One of the most common mistakes an inexperienced manager of projects makes is being overly optimistic about when a project can be delivered.

What may seem a reasonable timeframe may turn out to be wildly ambitious. You will only know what is a realistic when you estimate how long your tasks will take with the personnel at your disposal.

But it’s also important to avoid padding out the project timeline with unnecessary time. If the organisation thinks the project will take too long, your project could be axed.

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If you’ve done a good job of breaking down your project deliverables into smaller chunks when creating your project scope (the list of deliverables), then this stage should be much easier.

List, estimate and assign your tasks

Only once you have approval from your stakeholders on the scope, then you can start to list the tasks needed for each deliverable.

For each task, you should estimate how long each would take. Then you should assign that task to someone – whether that’s you or one of your team.

If you are struggling to estimate the time, then it’s likely that you’ll need to break down the task into smaller component parts that you can estimate. Also, it’s wise to break the task down if it takes longer than a reporting period. If you need to report on progress every week and a task takes longer than a week, you should break it down.

Visualise your timeline with a Gantt chart

Gantt charts are an ideal visual way to see your project schedule clearly.

Creating your Gantt chart starts with arranging the tasks into a logical order and including the durations for each. You can then link the tasks – does one need to be completed before the other starts?

You may find that some tasks don’t depend on others and can be done anytime and that sets of tasks can run in parallel with other sets. This can shorten the project’s overall timeline.

You then need to look at whether the people who have been assigned tasks are either under or over allocated. For example, you may need to move the schedule, or reallocate work if you have two tasks for the one person at the same time.

Because you know the durations for each task, and they are in the right sequence and position, this now gives you your plan and estimated delivery date.

Make your timeline work for you (not the other way around)

Crucially, creating a timeline is about helping you to deliver a project for a realistic deadline, rather than to create unnecessary bureaucracy. Using the right tool that works for you is also an important factor.

As Dr. Andrew Makar of Tactical Project Management said: “If the project management tool you use isn’t flexible with scheduling, the project manager can spend hours, if not days, trying to tweak the schedule to fit the project management tool constraints. For one project, I spent more time allocating project team resources to high-level tasks in a meaningless project schedule just so everyone could record time. I maintained a separate schedule for all the real projects tasks, but needed to do duplicate administration in a separate system. Project management just doesn’t have to be this hard.”

A simpler and easier approach to project management

The above information is just one step in a six-step process that makes managing projects from start to finish simpler and easier.

The Six Step Guide to Practical Project Management strips back professional project management processes to the absolute basics without sacrificing the vital ingredients for a successful project – to hit your deadlines, stay in cost and deliver big benefits to your organisation (and career).