Look down your project task list. You’ll have tasks that you instinctively know will take hardly any time at all and others that might run for a month or more. On paper they may look the same but when it comes to putting them on your project schedule, no two tasks are the same.
Each project task has different characteristics depending on what sort of work it is. In this article we’ll look at how to work out the right length for project tasks depending on what kind of task they are.
The Right Length for Tasks
Tasks are the way that you manage the work on the project, so it’s important they are structured in a way that lets you do that. Tasks that are too long don’t give you enough early warning when they start to go off track. Would you rather know halfway through a two-week task that it’s going to be late, or halfway through a four-week task?
Breakdown your tasks to the lowest level using your work breakdown structure. Then you’ll be estimating how long each one will take based on the shortest possible timescales. Jennifer Bridges, PMP, in the following short tutorial, shows you how to create a work breakdown structure.
Avoid having any tasks on your schedule that are longer than a month. If you genuinely do have a task that you think will take longer than this then break it down into sub-tasks like “First half of Task completed” and “Second half of Task completed.” This still gives you the check-in points you need to make sure that the work is on track.
At the other end of the scale, we wouldn’t recommend any tasks shorter than half a day. Any shorter than that and you risk micro-managing your project team and calling them every hour to check on status.
Scheduling Recurring Tasks
Many project tasks are recurring: they happen several times throughout the project. Examples include:
- Project meetings, reviews or audits
- Testing where there are several cycles
- Reporting and other communications like newsletters
- Submitting timesheets
- Creating back ups of your project data
Establish the frequency of these tasks and then add them to your schedule every time they occur. You can either go for “the last working day of the month” if you aren’t worried about exactly when the work will happen and this is as good a day as any, or you can fix the dates, which is a better option for meetings that have to happen when they are scheduled.
Pop them on the project plan and monitor them as you would any other task. Most of these will only have a duration of one day per month. Be aware that even the best project plan will change once, twice or more during the lifecycle of a project, and with it so will your task schedule. To stay on top of this read Elizabeth’s post How to Change Your Prefect Project Plan.
Scheduling Tangible Tasks
Tangible tasks are those where there is a concrete activity to do that can easily be quantified in terms of time. They are easy to estimate because you can work out how much one ‘unit’ will take and then multiply that by how many units you need. For example:
- Coding software, e.g. lines of code written, functionality built
- Construction work, e.g. digging holes, painting walls, laying concrete
- Manufacturing, e.g. widgets produced
Each of these has a tangible, measurable output. If you are confident that you can tangibly measure the output of a task through number of holes dug, widgets from the production line and so on then you can afford for the overall task duration to be a bit longer: around 4 weeks. That’s because you’ve got concrete ways of measuring progress over that time and your team will also be confident that they are accurately reporting how much they’ve done based on measures you all understand.
Scheduling Knowledge-Work Tasks
Knowledge work does not have a tangible, measurable output. Examples of this are:
- Design the process for an employee feedback scheme
- Elicit requirements for the project
- Analyze problems and recommend solutions
Any task which is predominantly creative, or for which the output is ideas, documented processes or something else that has mainly come out of the team’s heads is harder to schedule because it’s harder to measure.
For these types of task, keep the duration of each section to between one and three weeks. Shorter is better as it gives you more opportunities to track progress and uncover potential problems sooner rather than later.
How to Schedule Admin Time
Project management has a great deal of administrative, documentation and process-led work such as:
- Updating your schedule
- Adding new risks to the risk register
- Closing tasks
- Preparing reports or dashboards
- Following up on requests for changes
- Recording minutes from meetings
- Checking in with your team for the latest status
All of this takes time – your time – and should be recorded on the schedule.
Given that this activity runs through the length of your project you can create one long task that starts today and ends at the end of your project called “Project Management.” This is the only time that a task this big is acceptable. Even then, think carefully about whether you want to break it down. If it’s important to you to know how much time you spend on updating the plan or managing issues then you’ll need to break your project management time down further so that you can accurately record the hours spent on your timesheets.
If you are a full-time project manager for this project, and you aren’t cross-charging your time to anyone else, then the potential saving in managing time by breaking project management down into sub-tasks could be significant. You’ll have to decide whether this way of measuring your own activity is appropriate, especially when you have broken down all the other tasks for the rest of the team.
The purpose of doing all this is to ensure that you have regular moments on the plan where you can track progress. You can see how well the project is moving along by checking how many of your tasks are complete. That means you need to be regularly completing tasks, and you can’t do that if they are all several months long. Breaking down your tasks and scheduling them carefully gives you greater control over your projects and increases your chance of completing all the work on time.
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