How to make a project schedule you’ll stick to in 9 steps (with free template)
🎁 Bonus Material: Excel Schedule Planning Template
The most productive people all follow a simple rule – if it’s not on their calendar, it won’t happen. The same goes for your team. But instead of a calendar, your ‘must-have’ tool is a project schedule.
A project schedule is more than a calendar or timeline. It’s a manual of what needs to be done, by whom, when, and which resources you require. Your schedule is a guide, but it’s also a tool to push back against scope creep or fight for more help.
Because try as you might, time is the one resource that’s impossible to get more of.
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But like everything in project management, a project schedule needs to find the sweet spot between simple and complicated to be helpful.
In this guide, we’ll teach you how to write a project schedule, keep it updated throughout the project lifecycle, and use it to get buy-in on scope and resources.
What is the purpose of a project schedule?
Simply put, a project schedule answers three key questions:
- What needs to be done?
- Who’s going to do it?
- When does it need to be done?
Each element is a vital part of keeping your project on track and your team focused. But rather than a static document, a project schedule is a dynamic guide that should adapt to the realities of your project.
Your scope might increase. A teammate might need to take unexpected time off. Or your company’s goals could change and force you to move your deadline.
When used correctly, your project schedule will guide you through all of these potential issues.
To start, let’s take a look at each element and how they’ll appear in the schedule.
1. What needs to be done?
An effective project schedule connects tasks and time. But to correctly estimate start and end times, you first need to know what needs to be done at a high level, what resources you’ll require, and a basic outline of their order.
Start with the more significant milestones. Then, break those down into smaller steps, so your team doesn’t feel overwhelmed.
Next, look for any dependencies between tasks to start making an order. For example, maybe you need to finish cleaning out old code or squash some lingering bugs before building out new features.
2. Who’s going to do it?
A proper project schedule is aware of context and resources–especially when it comes to your team.
As you break milestones down into tasks, you’ll want to assign them to specific team members. At a minimum, you should know what type of person you’re basing your estimate on.
For example, should that feature take a day for a senior developer? What about if everyone’s busy and you need to assign it to a more junior person?
The schedule will also help you see if you’re overloading your team or putting people at risk of burnout. By doing the work upfront, you’ll be able to lobby for more resources before hitting a roadblock.
3. When does it need to be done?
It probably seems like a project schedule should be about timing. However, that’s the last piece of the puzzle.
Now that you clearly understand milestones, tasks, estimates, and human resources, you can start to piece them together into a timeline.
What needs to be done first to free up resources or unblock future tasks? How can you optimize your entire team so people aren’t waiting for other tasks to finish?
The ‘scheduling’ part of a project schedule should be a collaborative process. Ask each person to help estimate their workload, uncover dependencies, and set deadlines for due dates. They’ll be much happier to follow a schedule they helped create (and more understanding when things go wrong!)
How is a project schedule different from a project plan or SOW?
It might sound like a project schedule is similar to other planning documents like a project plan or an SOW (scope of work). However, some critical differences make a project schedule a vital tool to keep in your toolbox:
A project plan covers the ‘how’
A project plan covers how you’ll manage the project. The plan includes a series of documents that guide the execution and control stages of the project, such as:
- Risk management
- Project scope
- Quality control
- Stakeholder management
- Communication plan
- Resource management
An SOW (Scope of Work) details the ‘what’
A scope of work focuses on what will be done, including the objectives and expected outcomes, payments and resources, and terms and conditions.
An SOW is essentially a document that outlines a working agreement between two parties. In general, that’s a client, agency, contractor, or vendor. But it can also be used internally for teams who want to define what they’re building clearly. (A more straightforward option is to use a product requirements document or PRD).
At its core, an SOW ensures that project expectations are clear and agreed upon before kickoff. That way, everyone who’s delivering the project or receiving it knows what to expect.
A project schedule brings it all together
A project schedule converts your plans, scope, and other requirements into an actionable timeline your team can follow.
The project schedule defines when each piece should be completed and how it’ll get done. While the other documents can seem a bit theoretical, a schedule focuses on providing everyone with an actionable plan to follow.
Time is the one resource that’s impossible to get more of.
What are the benefits of using a project schedule?
At a high level, project schedules streamline projects from start to finish and ensure your team stays on track. However, there are several additional benefits for taking the time to create a schedule early on in the project management process:
- Clarity: Large long-term projects can be complex to tackle. But a schedule forces you to put all the moving pieces in order. And while this order might change, it’s a great way to get over the fear of starting.
- Better resource management: With your schedule, you know why you need the resources you do and can lobby for more early on in the process. And if a stakeholder comes to you later on asking you to do more or ‘add this cool feature a competitor has,’ you can show them the exact impact of their request.
- Identify dependency issues errors earlier: Outlining all your tasks from day one means you can quickly see task sequences and potential sticking points before they become an issue.
- Just plain old peace of mind: Project management is a juggling act of processes, tasks, deadlines, stakeholder egos and company goals. It can be hard to feel like you have a grasp on one of these, let alone all of them. But seeing every detail of your project in a clear timeline gives you a sense of control. When your project feels unmanageable, you can come back to your schedule to get grounded.
Who prepares the project schedule (and when)?
In most cases, it’s up to the project manager to create a realistic schedule. However, they’re not the only ones involved in the process. You’ll need to collaborate with product managers, team leads, stakeholders, and the development team to make sure everyone agrees on the timeline.
Why the project manager? Because as you’ll see in our guide below, project scheduling combines several key project management skills, such as:
- Time management
- Risk mitigation
- Task management
While you’ll create a schedule before your project kickoff, it should be continuously updated to reflect changes in timelines, goals, and resources.
How to write a project schedule in 9 steps
Creating a project schedule is a lot more involved than writing out a to-do list or weekly plan. Here’s our guide to turning big audacious company goals into a clear and concise project schedule:
1. Define your project goals
Start with the big picture: What needs to get done?
You’ve most likely already defined your project’s overarching objectives and business goals in another document. Consult those goals (as well as any risks you’ve identified) to get a feel for the project’s outline.
This can feel redundant, but it helps set the stage and add context for when you start to define your project schedule.
2. Identify any and all project stakeholders
Stakeholders are every individual who needs to be involved in or updated on the project’s progress–anyone from your CEO to other teams who are dependent on your finishing your project on time.
Stakeholders can have an excessive amount of influence on your project schedule. And it’s essential to identify and engage with them early on. Then, build out a communication plan for keeping them updated throughout the project.
3. Determine your launch date (aka your deadline) or sprint cycle
No project lives in isolation. There are most likely other teams looking to build off what you’re doing. And one of the best ways to define your project’s timeline is to start at the end.
Set a deadline for when you need to meet your definition of done and launch the project. If you’re using Agile, you’ll want to determine a sprint cadence that will let you hit your quarterly OKRs. (We write more about long-term Agile planning here!)
This deadline is just a starting point. As you break down your work and estimate time for each task, you might need to push it out (or bring it back). However, be generous to yourself and your team.
4. Move onto task management and list out milestones and steps
Next, take larger tasks and milestones and break them down into achievable subtasks.
This is the basics of task management. And while it can seem simple, it’s one of the easiest places to mess up your project schedule. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to imagine every task upfront.
Instead, you’ll want to use a few techniques to tease out all of the tasks that need to make it on your project schedule:
- Start at the end and list out milestones. Imagine you’ve completed your project. What had to happen to get here? Start high-level and visualize the major milestones with a mind map or on a whiteboard.
- Engage your team to see what you’ve missed. Your team will be the ones working through these tasks, so they probably have a good idea of what’s involved. Once you have a high-level breakdown, bring them in to consult and fill in any blanks.
- Break multi-step tasks down to simpler ones. Identify any ‘mini-projects’ and break them down into their individual components. A good rule of thumb is, if a task seems too big, it is.
Proper task management is a critical part of project management. If you want extra help, check out our in-depth guide to writing and assigning tasks.
We’d also highly recommend using a task and project management tool like Planio to keep everything organized in a central location. Check out Planio’s features and start a free 30-day trial today!
5. Look for task dependencies
After that last step, you should have a massive list of tasks and a rough outline of milestones that need to be put in order.
Start with dependencies (i.e., which tasks depend on others).
In Planio larger tasks can be broken down into sub-tasks and all linked together. If the tasks should be completed in a certain order, you can give each task a start and end date when you are ready and even create dependencies that can block one task from starting until the other has been closed.
This will help everyone identify the order in which the tasks should be tackled and how they relate to each other.
Dependencies will become even clearer once you convert your project schedule to a visual platform (like a Gantt chart).
Lastly, assigning all these tasks to the right people can also help you highlight team members who are overloaded with work. If someone has too many tasks, they can potentially become a bottleneck or a risk (if they need to take time off or something else comes up).
6. Estimate task time and effort
Finally, it’s time to start connecting your tasks to an actual timeline.
Estimate the time each task should take to complete and add it to your project management tool. Now, this is easier said than done. Estimation is a skill that takes time to get good at, especially if you’re working on an unfamiliar project.
Estimation is a skill that takes time to get good at, especially if you’re working on an unfamiliar project.
Again, work with your team and use their expertise to their advantage. If you’re still unsure about how long to estimate for tasks, try these two techniques:
- Timebox creative tasks. Some tasks will take as long as you give them (otherwise known as Parkinson’s Law). For tasks that you assume could get overwhelming, try adding a limitation using Planio’s estimated time. You might be off, but it will at least help keep your team in check.
- Use an ‘unfamiliarity multiplier.’ Underestimating time only adds stress to a project. Instead, use a multiplier to build in a buffer. An easy rule of thumb is to add 50–100% of your estimated time to tasks you haven’t done before.
- Add in some ‘float.’ Tasks regularly take longer than you expect. However, you should understand when they’ll start to cause a domino effect on the rest of your schedule so you can intervene before that point. (Some people call this ‘float’).
Lastly, as you estimate projects, record your logic. For example, if you estimate 10 hours for a task, assign it to who you think will be able to do it in that time (senior vs. junior developer). That way, if you have to change around task assignments, you can adjust the schedule accordingly.
7. Sequence and assign team members to each task
You’ll now be in good shape to bring it all together, put tasks in a meaningful sequence, and assign them to specific team members.
The only thing to be aware of at this stage is to continue checking in on your dependencies and each team member’s workload. In Planio you can use the task list to blend in the estimated hours assigned to each team member and make sure they aren't overloaded.
8. Visualize your project schedule with a Gantt chart, Kanban board, or Calendar
Words are fine for showing the specifics of a project. But sometimes, you need to see something visually mapped out to get a clear view of the project.
For traditional teams, Gantt charts and calendar project views can help you understand the overall project timeline. Gantt Charts visually ‘stack’ each task or milestone in one view so you can see your entire project from start to finish.
Here’s an example of a Gantt Chart in Planio:
This is a great way to quickly see your overall project timeline, check in on milestone progress, and identify dependencies or potential roadblocks.
If you haven’t chosen the project management tool that works for you yet, you can use our template for creating your project schedule as a Gantt chart in Excel before you make your decision. It doesn’t have everything a project management tool has to offer but it’s great to plan with and will make it easier to transfer all your tasks later on.
For Agile teams, a better option is to use an Agile board (aka Kanban board). Here’s an example (also in Planio):
Agile boards also give you a top-down view of the status of each task. However, the focus is on each sprint rather than the entire project timeline.
9. Come up with a plan for updating and adapting your schedule
No project schedule is perfect from the start.
So why spend all this time creating a schedule just to throw it all to the wind when you start working?
A project schedule is a powerful decision-making tool. When you hit a milestone, have to reassess your SOW, or come against some unexpected change, your schedule gives you the context and information you need to make the right move forward.
And even if everything does go as planned, it’s still a good idea to periodically check in on your schedule each week to check progress and make any updates.
Create a task to ‘update schedule’. You can even include a templated checklist of steps to take each time to minimize the effort for each time you want to do this.
How do Agile teams create a project schedule?
A project schedule is most often used by teams practicing traditional project management (aka waterfall). But Agile teams also need to stay on track.
An Agile project schedule is more akin to sprint planning–you review your product roadmap, groom the backlog, and plan sprints as a team.
Many of the steps above can translate easily to this process. You still need to estimate tasks, connect your daily work to larger milestones and OKRs, and identify dependencies. However, instead of looking at these factors and planning for an entire project, you’ll be doing it on a sprint-by-sprint (or quarterly) basis.
If you’re interested in more ways to bring some long-term planning to Agile, check out our guide on how to make an Agile product roadmap!
Putting it all together: A free project schedule template for you to use
Project schedules are one of the best opportunities to create templates and repeatable processes. If you’re just starting and aren’t using project scheduling software (read on for our top choices!), we put together this free project schedule template for you. All you need is Excel or Google Sheets!
What is the best project scheduling software to use?
There are many tools you can use to help organize your schedule.
The best project scheduling software is intuitive to use, easy to update, and integrates with your workflows. Think of it as a central source of truth for your project’s timeline and progress.
No matter whether you’re a stakeholder looking for an update or a team member planning your next week of work, you have everything you need in one place. So which project scheduling software is right for your team?
Here are our top choices:
1. Planio: Best for teams of all sizes (Agile and traditional)
We built Planio to be flexible and powerful enough to work with all teams no matter what software development process you’re using.
At the core of Planio are our customizable task management features. Every task can include in-depth scheduling information like priority, start and due dates, estimated time, progress, parent tasks, associated milestones or sprints, and assignees.
(You can also link to project files, code repositories, and other tasks right from each issue, so your schedule becomes the central resource for your entire team.)
You can also add custom fields and templated checklists to your trackers and tailor Planio to your working style. There’s also built-in time tracking to see how well you estimated each task.
When it comes to visualizing your schedule, Planio offers you several different views:
Agile teams can use the Kanban-style board to track sprints and the Calendar view to see upcoming tasks.
Traditional teams can view their roadmap as a Gantt chart or check issues and updates chronologically to get up-to-speed quickly.
Lastly, a project schedule is all about transparency. With Planio’s roles and permissions settings, you can ensure everyone has access to your schedule, but only the right people can change critical information.
2. Monday.com: Best for non-technical teams
For teams with fewer technical needs, monday.com is a project scheduling tool that’s simple and user-friendly. Using its timeline feature, you can plan out projects, assign tasks, and set deadlines.
For visualizing your project schedule, monday.com lets you choose from calendars, Kanban boards, timelines, and simple charts.
3. 10,000ft: Best for resource planning and allocation
One of the hardest parts of building a project schedule is keeping track of your available resources. For teams with strict financial or time constraints, a scheduling software tool like 10,000ft by Smartsheet can be helpful.
The initial setup can be time-consuming. However, 10,000ft is one of the few tools that allows you to quickly see your team’s commitments, capacity, and where you need more help.
A project schedule starts you on the right track. It’s up to you to stay on it.
Building a comprehensive project schedule will help you kick your project off properly. But to stay on track, your team needs to know it inside out. Ensure your schedule is always up-to-date and accessible to everyone (preferably in one of the scheduling tools we mentioned).
And remember, this is a guide, not a rulebook. Reference your project schedule whenever you’re feeling overwhelmed or lost, and you’ll never be far from getting back on track.