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Microsoft Project – How to Use the Timeline Tool a step by step guide

Microsoft Project plans often include 100s of tasks across months or years; it makes viewing the whole plan at a glance almost impossible. Thankfully, recent versions of Microsoft Project include a handy snapshot of the entire project timeline.

Why use the Timeline Tool?

Microsoft Project is a fantastic project scheduling tool and is deservedly the industry standard. As a user of Microsoft Project, you appreciate its intelligence and flexibility as much as I do. The problem is that only some feel the same.

I have encountered many senior managers, even program managers, who visibly pale when they see a Microsoft Project Gantt Chart. The most frequent request I hear from salespeople and managers is:
"The plan is too many pages; isn't there a way to see a one-pager?"
"Can I get a snapshot to fit onto a PowerPoint slide?"
"Can you summarise or roll up the plan? And can't I see a timeline?"

Microsoft Project to the rescue!

Luckily, Microsoft Project includes a handy snapshot of the entire project timeline.

How to show the Timeline view

Open up your project plan. Click the View Tab and look for Split View. Tick the Timeline check box. tick the show timeline check box to view the timeline in Microsoft Project
The timeline will appear above the Gantt Chart view.
Timeline shown in ms project

Using the Timeline Format menu

When you click on the timeline the Timeline Format menu will appear. With the Timeline Format you can:
  • Change Text styles
  • Set font size, type, bold, underline color etc.
  • Show and hide a more detailed view, dates and overlapped tasks
  • Insert Existing Tasks and Create Timeline only Tasks and Milestones
  • Change a task to display as a Bar or as a Callout
  • Copy the timeline - for a presentation or to email, or you can copy and paste as an image
The Timeline Format Menu in Microsoft Project

Pan and Zoom

Under the Show/Hide group of tools is a Pan & Zoom tick box. This is ticked by default and partly 'greys' out part of the timeline. You can reduce or expand the greyed out area by dragging with your mouse.
timeline in Microsoft Project with pan and zoom ticked
To remove the greyed out area untick Pan & Zoom.

How to add Existing Tasks to the Timeline

Microsoft Project allows you to add key tasks to the timeline, this makes the timeline a really versatile presentation tool which can be tweaked for different purposes.

There are a few ways that you can add tasks to the timeline.

1. Right click the task you want to add

Select the task that you want to add to the Timeline, then right click your mouse and click Add to Timeline –this will usually be near the bottom of the right click menu.
How to add a task to the timeline using the right click menu

2. Click add to Timeline via the Task menu

Select the task that you want to add to the Timeline. Then in the task menu find the Properties group and click Add to Timeline.
How to add a task to the timeline using the task menu

3. Click Existing Tasks in Timeline Format menu

Select the timeline then find the Insert group of tools and click Existing Tasks. A dialog box will open which you can use to tick all of the tasks you want to include. This is great for adding multiple tasks at once. add multiple tasks to the Microsoft project timeline using the Timeline Format menu

Adding milestones to the timeline

When you add a milestone to the timeline it will appear as a milestone in the typical "diamond" shape. In Microsoft Project milestones are tasks with a duration of zero days.

In the image below you can see the milestone task Authorisation to proceed into initiation shown on the timeline. Milestone task shown on the timeline

How to add Timeline only Tasks

You can add tasks and milestones to the timeline that are not tasks on the project plan. This can be useful for showing external tasks or key dates, for example a key decision point, announcement or public holiday. It can also be useful for tasks that have long names which are cut off or lead to a 'messy' timeline. Example of a truncated task name on the project timeline:
truncated task name on the Microsoft Project timeline view
To add a task select the timeline and click on the Timeline Format menu. Look for the Insert group of tools.
Task types that can be inserted into the timeline view in Microsoft Project: existing tasks, new tasks, callout tasks and milestones.
Tasks that you add to the timeline are shown at the bottom of your Gantt Chart. These can be separated from the rest of the plan by adding a few blank tasks.

Choosing the format of tasks on the Timeline

microsoft project timeline showing milestones, callout tasks and tasks
  • Tasks appear as bars in the timeline
  • Callout tasks appear above the timeline
  • Milestones appear as diamond shapes on the edge of the timeline

TIP you can do drag some tasks to move them around the timeline.

An example of a finished timeline in Microsoft Project

an example of a completed Timeline View in Microsoft project. Tasks appear as bars, callout tasks appear above and milestones appear as diamond shapes.

How to share the Timeline

Project offers a several ways to share the timeline. To share, select the timeline and right click Or select the Timeline Format menu and look for Copy Timeline on the right hand side of your screen.
To share a Microsoft Project Timeline View click copy
You can copy the timeline for email or for a presentation e.g. PowerPoint, when you do this you might need to stretch the image to see all of the tasks. Alternatively, you can select copy 'Full Size' for an image of the whole timeline.

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