Could you find your way without a map?

Starting a project without a well-considered project schedule is like setting off on a journey without fuel, luggage, or a destination in mind.

​You can’t expect a ragingly successful project without a great schedule. A list of required tasks along with the time and the resources needed will help you arrive at your destination as planned.

Project scheduling is an important skill for any project manager, even if you think it’s a really simple project. We’ve developed this essential guide to improve your knowledge, boost your capabilities and help you create brilliant schedules for your projects.

What is a project schedule in project management?

A project schedule is a timetable that shows the start and end date of all project tasks, how the tasks relate to each other and usually which team members or other resources are responsible for delivery.

It is a dynamic document that is created during initial the planning stage. The approved project schedule acts as a baseline to work to, but it is maintained and updated throughout the project as things change.

While schedules are often thought of as planning and control tools, they are also critical communication tools for team members and stakeholders.

The project schedule:

  • outlines the time needed for the required tasks
  • establishes milestones to be met to complete the project on time
  • allocates resources across tasks
  • can be presented in various forms to suit different stakeholders


“​At its simplest, a project schedule is a list of the project tasks, and how long each will take. Typically, it also includes the resources required to complete the task which enables the resource cost of the task to be calculated. It’s a fundamental planning, control, and communication tool.”

Graham Watt LFAIPM


The three main types of project schedule

There are many ways that the project schedule can be displayed to meet the needs of the target audience using it. Three commonly used schedule formats are the:

  1. Master project schedule: a summary level schedule that highlights the key tasks and their estimated duration. This is useful as a high-level overview document for senior management or external stakeholders who don’t need the detail.
  2. Milestone schedule: tracks major milestones but not every task or deliverable. It’s great for reporting status and helping teams see their progress at a glance.
  3. Detailed project schedule: this is a more operational level schedule that tracks every project activity. It’s designed for the project team and managers to keep track of every element of the project.


Project schedule examples

Typically, the project schedule should include the following information:

  • Definition: A description of the outputs created by the work done
  • Example: An app will be created that enables users to record their daily food intake
Task description
  • Definition: A description of the outcomes you want to produce
  • Example: One of the tasks is writing a user help guide containing FAQs
Task duration
  • Definition: The entire time taken to complete a task
  • Example: We estimate that the creation of the user help guide will take one person three working days
​Task start and end date
  • Definition: The dates the task will start and finish
  • Example: We have scheduled the user guide to be created between 4 May – 8 May
Task dependencies
  • Definition: Relationships between tasks
  • Example: We cannot commence building the app until after design approval
Project calendar
  • Definition: Defines the working and non-working times
  • Example: Weekends are not included as workdays in our schedule
Work packages
  • Definition: A group of related tasks within a project
  • Example: The app needs testing before it is launched. Testing is work package, and tasks within the work package include compatibility testing, interface testing, security testing, and beta testing
  • Definition: A detailed estimate of all costs expected during the project
  • Example: We have included $85,000 in the budget for the sub-contracted app designer
Resource availability
  • Definition: What resources you have available, when they are available, and any conditions of the availability
  • Example: Sam, our writer, is available for the first week of May to complete the user help guide
Schedule risk analysis
  • Definition: A technique to connect the risk profile of tasks to the schedule
  • Example: Considering possible staff absence, the task completion date is set at 9 May


The benefits of effective project scheduling

The project schedule guides the project team as they deliver the project. It communicates progress to the team, management, and other stakeholders. Done well, it makes the entire project run more smoothly and helps you finish up on time and on budget. Data suggests only 30% of organisations are likely to deliver projects that are on time, but more effective scheduling will help.

The project schedule:

  • Contributes heavily to project success
  • Provides a clear roadmap to everyone at the beginning of the project
  • Manages stakeholder expectations
  • Monitors and communicates project progress
  • Ensures buy-in and accountability for tasks and deadlines
  • Lets the team know which tasks rely on others
  • Serves as an early warning system for potential project issues
  • Reserves your resources for when you need them


Project scheduling tools and techniques

Project managers use a range of tools and techniques to create, track and control their project schedules. These days, the tools are almost always digital. Here’s a brief description of some of the most common tools and techniques:

Task list

The most basic form of project schedule, this is a list of activities with deadlines that must be completed to finish a project.

GANTT chart

The most common form of project schedule is the GANTT chart. It’s a horizontal bar chart that tracks activities over time. Depending on resource allocation and task relationships, the bars might be running in parallel or sequentially. It can be produced with differing levels of detail depending on the needs of the target audience.

Work breakdown structure

A graphic that details the deliverables by presenting key milestones within a hierarchy. It simplifies projects into smaller, more manageable groups. It also provides the necessary framework for detailed cost estimating and control along with providing guidance for schedule development and control.

Schedule network analysis

A graphic that depicts the interrelationships and timing of all project activities in chronological order.

Critical path method

The critical path method adds the times of all critical activities, taking into account dependencies, to determine the earliest time that the project can be completed.

PERT charts

The program evaluation and review technique uses a different method to calculate time compared to the critical path method. For each activity, the shortest time, the longest time, and the most likely time are estimated for each task. The time estimate for each task is the weighted average of the three estimates.

Getting started with your project schedule

When you are first planning your project, ask yourself these three key questions. If you have scoped these answers, completing a full project schedule will be much easier.

How to do project scheduling

Scheduling is part of the planning process. Some simple steps to effectively schedule your projects are to:

  1. Confirm the project activities: make sure they cover your project scope
  2. Sequence activities: determine which order the tasks need to be completed
  3. Determine dependencies: identify tasks that rely on each other
  4. Determine durations: accurately estimate how long each task will take
  5. Establish milestones: set the key dates that need to be met
  6. Allocate resources: internal staff, contractors, tools, and workspaces
  7. Assess risks: and decide how it will be dealt with in your schedule
  8. Define baseline schedule: taking into account the dependencies, sequence, resources, durations, and risks, lay out all tasks on a timeline
  9. Monitor and control: decide how you will monitor, control and report on any changes to the schedule.


Project scheduling software

Project scheduling software has changed the face of project management. Special software is not necessary for every project, but the software has key features that add significant efficiency when dealing with large and complex projects.

Project scheduling software can allow project managers to:

  • monitor the progress of tasks, resources, and costs in real-time
  • edit the schedule with intuitive drag and drop interfaces
  • easily assign work to their team, link dependent tasks, create dashboards, and allocate resources
  • collaborate effectively with remote resources and build personalised task lists
  • sync calendars to automatically account for resource availability
  • communicate efficiently with all stakeholders. Different stakeholders will want different levels of detail, and the software can create customised reports to suit.

If you are tasked with selecting project scheduling software, don’t get carried away by the marketing hype. Do your due diligence to choose software that is appropriate for your project. The most complex, expensive, advanced option is not always best, but many projects would benefit from the features. It’s a good idea to read reviews and ask around in your professional networks to find personal recommendations for similar projects. The AIPM has a member forum where topics like this are often discussed.

8 top tips for better project scheduling

  1. Get input from your client and key stakeholders. Rely on the experience of others to build a schedule that covers all bases.
  2. Thoroughly identify and collect tasks. Review them against the project scope. Check past projects for ideas. Ensure nothing has been missed. Getting projects completed on time is difficult enough without trying to squeeze in forgotten tasks along the way.
  3. Be realistic in estimating durations. You need to deeply analyse the task against the resources you have and their availability. Lean on scheduling tools and techniques like the critical path method or PERT to improve accuracy.
  4. Allow reasonable float on activities, not everything will go perfectly. But not too much, or budgets disappear, and people disengage.
  5. Continually monitor the critical path and the project scope. Things can change during the execution of your project and you need to keep an eye on this constantly.
  6. Consider the impacts of your identified risks. Remember that it’s unlikely all your identified risks will occur, so factor in probability as well.
  7. Celebrate milestones when they are achieved, keeping your team motivated adds enormous value.
  8. Make sure the schedule is accessible to the whole team. It’s a key communication document, so make sure it’s comprehensive and easy to understand.


Good project managers are scheduling pros

No matter what level you are at in your project management career, project schedules will be central to your daily existence. You’ll be creating them, contributing to them, working from them, and managing them. If you want to improve your scheduling skills, become an AIPM member and gain access to our community, where project management professionals share tools, resources, and advice, and encourage each other to become better project managers.