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Iryna Viter

How to Create a Project Schedule - An Excel-Free Guide

Looking to create a project schedule, but don't know where to start? Here's a step-by-step guide.

Creating a project schedule can easily get out of hand when using a spreadsheet. There are so many details to consider in the equation - people, assignments, phases, milestones, costs - that it almost always turns into back pain. Worse, project scheduling becomes even more tangled when you need to update a few bits and pieces. Change one thing, and it has the uncontrollable domino effect on all the moving parts.

If you'd like to speed up the process of creating a project schedule and carve out more time for impactful work, dive in into our guide.

First things first, let's define a project schedule.

There isn't one accepted project schedule definition, but there is general agreement over what a project schedule is.

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What is a project schedule?

A project schedule is a timetable that outlines project phases, milestones, assignments, as well the start and end dates of every activity.

A project schedule also details the order of tasks and which team members have been assigned to complete them.

For a project manager, having all of this information in one place is gold. A good project schedule becomes one of the most reliable and effective project management tools, enabling reliable project planning, up-to-date decision making and efficient resource allocation.

All told, a project schedule gives project managers the best chance of delivering the ultimate goal: a project that's completed to satisfaction on time and on budget.

The elements of a project schedule

What is included in a project schedule? Project scheduling draws on a wide range of different aspects, and there are many different project scheduling techniques to structure one. Project schedules should strike a balance of being simple enough to understand while also having enough detail to be executable.

While project scheduling is a process, a project schedule is an actual document - one that outlines project tasks, timelines, and other factors involved in project delivery. If you’re thinking of creating your first project schedule - but currently staring at a blank screen and Googling ‘how to write a project schedule’ - here’s what to include.

  • Task list - A detailed list of all the tasks that your team needs to complete to achieve the project objectives and outcome.
  • Task durations - An informed estimate of how long each task is likely to take (so you can start fleshing out a timeline). Plus contingency time in case tasks overrun.
  • Task dependencies - Information on any interdependencies between project tasks. Eg. The designer can’t create the web page before the copywriter has provided the text.
  • Task sequencing - The order the tasks need to happen - a logical sequence to ensure dependencies don’t cause any delays.
  • Critical path - This shows the longest sequence of tasks that determine the minimum time a project can take. Delays to the critical path will directly affect the project timeline. 
  • Project start, end, and milestone dates - Specific dates when the project is due to start, end, and any milestones when specific phases need to be completed. 
  • Schedule visualization - A schedule visualization shows tasks against a timeline and makes dates, durations, and dependencies clear at a glance. 
  • Resource requirements - A list of the resources you’ll need, mapped against each task. In a project-based business, resources mostly mean people, so what job role, skills, experience level, etc.

You may use Runn to visualize your project schedule. Then, it might look like this: 

PMI, in turn, outlines the following steps to get an ideal project schedule:

1. Develop the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)

A work breakdown structure is the first step in building a project schedule. A WBS breaks down the entire project, usually in terms of either project deliverables or functions.

  • Deliverable-based WBS details the high level pieces of work that are involved in the project, and the individual elements under each one. It can detail the budget for each deliverable, the resources needed, and it can also track the progress of each deliverable in real time.
  • Functional-based WBS outlines the groups involved in a project. It doesn't detail the individual tasks each group has, and it can be hard to trace the critical path from beginning to end.

2. Define work packages

Work packages are the low level tasks that make up each element within the WBS. There may be a number of tasks that comprise a single element, and each task should be able to be allocated. It can also outline important details such as the scope, timeline and budget that applies to each work package.

3. Define activities

Activities break down work packages even further to describe the specific steps an individual will take to complete them. For example, the steps involved in setting up a social media marketing campaign that is part of the overall marketing of a new product.

This is important because it makes tracking progress objective. With this in mind, activities should be measurable.

4. Define logic

Logic describes the relationship between activities, and the way one activity will flow into another. For example, what signals that work on an activity can begin? The simplest logic is that the preceding activity has been completed, which is known as Finish-to-Start.

5. Define resources needed

Defining resources can be a complex process, but doing this step in detail will prevent bottlenecks down the line, such as a last-minute realization that you need a resource that isn't available. Defining the resources needed involves two stages:

  • Understand resource type. What does the resource need to be able to do in order to complete each activity? This commonly translates to the expertise a person requires, although it can be more than that. For example, a team member may need to have the authority to procure all the equipment they need.
  • Understand the amount of work. How many hours will it take the resource to complete the activity? This isn't a question of analyzing the number of resources required - that comes next - but it's about identifying how many hours of work that's involved. The easiest way to understand this is to assume only one resource will be allocated to each task.

6. Define timeframes

Defining the total duration of activities will help to create a budget and project timeline that is achievable. It can also help to identify the number of resources that are needed. For example, if there's a large bottleneck during the programming stage, it may be that additional programmers can be allocated to that activity.

There are two key considerations in defining timelines:

  • Resource efficiency is a realistic understanding of how much time will be lost as a resource completes an activity. For example, a person may be called away to another piece of work, or they may have sick leave. There are many other ways resources leak time, so a good rule of thumb is to plan for 75 percent efficiency. Taking a prudent approach to timelines will help to build a project schedule that's achievable.
  • Three-point estimate is a technique that provides multiple references for project timelines. This is important because, as PMI outlines, projects that outline a single date for completion only come in on-time and on-budget 50 percent of the time. A three point estimate outlines an optimistic estimate (best-case scenario), a pessimistic estimate (worst-case scenario) and a most likely estimate (accepting some risks). Once you've come up with all three estimates, you can calculate an achievable Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT) estimate by using the formula (Optimistic + 4xMost Likely + Pessimistic)/6.

7. Analyzing the project schedule

Now you've completed a draft project schedule, the next step is to see if it makes sense. One of the most important things to consider is if it meets your contractual obligations. Beyond that, there are other important aspects to analyze. You may need to adjust your project schedule based on these aspects.

Critical path method

The critical path method is one of the best known project scheduling techniques, and is defined as the longest path through a project. It means the longest flow of consecutive activities from one to another. By identifying the critical path, you can make any adjustments that are needed - for example, you may change your logic, or you may allocate more resources to an activity.


Constraints come in the form of dates, and they often require an alteration to logic within a project schedule. It may be that a staff member is unavailable, or you're contractually obliged to complete a piece of work by a certain date. This may mean that an activity needs to start earlier than it otherwise would.

Constraints can be hard or soft, depending on how forgiving they are - there may be a non-negotiable deadline, or one that is ideal but flexible.

How to create a project schedule

Knowing all the elements of a project schedule isn't enough to understand how to create a project schedule. There's a lot to get your head around, and doing it manually in an Excel spreadsheet can create a lot of headaches. It's error-prone, time consuming and makes it almost impossible to track project progress in real time.

Today, effective project scheduling means using dedicated project scheduling software. It helps by walking you through a proven project scheduling process that's been developed by experts over many years. It's a much clearer, more strategic process than finding your own way forward using a blank spreadsheet.

If you asked experienced leaders which tool is most likely to be used in project schedule management, the overwhelming majority (if not all) will be using dedicated project scheduling tools.

Other advantages of using project scheduling software include:

  • Better collaboration. It's easier to update and share project schedules, and notify key stakeholders when they're impacted by changes or need to action tasks.
  • Effective task delegation. Project managers can easily allocate tasks, and can do so with real-time visibility of resources' capacity and availability.
  • Easier onboarding for new team members. Project scheduling software is a database of all of the organization's projects and their components. These come in both high level and detailed views, which help not to overwhelm new staff.
  • Better risk mitigation. Project scheduling tools make it easier to identify bottlenecks and resource clashes to save problems down the track.
  • Improved budget management. Automated budget updates remove the risk of human error, and allow project managers to easily forecast the impact of different scheduling options on budgets.
  • Enhanced productivity. Get real-time visibility over project progress at the click of a button, rather than rely on time consuming manual updates. Using a project schedule template also makes it much quicker to create project schedules.
  • Better project tracking. As a project progresses, actual performance should be compared to the project schedule. To do this, performance needs to be seen in real time, which is much harder in Excel.

How to make a project schedule using Runn

Not all project scheduling software is made equal. As McKinsey outlines, in order to effectively manage projects, tools need to have given sufficient thought to schedule development. Runn has been proven to add value to more than 33,000 projects around the world, including planning more than 11 million hours of work.

When scheduling a project in Runn, you'll need to know:

  • The client name, project and rate card you're using
  • The roles that are needed to complete the project
  • All staff that will contribute to the project, including contractors, their roles and costs

1. Allocate the budget to your project

Creating a project budget at this stage is optional, but scheduling is much easier when you know how much money you have available for certain tasks. Whether you allocate a budget to your project right off the bat depends on the estimating method you use.

In the Project Planner, you will find your project.

2. Create milestones and project phases

To divide the project into different parts, hover above the Phases row and click-and-drag, or click and select the calendar to choose start and end dates.

You can add important milestones if needed as well. A project milestone is a checkpoint in a project timeline that specifies the completion of a project phase and the starting of another. Check examples of the most common project milestones in this article.

3. Assign team members

When you expand the project in the Project Planner, click on Assign person. Find the person you want to contribute to the project and select them.

You can select multiple people at one time, or select a placeholder if no-one's available. It's easy to transfer ownership of a task from a placeholder to a real person once you know who it's going to be.

4. Add assignments

Assign tasks by either selecting specific dates in the calendar view or by clicking and dragging on the project timeline. You can also create repeating assignments for those that need to be done multiple times.

Continue assigning tasks as needed. Make sure you keep an eye on your costs as you go so you don't over-allocate resources and go over budget.

That's everything you need to know about creating a project schedule without using a manual spreadsheet. Instead of using a project schedule template in Excel, try creating a project schedule with Runn, it's completely free!

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