How to Create a Project Timeline in Excel

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The discovery of your next passion project is revitalizing and exhilarating. Swift momentum. Centered focus. Endless possibilities. Your adrenaline is running on pure creativity. While there is a mountain of work to climb, the journey is one you’re excited to begin. Eventually, though, the dust of excitement will calm down. At some point, you know there will need to be a plan. A roadmap that details how you are going to build your new venture. In this article we will show you how to create a project timeline in Excel with a step-by-step guide. For a deeper look into project planning, check out the wheelhouse workbooks for step-by-step exercises to help you on your journey.

In the world for exploring new ideas there is a spectrum of “how” and “wow” approaches. We all fall somewhere on this spectrum and likely shift over time. What is the “wow” mindset? The wow tends to get lost in the imagination. We fixate on the possibilities of what could be. We ideate without the guardrails of reality. The how mindset, on the other hand, is more tactical and pragmatic. We focus on the pros and cons of each decision based on the data available. Your personal struggle with building a project plan depends on where you fall on the spectrum. If you lead with a “wow” mindset, then you may view a project timeline as too restrictive. If you tend to be more of a “how” thinker, then the timeline may feel overwhelming. The challenge lies in building a timeline that balances both perspectives.

Why is timeline maintenance important?

Building a project timeline is your classic ‘not fun, but necessary’ situation. It is a painstaking process. We can almost guarantee that at some point you will feel frustrated, but you have to persevere. The effort you put toward a timeline upfront will benefit your organization and accountability. Updating that plan along the way will keep you on track and ready to mitigate the unexpected.

Maintaining a project timeline is a lot like doing the laundry. In the beginning, you start off with a clean wardrobe. After some use, it turns into a massive pile of dirty clothes. It doesn’t smell good and it’s not pleasant to be around. However, with a little soap, water and time you got yourself a clean and tidy wardrobe to enjoy. While the job is done for now, eventually the laundry cycle starts over. When you build a project timeline it is as nice as a fresh wardrobe. Over time, the tasks become stale and priorities shift. The plan feels discombobulated. The only way to fix it is to wash away the dirt and grime so the plan feels refreshed.

Which option is right for you?

There are dozens of project timeline tools out there. Some of them are free, but many of them come with a service or license to use it. Before you add the expense of a timeline tool to your budget, make sure you have a solid understanding of what you need your plan to do. For starters, how complex is your plan? If you work with several vendors that have tight deadlines, then a more robust planning tool is something to consider. For many, a strong project timeline can be built with a whiteboard or a pen and a piece of paper. In this article, we’re going to be diving into building a simple project timeline in Microsoft Excel.

To begin, let’s consider the various elements of your project. One way to do this is by playing the game 20-questions. To do this, write out 20-questions with each one focusing on a different element of your goals. For example, questions such as “what activities do I know about today?” or “what costs am I willing to incur?” will help you gain a broader landscape. Another benefit is that you will limit unwanted surprises down the road. Check out the article 20 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Building a Project timeline for more ideas!

Let’s start building.

At the highest level, a project timeline needs to tell you a handful of important details. The plan should give you a baseline knowledge of the following:

  1. The set of activities required to reach your goal
  2. The order in which they need to take place
  3. An understanding of the owner(s) for each activity
  4. An estimated length of time required for each activity
  5. Awareness of possible dependencies between activities

Five things. That’s it. If you’re able to knock out these five things, then you will be off to an amazing start to reaching your goals. Now let’s break down each step for how to create a project timeline in Excel.

Step 1. Open Excel

Blank excel worksheet

Step 2. Click File > Save As to name your project timeline file

You can double check to make sure your project timeline file name has been saved by looking at the top of your Excel file.

Blank excel worksheet with name at the top

Step 3. Create your columns

For this demonstration, we are building a plan with columns that help identify the task, owner and the length of time for each task in terms of weeks. l

One lifehack for how to create a project timeline in Excel that you can leverage to save time is a formula to automatically calculate the date. In column D you can type in the formula =C1+7, which means you make column D show what’s in column C plus 7 days. Then, drag the bottom right corner of cell D1 to the right for as many cells as your project requires fur the duration of your project. You can see we’ve made starting January 1 to April 1, which gives us an initial timeline of 14 weeks to work with.

Excel worksheet with task name, task owner and weekly dates filled in the top row

Notice that we also formatted the columns to allow for more space to fill-in the task information and less space for the dates.  You can do this by clicking on the dividers between the column letters (or row numbers) and dragging right or left (or up and down).  You will know that you’re in the right area because your cursor changes from an arrow to a line with two arrows.

Step 4. Start listing the activities you know about so far

Don’t worry if the list is not complete.  You will continue to revisit and iterate on your project timeline as the approach continues to take shape.  To start, you just want to get a baseline to expand on as you make progress. 

The sample below shows what the first draft of a project timeline in Excel may look like for selling a product at a local farmers market.

Excel worksheet with project tasks listed out

Step 5. Begin assigning task-specific timelines

Similar to Step 4, this is not going to be perfect.  The process for how to create a project timeline in Excel is not an exact science, but neither is project planning. All we are doing here is getting an initial idea of what kind of timeline you are working with.  We recommend starting off with one color and then eventually color coding your activities down the road.  We will get to that second part a little later.

Excel worksheet with project tasks listed and a timeline shaded in for each task

Step 6. Refine your plan and bucket common activities

The tasks you initially lay out are likely to be at much too high of a level to act on.  Start considering what smaller steps need to occur between each step as well as which step you may be able to delegate.  This step usually takes the most significant amount of time to complete because, in a way, you’re making things messier and more complicated with the goal of having a more well-rounded vision at the end. You will likely need to insert new rows or delete others as part of the process, but either way that is simple to learn.  All you need to do is right-click on the row you want to remove and select Delete or click Insert to bring in a brand-new row.

In the second iteration of the project timeline, you can see that quite a bit has changed.  For one, we’ve expanded the tasks to be bucketed into larger chunks of work such as product research, market research, and so on.  We’ve also identified gaps in skill or knowledge for Person 1.  As a result, Person 1 has expanded the team and delegated specific tasks to Person 2 and Person 3.

Let’s take a closer look.

In this example, the marketing research and deployment has been handed off to someone with more experience in Person 2. The actual product development has been given to Person 3 who, presumably, has the equipment and skillset need to grow the product.  We’ve also color-coded each task to clearly show who owns an activity as well as when it should be taking place.  It’s important to identify opportunities in which activities can be done in parallel.  For example, while Person 3 is growing the product, Person 1 and 2 can work on branding and marketing tasks.

The final takeaway to be aware of is the impact to the project timeline.  Often the initial timeline we come up with is a complete shot in the dark.  However, as we learn more about the intricacies of the requirements the project has, the timeline will shift.  In the example, the timeline has shifted by about five weeks based on improved knowledge of how to grow the product as well as the licensing requirements of the farmers market.

Excel worksheet with project tasks, assigned owners and colored timelines shaded in for each task

The main point.

In summary, a project timeline is an absolutely essential ingredient needed for making your goals a reality.  Unfortunately, it is not a one-time undertaking.  A project timeline needs to be revisited and refined continuously throughout your journey.  There will likely be an infinite amount of plot twists and turns along the way.  Fortunately, learning how to create a project Timeline in Excel can mitigate against many of those risks. Lastly, this is just one of many, many ways to go about building a project timeline.  The most important thing is that you’re using an approach that works for you.

If you want to read more of our Entrepreneur Tips, please check them out here!

– Trevor Lightfoot

Wheelhouse Factory Team - Trevor Lightfoot - Executive Officer - headshot photo

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