The Project Management Beginner’s Guide to Gantt Charts

Project managers are obsessed with Gantt charts. And it’s easy to see why: They’re a simple yet battle-tested tool used to visualize time and resources throughout a given project. You take the duration of each task in a project, add any dependencies, and voila! You have yourself a clear path of progression that can be followed even through the messiest of projects.

But as a project management newbie, you might have a few questions: How do I read and interpret the different elements of a Gantt chart? How does a Gantt chart work? And why should I use a Gantt chart instead of other project visualization tools? We’ll answer these questions and more in our beginner’s guide on how to use a Gantt chart for project management.

How to read a Gantt chart

To the untrained eye, a Gantt chart can seem like a jumble of boxes, lines, and arrows. Let’s break down the 3 primary elements of a Gantt chart:

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A  typical Gantt chart is structured with individual task names on the x-axis, and elapsed time on the y-axis.
  • Project tasks: Each rectangle in a Gantt chart represents an individual project task. Some Gantt chart tools will allow you to designate not only the task name, but also assignees, task status, and other details.
  • Task duration: The length of each “task” rectangle is determined by its duration, or the time between when a task should be started and when it should be completed.
  • Dependencies: Arrows between tasks designate the dependencies between them, or the order in which work must be completed.

Once you understand these three primary inputs, you can confidently read any Gantt chart and even start to make your own. But before you start creating Gantt charts for your next big project, consider these articles for further reading on how to up your Gantt chart game:

Five ways to use Gantt charts in your projects:

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1. To brainstorm your workflow

Perhaps the clearest advantage of using Gantt charts as a project planning tool is their simple and visual nature. Gantt charts can be used to visualize different project scenarios, allowing you to adjust workflows and resources accordingly. Online Gantt chart software is easily adjustable and can help you visualize countless scenarios until you’ve landed on the one that best meets your project needs. Some online tools will even allow you to lay out project milestones, note deliverables, and add assignees, too.

Are you having trouble brainstorming your workflow as a beginner to project planning? Try using our Gantt chart templates as a launchpad, then customizing our Gantt charts to best suit your project needs.

2. To determine the critical path

When you’re planning a project, you’re probably hoping to find the most efficient way to move from project kickoff to completion. This is where the critical path method comes in handy.

The critical path method (CPM) is a staple project management technique used to determine the quickest route to complete a project by finding the longest stretch of dependent activities. With Gantt charts, you can easily trace the “path of greatest resistance” through a project by visually following project dependencies and calculating the total time that each path will take to complete.

3. To break projects down into bite-sized tasks

Successful project management boils down to a strategy of divide and conquer. Can you accomplish a product launch in one work session? Probably not. But you can chop an unmanageable project into smaller tasks that can be completed in shorter work sprints: drafting the press release, preparing the slide deck, inviting the press, and so on.

Gantt charts help you break down large projects into smaller chunks so that tasks can be delegated and responsibilities shared. These bite-sized tasks boost team morale and motivate further progress with each successful completion.

4. To set accurate deadlines

Make it a habit to schedule or reschedule tasks for a project directly on your Gantt chart. By doing so, you'll see how even tiny schedule changes affect the overall timing of the entire project — which leads to more precise planning and accurate deadlines.

5. To monitor project progress

A huge advantage of using an online Gantt chart tool, as opposed to a printout that you file away in a binder or hang on a wall, is that you can track the live progress of a project by drilling down into individual tasks.

The Gantt chart is an evolving document, one that changes as people complete their parts of the job on time or past their due date. By watching it closely, you have a clear idea of how the project is progressing as compared to the initial timeline.

Are you already using Gantt charts for your project planning?

Consider trying Wrike’s online Gantt chart software for free. And while you're at it, take your Gantt chart wizardry to the next level with these resources and discover how to create a project management plan best suited for your needs:

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