Create a Project plan in 5 easy steps

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Applies to
Microsoft Office Project 2003

Have you ever created an early Project plan — maybe to get approval for the project — only to find it unworkable when you started tracking (tracking: Viewing and updating of the actual progress of tasks so that you can see progress across time, evaluate slippage of tasks, compare scheduled or baseline data to actual data, and check the completion percentage of tasks and your project.) progress? With the right start, you can ensure that the plan you create at the beginning of your project is an effective management tool throughout the project.

Use the five-step process outlined in this article to make sure you don't go down the wrong path. This process assumes that you have already defined the project start date (start date: The date when a task is scheduled to begin. This date is based on the duration, calendars, and constraints of predecessor and successor tasks. A task's start date is also based on its own calendars and constraints.), applied the appropriate base calendar (base calendar: A calendar that can be used as a project and task calendar that specifies default working and nonworking time for a set of resources. Differs from a resource calendar, which specifies working and nonworking time for an individual resource.), and set up the default task type (task type: A characterization of a task based on which aspect of the task is fixed and which aspects are variable. There are three task types: Fixed Units, Fixed Work, and Fixed Duration. The default task type in Project is Fixed Units.) and other settings in the Options dialog box (Tools menu). If you haven't done so, see the related links in the See Also section of this page. Then perform the following five steps:

  1. Create a task list and work breakdown structure (WBS)
  2. Indent or outdent tasks to finalize the WBS
  3. Enter task durations or work estimates
  4. Create dependencies between tasks
  5. Assign resources

You can do all of these tasks by using the default view (view: The combination of one or more views [Gantt Chart, Resource Sheet, and so on] and if applicable, a table and a filter. Use views to work with information in a variety of formats. There are three types of views: Charts or graphs, Sheets, and Forms.) in Project, the Gantt Chart. The Entry table (table: A set of columns that shows specific information about tasks, resources, and assignments in a sheet view.), which is the default table for the Gantt Chart, is also perfect for this process. The following steps will tell you when to insert additional columns.

Step 1: Create a task list and work breakdown structure (WBS)

Failing to understand the importance of the work breakdown structure (WBS) (WBS: A hierarchical structure that is used to organize tasks for reporting schedules and tracking costs. With Project, you can represent the work breakdown structure by using task IDs or by assigning your own WBS code to each task.) is one of the biggest mistakes that planners make. The WBS is the hierarchical list of the project's phases (phase: A group of related tasks that completes a major step in a project.), tasks (task: An activity that has a beginning and an end. Project plans are made up of tasks.), and milestones (milestone: A reference point marking a major event in a project and used to monitor the project's progress. Any task with zero duration is automatically displayed as a milestone; you can also mark any other task of any duration as a milestone.). It's the core of the project schedule. The WBS is critical because it drives the scope (scope: The combination of all project goals and tasks, and the work required to accomplish them.) of the project. The scope translates into the timeline and budget (budget: The estimated cost of a project that you establish in Project with your baseline plan.). Taking the time to map out the WBS will save you significant time later by helping you to avoid rework and false starts.

To build your WBS, start by listing the major pieces (summary tasks) of your project, and then map out the minor pieces (tasks) within each major piece. Continue to break down each piece until you have sufficient level of detail to support your plan. What's sufficient detail? Consider these factors:

ShowTo enter summary tasks

  1. On the View menu, click Gantt Chart.
  2. In the Task Name field, type a descriptive name for the first major phase of work or deliverable.
  3. Continue to type descriptive names for each major phase of work or deliverable until you have entered all of your project's summary tasks.

 Note   Strictly speaking you are not creating summary tasks yet, because a real summary task must contain subtasks below it. Think of these as your draft summary tasks that will be fully developed later.

ShowTo enter tasks

  1. Select the first row under a summary task or subtask.
  2. On the Insert menu, click New Task, and then type the task name in the inserted row.
  3. Select the next row.
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 until you have entered all of the work needed to complete the summary task.
  5. Repeat the preceding steps until you have detailed all the summary tasks and subtasks in the project.

Initial task list in Project

Callout 1 When you enter new task names, Project automatically assigns them an initial duration (duration: The total span of active working time that is required to complete a task. This is generally the amount of working time from the start to finish of a task, as defined by the project and resource calendar.) of one day and schedules them to start at the project start date.

Be sure to also add milestones — markers of important completion points — at the end of each major activity to help measure progress and for benchmarking. It is a good practice to give milestone tasks a name that conveys completion or reaching an important point in the project lifecycle.

 Note   Don't enter a task representing the project as a whole. Let Project do it for you. On the Tools menu, click Options, and then click the View tab. Under Outline options for, select the Show project summary task check box.

Step 2: Indent or outdent tasks to finalize the WBS

After you enter tasks in the Task Name field, it's time to create the hierarchy. You can stay in the Task Name field and use the Indent Button image and Outdent Button image buttons on the Formatting toolbar to establish the right outline (outline: A hierarchical structure for a project that shows how some tasks fit within broader groupings. In Project, subtasks are indented under summary tasks.) levels. The key? Project differentiates between major phases of work, called summary tasks (summary task: A task that is made up of subtasks and summarizes those subtasks. Use outlining to create summary tasks. Project automatically determines summary task information [such as duration and cost] by using information from the subtasks.), and the smaller phases of work, called subtasks (subtask: A task that is part of a summary task. The subtask information is consolidated into the summary task. You can designate subtasks by using the Project outlining feature.), based on indentation. Summary tasks have subtasks indented underneath them. Subtasks represent the actual work a resource will do, and they don't have additional subtasks indented under them.

 Note   Usually when people talk about tasks in Project they're referring to subtasks, and when they talk about phases or summary tasks they're referring to summary tasks.

By using up to nine outline levels, you gain the ability to summarize data. Summary tasks consolidate information about the tasks below them. For instance, Project calculates the duration for summary tasks. A summary task's duration represents the total time it will take to complete the work for all of its subtasks. The project summary task (project summary task: A task that summarizes the duration, work, and costs of all tasks in a project. The project summary task appears at the top of the project, its ID number is 0, and it presents the project's timeline from start to finish.) summarizes the entire project.

ShowTo structure the task list

  1. Click the task that you want to indent.
  2. To indent a task, making it a subtask in the outline, select the task, and then click Indent Button image.
  3. To outdent a task, making it a summary task in the outline, select the task, and then click Outdent Button image.

Notice how the task above the indented task becomes a summary task (the text and Gantt bar change automatically).

Summary and subtasks in Project

Callout 1 Use the Indent and Outdent buttons to create the task hierarchy.

Callout 2 The Gantt bar for a summary task is formatted differently than that of subtasks.


  • You can highlight several tasks in a row and indent them all at once. Be sure to indent milestone tasks as well because they belong to the summary task.
  • To quickly display the corresponding outline level numbers, on the Tools menu, click Options, click the View tab, and then select the Show outline number check box.

Here's an example of a complete outline, with outline numbers displayed.

A complete work breakdown structure in Project

Callout 1 The outline numbers reflect the hierarchy or outline structure of the Project plan.


Step 3: Enter task durations or work estimates

You can specify the time that you estimate it will take to complete the tasks by entering either work or duration. Work is the amount of effort or person hours needed to complete a task. Duration is the amount of actual time that will pass before the task is completed. Thus, if a task takes 16 hours of work and one person does the work, its duration is two days (assuming an 8-hour work day). If two people do the work, its duration is one day. However, the amount of work is the same either way. If you are using a work-based estimating approach, resource assignments drive the duration for each task. This scheduling approach is called effort-driven scheduling (effort-driven scheduling: The default method of scheduling in Project; the duration of a task shortens or lengthens as resources are added or removed from a task, while the amount of effort necessary to complete a task remains unchanged.). You can use either method, but you should decide whether you want to use a work-based or a duration-based method of scheduling, and then stick with that method.

Entering work or duration is straightforward. Task work or duration can be entered directly in the Work or Duration field in any table or dialog box that displays those fields. It's important to understand that work and duration are measured in working days. For example, by default, 1 day = 8 hours, 5 days = 1 week, 20 days = 1 month. This means that if you type 30 days in the Duration field, it is calculated as 6 weeks rather than a month. So make the correct conversions when entering values.

 Note   You can enter different time units on a task-by-task basis by simply typing the time unit after the number. For example, type 8min for minutes, 8h for hours, 8d for days, 8w for weeks, and 8mo for months.

If most of your duration or work estimates will be weeks or months long, you can change the default time unit.

ShowTo change the default time unit for duration or work

  1. On the Tools menu, click Options, and then click the Schedule tab.
  2. In the Duration is entered in box, select the time unit you want.
  3. In the Work is entered in box, select the time unit you want.
  4. Click Set as Default to make the new settings the default in future projects.

When you enter work or duration in a plan, it is important to enter it at the subtask level because summary tasks are calculated fields. Project does not allow these values to be entered for a summary task.

ShowTo enter task durations

  1. On the View menu, click Gantt Chart.
  2. In the Duration field of the task you want to change, type the duration you want.
  3. Press ENTER.
  4. Repeat the preceding steps for each task.

Summary and subtask durations in Project

Callout 1 The durations of summary tasks span to include the earliest start and latest finish of their subtasks.

Callout 2 As task durations change, Project redraws the task’s Gantt bar to show the duration against a timeline.


  • You can change the duration of a task in many different views, tables, and dialog boxes in Project. If you change the duration in one place, it will change in every other location automatically.
  • To mark a task as a milestone, type 0 in the Duration column.

If you are following a work-based scheduling approach, enter work estimates in the Work column. Note that if you choose this approach, durations will not be calculated until you complete step 5, which is assigning resources.

ShowTo enter work

  1. Click the Start column heading in the table portion of the Gantt Chart.
  2. On the Insert menu, click Column.
  3. Under Field name, select Work, and then click OK.
  4. Type work estimates in the Work column for each task, just as you would type durations.

Work and duration values of tasks in Project

Callout 1 You can enter task duration or work values, or both.

Callout 2 Note that a summary task’s duration value shows the total amount of time it will take to complete the subtasks, while the summary task’s work values show the total number of hours that will be spent working on the subtasks.

Step 4: Create dependencies between tasks

One of the most critical steps in scheduling is to create task dependencies, or links (linking: In a project, establishing a dependency between tasks. Linking tasks defines a dependency between their start and finish dates. In OLE, establishing a connection between programs so that data in one document is updated when it changes in another.). This step makes the difference between a plan that can be used as an effective management tool and a plan that can only be used as a presentation tool.

A dependency occurs when the start or finish of one task depends upon the start or finish of another. Most tasks are dependent upon other tasks. After the dependencies are set, you can easily identify the critical path (critical path: The series of tasks that must be completed on schedule for a project to finish on schedule. Each task on the critical path is a critical task.) and understand the driving factors for the project end date. You can also easily make changes to one task and immediately see the ripple effect it will have on the rest of the plan. This is where Project shows its power as a tool for managing projects.

The challenge planners have is to ensure that all tasks are in the dependency chain. Here is a good rule of thumb: every task should have a predecessor (predecessor: A task that must start or finish before another task can start or finish.) unless it is driven by the start date of the project. Every task should have a successor (successor: A task that cannot start or finish until another task starts or finishes.) unless it is the last task or milestone in the project.

When linking tasks, you can specify different types of dependencies. The most common dependency is Finish-to-Start (FS), which means that the predecessor task must finish before the successor task can start.

There are many ways to set dependencies in Project:

ShowTo enter predecessor task IDs in the Task Form

  1. On the Window menu, click Split.
  2. Select the task that is dependent upon another.
  3. In the Task Form, under the Predecessor Name box, select the task that this task is dependent upon.
  4. Under Type, select FS (Finish-to-Start), SS (Start-to-Start), FF (Finish-to-Finish), or SF (Start-to-Finish).
  5. Click OK.
  6. To hide the Task Form, on the Window menu, click Remove Split.

ShowTo use the Link Tasks button

  1. On the View menu, click Gantt Chart.
  2. In the Task Name field, select two or more tasks you want to link in the order you want to link them.
    • To select nonadjacent tasks, hold down CTRL, and then click the tasks you want to link.
    • To select adjacent tasks, hold down SHIFT, and then click the first and last tasks you want to link.
  3. Click Link Tasks Button image.

ShowTo enter task IDs in the Predecessors column

  1. If you can't see the Predecessor column, drag the split bar that appears between the Gantt Chart and the table to the right.
  2. In the Predecessors field of the successor task, type the predecessor task's ID number and the appropriate dependency abbreviation: SS, FF, FS, or SF. If you don't specify a dependency type, Project applies a Finish-to-Start (FS) dependency.

As you set the dependencies, Project adjusts the schedule, even though you have not yet assigned your resources.

 Note   If two tasks need to overlap one another, or if they are dependent but there needs to be a gap between them, use the Lag field. For more information about lead and lage time, see the related links in the See Also section of this page.

Task links in Project

Callout 1 One way to create task links is to enter predecessor task IDs in the Task Form.

Callout 2 Another way is to select two tasks, and then click the Link Tasks button.

Callout 3 Yet another way to link tasks is to enter task IDs in the Predecessors field.

Next, you might want to display your critical path, which identifies the path on which no slippage can occur without effecting the end date of the project.

ShowTo display the critical path

  • On the View menu, click Tracking Gantt.

In this view, the Gantt bars of tasks on the critical path are formatted red.

If you want to further highlight the critical path, you can customize the view.

ShowTo format task names and Gantt bars of tasks on the critical path

  1. On the Format menu, click Gantt Chart Wizard.
  2. Click Next, select Critical path, and then click Finish.
  3. Click Format It, and then click Exit Wizard.
  4. On the Format menu, click Text Styles.
  5. Under Items to Change, click Critical Tasks.
  6. Under Color, click Red, and then click OK.

The critial path in Project

Callout 1 This view is formatted to show tasks on the critical path with red task names and Gantt bars.

Step 5: Assign resources

How and which resources (resources: The people, equipment, and material that are used to complete tasks in a project.) you want to assign depends upon your scheduling and tracking needs. There are three possible approaches:

  • Use Project to show responsibility for tasks. This approach takes the least effort to enter and maintain. However, it does not give you any real insight into the status of work during the course of the project.
  • Use Project to forecast resource requirements. This approach requires additional effort to enter and maintain assignments, and also requires assigning the correct work and unit values up front in the planning process. It provides more accurate information up front, but it does not provide information about the status of work during the project.
  • Use Project to forecast resource requirements and track what work resources actually do on tasks. This approach requires the most effort because updates must be entered on tasks, but it also allows you to see how work on tasks is progressing during the course of the project.

Make sure you understand what approach you need early on in the planning cycle to avoid significant rework of your plan. It is also important to determine what types of resources you need to assign. For example, you can assign named resources, such as Judy Lew, or generic resources (generic resources: Placeholder resources that are used to specify the skills required for a specific task.), such as Programmers. If you are early in the project-planning stage, you might want to use generic resources. Eventually, you will want to assign actual resources. You can also assign material resources (material resource: The supplies or other consumable items that are used to complete tasks in a project.) such as computers, software, or other types of material (unit) costs.

After you understand what types of resources you need, you can add them to your project schedule.

ShowTo add resources to your project by using the Resource Sheet

  1. On the View menu, click Resource Sheet.
  2. For each resource, enter data in each field.
  3. Double-click a resource name to modify additional data in the Resource Information dialog box, such as availability, cost rate, and working times.

After you add the resources to the project, you can begin to assign resources to tasks.

ShowTo assign resources by using the Resource Name field

  1. On the View menu, click Gantt Chart.
  2. If you can't see the Resource Name column, drag the split bar that appears between the Gantt Chart and the table to the right.
  3. In the Resource Names field, select the resource that you want to assign to the task.
  4. To assign multiple resources to the task, type a comma and repeat step 3.

ShowTo assign resources by using the Task Form

  1. On the Window menu, click Split.
  2. Select the task to which you want to assign resources.
  3. In the Task Form, under Resource Name, click the resource that you want to assign.
  4. To add another resource to the task, repeat step 3 in the next row of the Resource Name column.

ShowTo use resources by using the Assign Resources dialog box

  1. On the View menu, click Gantt Chart.
  2. On the Tools menu, click Assign Resources.
  3. Select the tasks to which you want to assign resources.
  4. Under Resource from in the Assign Resources dialog box, select the resources that you want to assign to the selected tasks.
  5. Click Assign.

The Assign Resources dialog box in Project

Callout 1 Some ways to assign resources to tasks include selecting resource names from the Resource Name field or in the Task Form.

Callout 2 Another way to assign resources is to display the Assign Resources dialog box.


  • You can select multiple resources and multiple tasks at the same time by holding down CTRL while you click to select them. This allows you to create multiple assignments at one time. You can assign many resources to many tasks, many resources to one task, or one resource to many tasks.
  • Assign resources to the subtasks, not summary tasks. This helps to build and maintain a more effective and manageable plan.
  • If your task type is Fixed Units and you are using effort-driven scheduling, the duration of the task will shorten as you assign more resources. If you change the task type to Fixed Duration, the duration will remain fixed, and work or units will change.

Next Step

That's it! Now, you're ready to present your plan and to use it to track and manage your project.

Applies to:
Project 2003