Projects can be complicated. A typical work breakdown structure often contains hundreds (or thousands) of tasks. Gantt charts are used to diagram complex dependencies which are essential to project managers… but does everyone connected to a project need this level of detail?
Thankfully, the answer is ‘no’. Sometimes it’s better to summarize project information and communicate only the facts most relevant to your audience. This is where a timeline is useful.
A timeline offers a simplified view of your project plan. It’s a snapshot of key tasks and milestones. Timeline view in Microsoft Project is ideally suited for communicating high-level information about your schedule to clients or executives without getting into a detailed analysis of the work.
This article explores the process of building a timeline. Let’s get started!
The default view in Microsoft Project is Gantt with Timeline so, unless you’ve changed that setting in the Project Options dialog box, Timeline view is probably visible above your Gantt chart.
If you need to enable Timeline view, simply click the Timeline checkbox in the View > Split View group on the ribbon.
Adding Tasks to a Timeline
I always create my task list and Gantt chart first then add key tasks and milestones to the timeline. To keep things uncluttered, I only add top-level tasks and milestones. Remember, the timeline is supposed to represent a simplified view of your project plan – so only add what’s necessary.
There are several ways to add tasks to a timeline. Here are the methods I use most often.
Add Tasks by Right-Clicking
Right-click a task you’d like to add to the timeline and select Add to Timeline from the shortcut menu.
Add Tasks Using the Existing Tasks Button
The Existing Tasks button lets you add multiple tasks and milestones quickly.
Step #1 – Click anywhere in the Timeline view pane to make it active.
Step #2 – Click the Existing Tasks button in the Format > Insert group.
Step #3 – In the Add Tasks to Timeline dialog box, select the tasks and milestones you’d like to add.
Step #4 – Click OK.
Formatting a Timeline
The timeline starts out with basic formatting. Adding a little colour and changing how specific tasks are displayed can make the timeline easier to understand.
Changing a Task’s Colour
Step #1 – Click to select a task in Timeline view.
Step #2 – Click the down arrow next to the Background Color button in the Format > Font group and select a colour.
In this example, I changed the background colour of summary tasks in the timeline to match the background colour applied to the text representing various project phases in the task list.
Display as Callout
Two phases in the sample project overlap. In the screenshot (above), the Publicity and Admin phases are displayed in two rows on the timeline. In this case, it might make sense to display one of the phases as a callout.
Step #1 – Click a task in the timeline to select it.
Step #2 – Click the Display as Callout button in the Format > Current Selection group.
The Publicity phase is displayed as a callout, above the timeline. The remaining summary tasks and milestones are plotted in a single row in Timeline view.
By default, the task names are displayed in one line of text, but you can change that setting.
Click the down arrow next to the Text Lines control in the Format > Show/Hide group and select 2 or a higher number, if your task descriptions are longer.
Many users find the timeline feature useful. The idea that you can present a complex schedule in a simple format, eliminate unnecessary details, and tailor it to a specific audience is useful in so many situations. It would be handy if we could export the timeline and include it in e-mails or presentations.
Microsoft Project lets you copy the timeline and paste it into other applications. Additionally, you can specify whether you’d like to paste the timeline into an e-mail, presentation, or copy a full-size image.
Here’s the process:
Step #1 – Click the Copy Timeline button in the Format > Copy group then select For E-mail, For Presentation, or Full Size.
Step #2 – Launch the application you’d like to paste the timeline into and click Paste or press CTRL + V. Position and resize the timeline as desired.
Creating Multiple Timelines
What if you need to represent different parts of your schedule and you think a timeline would be the best way to display those tasks? Starting in Project 2016, Microsoft added the functionality to create multiple timelines.
If you need to summarize different parts of your project or create different timelines for different audiences, you can – and it’s easy to do. You simply create multiple timelines. You can add tasks and apply formatting to each timeline you create.
Click the Add Timeline Bar button in the Format > Insert group to insert two or more timelines. Then, click the timeline you want to work with and add tasks or format it using the same techniques described in the sections above.