3 Steps to Create an Achievable Project Timeline

Imagine how your next client will react when you maintain your original project timeline or close to it.

Achieving project milestones on time is essential to keep from falling behind. Missing one deadline often results in a series of missed deadlines, and before you know it, you’re buried in incompletions.

Struggling to meet a few deadlines is normal, but perpetually struggling isn’t. Despite project management methodology, if you’re regularly playing catch-up, postponing tasks, and pushing out your timelines, your deadlines probably are unrealistic.

To pull yourself and your team out of perpetual struggle, here’s how to plan a more achievable timeline for your projects:

Work backward from your goal

People have a tendency to overestimate what they can accomplish in a period of time because they haven’t accounted for dependencies. Many make the mistake of basing their estimates solely on the time it takes to perform the task. The worst thing you can do is estimate time for isolated tasks.

By anchoring all tasks to your final goal, your time estimates will be more accurate. You’re also less likely to forget to assign minor tasks. Working backward keeps your eye on the end result and forces you to consider how all goals are related.

To get a complete picture of what’s needed to reach your goal, ask yourself what needs to happen to achieve the end result and move backward. For example, to send out a direct mail piece, you need addresses. You also need someone to write the copy. To hire a copywriter, you need to know who to hire and have the money to pay them. Without working backward, you might miss the fact that you also need someone to stuff, stamp, and mail the envelopes. Miss that and you’ll be scrambling at the last minute to find someone willing to do the job quickly.

Dependencies are seen best by working backward

Working backward also allows you to see the relationship between tasks and adjust the amount of time allotted for each one. Clarizen points out that determining dependencies is the most difficult part of meeting a timeline. As projects gain complexity, tasks become intertwined with dependencies that aren’t always apparent.

For example, it might take someone five minutes to update the company website, but if the admin account is being used by someone else, it could take hours to complete. Or, if nobody knows the admin account’s password, it could take weeks to get in, putting the project far behind.

Login issues are a significant problem for many businesses. Trying to meet deadlines and not being able to log into administrative accounts is a common reason for postponed projects.

Be specific when defining your ultimate goal

Say you’re a website developer and your ultimate goal is to complete a website for a client. Although you have an idea of what a finished website looks like, you need to get specific. “A finished website” isn’t specific. How you define a finished website is with the material you’ll use to construct goals, milestones, and tasks placed along your project’s timeline.

Define your goal in terms of specific, quantifiable elements. For example, the website might be finished when the discussion forum has been launched, a minimum of 10 blog posts are published, and your e-commerce shop is ready. Defining these specific elements allows you to turn them into milestones and develop tasks that will lead to their completion.

Allow time for breakdowns

No project is immune from breakdowns. No matter how carefully you plan and organize, an aspect of the project is bound to go in an unplanned direction. While planning time for each task or milestone, pad that time for potential breakdowns. For example, if you have a milestone due January 4, push it out by another week. If that milestone is dependent on another task that usually ends up with breakdowns, push that milestone out further.

Clients know timelines aren’t accurate and expect projects to take longer than planned, but imagine how your next client will react when you maintain your original timeline, or close to it. Unheard of, but not impossible. Part of managing client expectations is planning for breakdowns so shifting the original timeline doesn’t double or triple completion time.

Larry Alton is an independent business consultant specializing in tech, social media trends, business, and entrepreneurship. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.