We, humans, are visual animals.
In other words, the human brain will find it a lot easier to digest information that’s clearly communicated and displayed. For this reason, the visual component is essential when planning complex projects with many moving pieces.
Well, you’re in the right place to learn precisely how to do just that.
In this blog post, you’ll get a step-by-step process to create a timeline in Excel in three different ways to visually communicate your project’s schedule and create a powerful visual timeline to plan without getting a headache.
- Create a timeline in Excel using SmartArt Graphics
- Create a timeline in Excel using Scatter Charts
- Create a timeline in Excel using Timeline Templates
- The pros & cons of Excel timelines
- The alternative
How to create a timeline in Excel using SmartArt? (and for what purpose)
For starters, what are SmartArt graphics?
SmartArt Graphics Timeline In Excel: for what purpose?
Microsoft Excel’s Smart Art feature makes it reasonably straightforward to create a project timeline.
Now, while SmartArt timelines can be a valuable tool to communicate a project’s roadmap to stakeholders, they are also limited; you can only create simplistic timelines to visualize the milestones of a project.
In short: SmartArt timelines are okay for simple reporting purposes, not to work with.
Create your SmartArt timeline
- Open a blank Excel document. Click Insert > SmartArt > Process.
- Then select Basic Timeline from the Graphic options. You may also choose other graphics templates that suit your needs.
- Enter Timeline data either in the provided text box or directly on the timeline.
- Excel also allows you to change the style of a timeline. To do so, simply right-click to change the theme style, fill color, and outline styles.
And you’re all set. Your simplistic Excel SmartArt timeline should be ready!
If you’re after something more usable than SmartArt, you may be interested in building a scatter chart.
How to Create an Excel Timeline Using a Scatter Chart? (and for what purpose)
Scatter chart timelines in Excel: for what purpose?
Scatter charts provide a simple way to visualize various data entries over a specific period.
For instance, you could use a scatter chart to visualize the due date for all milestones of a project along with the necessary resources to complete them.
This is something that a basic SmartArt timeline couldn’t deliver.
Here again, you can choose from and edit the many charts available in Microsoft Excel to represent a simple project timeline that will suit your needs.
In short: Scatter chart timelines are a viable option to plan elementary projects that don’t require much resourcing.
Create your scatter chart timeline in Excel
This guide is a bit longer, but stick to our steps, and you’ll be fine! — alternatively, feel free to leave a comment below if you’re stuck!
- First, open a blank Excel document.
- Then, prepare your chart data.
For this chart, we’ll create milestones for a website design project and attribute a due date and an estimated effort for each.
- Next, insert a scatter chart from Insert > Charts. Then select the Scatter option.
Now, we need to map our prepared data to the chart.
- Right-click on the scatter chart. Then click the Select Data option.
- In the dialog that pops up, click on the Add button in the Legend Entries section.
- Set the Due Dates range as Series X values, and the Efforts range as the Series Y values.
- Next, make our chart look like a timeline, disable the Primary Vertical Axis, Chart Title, and Gridlines chart elements.
- To display the timeline markers, check the Error Bars option in Chart Elements.
- Then to format the error bars, click on Chart Elements > Error bars > More Options.
- For horizontal error bars, set the End Style to No Cap and the Error Amount > Percentage to 0%.
- For vertical error bars, set the Direction to Minus and the Error Amount > Percentage to 100%.
- To display the milestone labels, enable Data Labels from Chart Elements > Data Labels. Then click on Data Labels > More Options.
- Enable the Value From Cells option and select the range of milestones names from our prepared data. Uncheck the Y Value option.
Hats off to you! You made it! Your Excel timeline using a scatter chart is ready.
Now, if you don’t want to bother creating your own Excel timeline charts from scratch (I can’t blame you there), an alternative is to make your timelines using Excel templates.
How to Create a timeline in Excel using Timeline Templates?
Excel timeline templates are readily available in Microsoft Office’s Template Library.
Note that some of these templates will only be available once you purchase a Microsoft Office 365 subscription. However, the vast majority is available free of charge.
In short: use ready Excel templates to create simple project plans to avoid building them yourself.
Let’s look at how to create a timeline in Excel using a template.
Create your timelines with Excel Templates
- Download the free “Project timeline with milestones” template from the Office template library.
- Open the downloaded template in Excel and update your milestone data in the Project Milestones section. Set the milestone due date, milestone description, the person responsible, and the milestone label position.
As you update your project milestone data, the milestone chart above automatically gets updated.
This is most likely the fastest way to build a decent timeline on Excel, especially if you don’t want to bother creating one from scratch on your own.
Now, you’ve probably noticed that while Excel makes it possible to create project timelines, it’s not cut for it.
Pros & Cons Of Excel Timelines
As mentioned earlier, a timeline is a powerful visual tool for project managers.
What makes Excel an interesting project timeline maker…
The most significant advantage of using Microsoft Excel to create a timeline is that it’s easily available:
- Anyone with a computer, a smartphone, or a tablet can use Excel. It’s relatively affordable and doesn’t require a beast of a computer to run properly.
- You probably already have access to it. If you already have access to the MS Office Suite, you won’t need to spend anything extra.
- Your team is most likely Excel literate (up to a certain degree). If your team members are already comfortable using Excel, you won’t need to spend time training and onboarding them on the tool.
- You can find a ton of free Excel templates online. Using these templates, it’s reasonably easy to create a timeline in Excel.
… and why you might need something that’s built for project planning and work management
Don’t get me wrong; I love Excel (there’s a reason why I’ve decided to write this step-by-step blog post). And if you are seriously considering using Excel as your project timeline maker, know that I’ve been in your position, and I’d rather tell you why it might drive you crazy.
- Excel lacks collaborative features. You cannot work with another team member on a project’s schedule unless you both sit right next to each other. As a result, it is tough for distributed teams to plan together.
- You can’t ensure data integrity. It’s (way too) easy for anyone to wrongly update or delete data from an Excel document, making it hard to keep track of who did what, where, and when.
- Version soup: “Oh shoot, I thought we were working from the Team Planning V12_new.xls?” Team members will eventually work on different versions of Excel spreadsheets. From experience, I know that combining data from these versions can quickly become chaotic.
To sum up, Excel is OK for small and simple projects. You will need something else for anything bigger because Excel timeline templates are too basic and aren’t really teamwork-friendly.
So, what then? What’s the alternative?
To create project timelines for larger projects, you may want to consider using a project planning tool like Toggl Plan.
Meet Toggl Plan. The best way to create visual project timelines.
Toggl Plan is an easy-to-use SaaS with a drag-and-drop interface that helps those in charge of delivering projects to be on top of their work and capacity planning by providing a clear overview of who’s doing what and when, well ahead of time.
Consequently, teams can work at capacity and deliver projects on time, without stressing about it.
Create beautiful timelines for complex projects
Excel’s timelines can be helpful – But they are too simplistic and can be darn hard to read. We built Toggl Plan’s timeline to become the only tool you need to plan and visualize your projects.
Don’t overwork yourself, or your team.
One of the advantages of planning well ahead of time is to anticipate how much work you and your team can take.
In Toggl Plan, you’ll be able to see how busy everyone is in the blink of an eye, thus making it more convenient to move tasks around and make sure that no one in your team works silly hours.
Collaborate with your teammates
While you can benefit from it as a single user, we actually built Toggl Plan for teams. When working together, you can leave comments, create and assign tasks, move tasks around, adjust how long it took to complete a project, etc.
In other words, Toggl Plan enables teamwork.
Drag and drop your projects
While Excel is most likely the most comprehensive software out there, it’s not user-friendly. One of the things that I dislike the most about it is the impossibility to drag-and-drop items.
In Toggl Plan, you can simply drag and drop your tasks.
Painless. Fast. Easy.
Long story short, Toggl Plan makes project planning and work management bliss. Now, hold your horse because the best is yet to come. If you’re an individual user, Toggl Plan is free forever. And if you work with a team, you can sign up for a 14-day free trial.
With over a decade of experience in content marketing and SEO, Jitesh shares actionable tips for digital service teams to deliver projects profitably on the Toggl blog.