How To: Set Deadlines for Tasks in MS Project

This topic (how to set a deadline for an MS Project task) is so simple, it’s hardly worth mentioning.  But, it might be good to review.  It’s just another little piece of information that might help scheduling projects.

To create a task deadline:

  1. Double-click on a task  (the Task Info dialog box appears)
  2. Click the Advanced tab
  3. Click the Deadline dropdown
  4. Choose a date, sometime after the task finish date

These steps allow you to set a deadline that the task should be finished by.  A small arrow is displayed in the Gantt column at that date.  The image below shows what it looks like.


Arrow indicating task deadline
(normally before the task finish date)


If your task gets bumped (presumably because of linked predecessors) the finish date may go beyond the deadline.  When this happens, a small red indicator is shown next to the task name.  The image below shows what it looks like.  Browse your mouse over it to see a tool tip explaining the reason.

Deadline indicator



Death by Distraction: 3 Ways to Avoid it

A huge number of projects, usually small ones, die ugly drawn-out deaths simply from distraction – and nobody knows.  Yeah, people get distracted and forget them!  It’s true, I’ve seen it happen dozens of times.  Here’s how it happens. First, the big boss decides he wants something.  A new product or policy.  A new way of doing things.  An improvement in procedure.  He’s sure it will save the company money, so he launches a new initiative (a project) to get it.  He assigns it to one of his people, and expects to hear some status in a while.  FIRST MISTAKE! The employeee may have no strong allegence to the new initiative, and gets distracted and never completes it.  He’s bored, and doesn’t want to mess with it.  The boss forgets he asked, and the project is effectively dead.  Every seen that happen?  That what I thought…  So, how do you fix it?   Tip #1: Document it. If you don’t write down your project initiatives, they can easily be sabotaged by bored employees.  If there is no record of them, employees can safely ignore them without any consequences.  And they will.   Tip #2: Don’t pile on. Giving your employees too many projects means they won’t do them when asked.  I’ve seen managers throw so many projects at employees that they simply ignore them until asked later.  If the big boss never asks, he must not want it badly enough.  They simply wait him out and deal with only the important ones when he asks.  Yikes!   Tip #3: Reduce the chain links If Joe is to do the job, but needs input from Britnney and Travis, and they can’t get to it until Keyshawn obtains his status from Lisa who gets her materials from Joe, you may never get anything.  Don’t believe it happens?  It does.  There are sometimes so many links in the project chain that the effort fizzles out, simply because one person can’t get what they need.  Of course, they never bother to find out why, but you need to realize this can happen.   Bottom line: you need a project champion who walks everything through its paces.  If you’re the big boss, that may be you.  No champion?  Well… chances are the project will die of distraction. –newshirt

You Gotta Love It

Are you the leader of a project team?  Or do you hope to be someday?  Here’s a tip for managing people.  Love what you do.  And show it.

If you are in leadership, you will not have success until you love your work so much it’s contagious.  People need to see you digging into every aspect of it.  And digging hard.  They simply will not follow until they see the passion.  Are you uncovering new ideas and methods?  Finding improvements in managing projects?  Making it look fun?

Think of things through your team member’s eyes.  Do they see someone who can take their careers to the next level?  Sure, you may be a good ol’ boy, but do they feel compelled to follow you?  Fight for new business?  Endure the pain for the pleasure of success?  Not if they don’t see you doing those things.

The point I’m making is that managing teams, projects, and products is more about leading by example than begin one of the gang.  Be a person they want to emulate.


Define: Constraint Type

Contraint type: A task scheduling option that determines how project tasks interact with each other with respect to dates.


Microsoft Project allows you to set constraint types for each task.  Using task constraints can really bugger up a project, if you don’t know what you are doing.  Ever hear of scheduling conflicts?  Consider using deadlines instead.  I feel constraints can be useful when used in moderation.  But most managers do not need to dive this deeply into task management.  Why?

Most projects change rapidly from day to day.  Because of this, you may find yourself fiddling with esoteric task options, only to find that they become irrelevant next week when the schedule changes.  That’s where deadlines can be simpler.

Here are the task constraints MS Project offers:

  1. As Late As Possible (default in a project scheduled from the finish date)
  2. As Soon As Possible (default in a project scheduled from the start date)
  3. Finish No Earlier Than
  4. Finish No Later Than
  5. Must Start On
  6. Must Finish On
  7. Start No Earlier Than
  8. Start No Later Than

 Clearly, these options control the behaviour of tasks that are linked together.  Let’s say you chose the “Start No Later Than” constraint type.  In this case, you would be required to supply a date that the task cannot start after.  Let’s say you chose August 1st.

A scheduling conflict can occur if a predicessor task causes your task to start after August 1st.  Schedules change so frequently that this is likely to happen.  Actually that can be a good thing.  Consider it an alert that something has gone wrong with your project.  If your project slips so badly that these contraints become activated, it can alert you to deeper problems witn your project team.


An Ounce of Inspiration

I suppose it’s no surprise, but I for one, perform better when under the influence of inspiration.  My projects just flow when I am driven with excitement to complete them.  I don’t even have to ignore the boring aspects of the project; I just fly right over them as if they didn’t exist.  But without that inspiration, it’s sometimes a drag.

Okay, that’s me.  Now, how do you get the entire team motivated like that?  All at once?

Clearly the answer lies in goals that every one shares.  Fame, fortune, accomplishment?  It’s different with every project, and every person.  The key is to find common ground that everyone can get behind.

I remember the old MacPaint program on the early Macintosh’s.  All the author’s names were in the About box.  Those guys met in Andy Herxtfeld’s home, and pounded out the next great thing: Fatbits!  But there’s no simple formula for every project team and every project.  In other words, you cannot simply offer comp time or best-employee certificates for every job.

Years later, names in the About Box isn’t enough.  Been there, done that.

Eventually, people grow weary of simple incentives.  They need big “life incentives” that mean something to their lives.  They need to know their efforts are making a difference in the world.  That people recognize their work.  Yes, it takes that much.  Nobody wants a shallow life.

How do you inspire your team, all at once, to change the world?


How to: Split Tasks in Microsoft Project

In this post we’ll discuss how to split tasks in Microsoft Project.  In other words, how to break tasks into segments representing the exact times work will be performed.

Microsoft Project tasks do not necessarily need to start on one day, and continue until the task is complete.  They can be broken up into segments.  In other words, work can be performed in a discontinguous fashion.  For instance, 16 hours in one week, 16 hours in the next week, and a final 4 hours the following week.  This technique is illustrated below.  Steps to perform it as also included.


Split bar, showing each segment of work

Split hours, in Task Usage view


I must warn you…  I feel this is a micro-management technique.  It can be good to define exactly when the work will be performed, right down to the hour, but do you really want to spend your time doing that?  That’s better left to the discretion of engineers who will actually be doing the work.

Follow these steps to split Microsoft Project tasks:

  1. Create a new task in the Gantt view (See the View menu)
  2. Right-click in the header area, and choose Insert Column
  3. Insert the Work column (it represents the planned work for a task)
  4. Enter 10 hours for the Work
  5. Choose View, Task Usage
  6. Notice the number of hours for each day (this is the time you will work on the task)
  7. Skip a few days, and enter some additional hours into the Task Usage view
  8. Choose View, Gantt Chart to return to the preview view
  9. Notice that the Gantt bar has been split to show the new hours



Life Isn’t All Work

This is a little reminder that we all need from time to time.  I’m not going to get too depressing here, but I attended a close family members funeral last week.  As I talked with family and friends at the service I was reminded of what’s truly important in life.

We all know this, but rarely stop and do anything about it.  We get caught up in the daily grind and focus on the latest hurdle at work.  Well I’m here to say that last year I said forget it, and took my family on a 10 day vacation!  We spent time at the beach and doing a whole lot of nothing.  During this vacation I got to spend time with my aunt whose funeral I attended last week.  I remember chasing and catching fireflies with my children in her backyard, priceless.  Jeez, I’m a city boy raised in So-Cal.  And during that time I got to ride on my grandpa’s tractor around the old family farm.  I am so glad we took that vacation!  These are just a few memories that no one can pull from my mind.  It was relaxing and it was more fun than I ever thought it could be. 

Life will always bring excuses as to why we can’t slow down to enjoy time with family and friends.  We Americans work harder than any people on earth.  Yet we ought to recharge and relax once in a while.  What are one or two weeks out of the year?  For me its a lifetime of memories and more fun than I ever dreamed.

Project Tracking is an Albatross?

I just got off a conference call where the customer lamented that project tracking (in his organization) is an albatross.  E.g. too much work!

His company had been using an Excel spreadsheet, and wanted to switch to Standard Time® for project tracking.  Their spreadsheets had grown so large that grooming them consumed too much time.  His statements really got me thinking.

Every project has two components: doing the work, and managing the work.  That’s no big secret.  This person was lamenting about the management part, and wanted to know how Standard Time® would improve that.

Unfortunately, the answer is not in the tool, but in his organization.  Questions arose regarding the size of his teams, their self-sufficiency, and how granular his tasks needed to be.  We agreed that his tasks were too granular – too small.  He had been trying to micro-manage everything, and that was driving him crazy.

Let’s face it, project tasks change frequently.  It’s nice to document every task you’ll work on, but in practicallity, some well-defined buckets could catch all the task work.  Each time log could describe the work performed, and you’d still have some basic tasks to report on.  Simplicity is best.

Define: Free Slack

Free Slack: The amount of time that can be spared in a task before it begins to affect other tasks.


Some tasks don’t really need to be completed by the time you’ve set for them.  In other words, there’s a little slack available before they need to be finished.  That’s Free Slack.

Microsoft Project calculates free slack in tasks when they are linked to other tasks.  If a task is not linked to another, the free slack is the amount of time from the finish date until the end of the project.  Here’s a quote from MSP:

The Free Slack field contains the amount of time that a task can be delayed without delaying any successor (successor: A task that cannot start or finish until another task starts or finishes.) tasks. If the task has no successors, free slack is the amount of time that a task can be delayed without delaying the entire project’s finish date.

So, how is this valuable to you?  This only applies when a successor task is not linked directly to its predicessor.  In other words, there is some slack time between them, even though they are technically linked.  This can be valuable to offer some spare time for the resource to finish the task, or to do other things.


Web 2.0 Collaboration

eWeek published a little piece in the Application Development department regarding Web 2.0 collaboration.  (See a link to the article by Darryl H. Taft below.)  The upshot is that developers have been using Web 2.0 collaboration for years.  It’s the rest of the world that’s just catching up.  How about you?  What Web 2.0 technologies do you use?

I use the following resources pretty regularly.


Honestly, I’m not a big web surfer.  I don’t spend a lot of time subscribing to RRS feeds and plugging into the forums – with the exception of projecteamblog.  I don’t even have special ringtones.  Web 2.0 is not that exciting to me.  I’m not much of a social networker.

Tell me why I’m wrong!  What am I missing that could help in the areas of project management, application development, and team management. says there’s 11 million blogs out there, plus or minus 500 million that come and go every month.  I must be missing something!  I’d like to hear your comments…