongoing basis for the duration of your project. It’s easier to schedule events like these as recurring tasks.

Recurring tasks occur at regular intervals. Tasks in Microsoft Project can be scheduled to recur on a daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly basis. You’re also able to indicate whether tasks will end by a specific date or after a predefined number of occurrences.

Here is the process for creating a recurring task.

Step #1 – Click the down arrow under the Tasks button in the Task > Insert group then select Recurring Task…

Step #2 – Fill in the Task Name, Recurrence pattern, and Range of recurrence sections as appropriate then click OK.

Milestones

If you need to complete part of your project by a specific date, adding a milestone to your Gantt chart is an effective way to communicate the importance of that goal.

Milestones represents significant dates in your project like the start date, end date, or completion of a phase. In Microsoft Project, milestones are represented by a diamond symbol on the Gantt chart. Milestones should be entered with a duration of 0.

A milestone should be entered with a duration of 0 because, strictly speaking, there is no work associated with it. All of the work to be done is represented by tasks leading up to the milestone.

To add a milestone to your task list, click an available cell in the Task Name column, type a name for the milestone then press Tab. In the Duration column, type 0 and press Enter.

Adding Durations

Creating a list of tasks helps identify all of the work that needs to be completed in the project but it doesn’t tell us how long the work will take.

After listing all of the tasks in your project, the next step is to estimate the duration of every task in your list. Durations can be entered in minutes (m), hours (h), days (d), weeks (w), or months (mo). If the duration is an estimate, type a question mark (?) after it.

To add a duration, click in the duration column next to a task, type an appropriate value, and press Enter.

Let’s look at a few examples.

Example #1

I clicked in the Duration column next to task 3, List potential topics for keynote and breakout sessions, typed 5, and pressed Enter. By default, all durations are entered in days. I didn’t need to type 5d or 5 days.

Example #2

I clicked next to task 4, Evaluate topics with planning committee, typed 1w, and pressed Enter. When you type a number followed by w or weeks, the duration is entered in weeks.

Example #3

I clicked in the Duration column next to task 5, Select topics for keynote and breakout sessions, typed 2d?, and pressed Enter. Adding a question mark indicates that this is an estimated duration.

Building a Work Breakdown Structure

After listing the tasks in your project and adding durations, it’s time to create a work breakdown structure.

A work breakdown structure (or WBS) is a deliverable-oriented task list that organizes your project’s work into sections using hierarchy. Grouping tasks below the various phases in your project makes it easy to understand that once the tasks in that section are finished, the phase is complete.

Enabling the Project Summary Tasks

The first step in building your task list is to enable the project summary task.

A project summary task represents the entire duration of your project in the Gantt chart. All other tasks will be indented below it. The project title is used as the project summary task, if you specified one. Otherwise, the current filename is displayed.

To enable the project summary task, click to select the Project Summary Task checkbox in the Format > Show/Hide group while in Gantt chart view. You can expand or collapse the project summary task as needed.

Indent Tasks

Next, you’ll want to indent the detailed tasks below the various summary tasks in your project. Indenting tasks moves them to the right. Remember, tasks are activities that need to be completed within an allotted time frame. Summary tasks are containers that define project phases.

To indent a task, click to select it – or drag to select multiple tasks, then click the Indent Task button in the Task > Schedule group.

In the example, I indented tasks 3 – 6. Topic Selection is a project phase. Think of it as a container that organizes tasks representing the actual work. Tasks 3 – 5 are the individual work packages and task 6, Topics selected is a milestone marking the completion of the phase.

Linking Tasks

With the work breakdown structure complete, you’re ready to link the tasks in your project.

Linking tasks in Microsoft Project provides a way to illustrate dependencies. Simply put, when you establish links between tasks, you’re indicating which task should start first and which task(s) should follow.

There are four dependencies you can use.

Finish-to-Start
Finish-to-Start Dependency

Finish-to-Start

Finish-to-Start is the default dependency in Microsoft Project. It indicates that one task needs to finish before the next task can start.

The term waterfall project management is used to describe an entire project mapped out using Finish-to-Start dependencies. This methodology dictates that each part of the project is broken down into distinct, sequential phases with every member of the team working in a linear fashion toward the project’s completion.

Look at the picture of the finish-to-start dependency again. Can you see the waterfall?

Start-to-Start
Start-to-Start Dependency

Start-to-Start

A Start-to-Start dependency indicates that one task needs to start before the next task can start. The tasks are completed concurrently but they need to begin at the same time.

Finish-to-Finish
Finish-to-Finish Dependency

Finish-to-Finish

A Finish-to-Finish dependency indicates that the one task needs to finish before the next task can finish. The tasks are completed concurrently but they need to finish at the same time.

Start-to-Finish
Start-to-Finish Dependency

Start-to-Finish

A Start-to-Finish dependency indicates that the first task needs to start so that the next task in the list can finish.

Here is how you link tasks.

Step #1 – Drag to select the task(s) you’d like to link.

Step #2 – Click Link the Selected Tasks in the Task > Schedule group.

Notice that a finish-to-start dependency was created between the selected tasks. To change one of those dependencies, you need to modify the setting in the Task Dependency dialog box.

Carefully double-click the arrow linking any two tasks in the Gantt chart. In the Task Dependency dialog box, select an alternate dependency from the Type: drop down list and click OK.

Here is the Start-to-Start dependency in the Gantt chart.

By Michael Belfry

Working as a full-time training consultant, Michael provides Microsoft Office courses to government and private sector clients throughout North America.