Keeping Track of Work – Gantt Charts

Keeping Track of Work – Gantt Charts

Last week I talked about keeping track of your work in lab notebooks. There were some great comments on alternative systems, such as PowerPoint slide decks, simple memory, README files or digital scripts, or cataloged data in folders on the laptop.

So that’s all well and good for writing down what you do – but how about keeping track of WHEN you need to do things, as well as what you’ve done?

For scheduling meetings and events, I still like using a paper calendar.

Miss Outlier <3's her Moleskine planner

But I think I’m in the minority in that regard – most of my colleagues use Outlook, or Google Calendar, or some other online system. I’ve tried to go online (as with so many things these days, to the cloud!), but it’s just not my preference. I’ve used Tungle with classmates before, which is a group calendar that can coordinate between lots of different online calendaring systems.

What about scheduling for tasks that need to be completed, not just meetings? I guess that really comes in two parts – first you need a To-Do list, and then you need a timeline for completing them. Here again there are many, many options. Those in the corporate world may use Microsoft Project for this purpose, or other group project software.

Personally for To-Do lists, I still like the paper list. But that did (sadly) get unwieldily eventually, especially as I have more and more categories of tasks (personal, research, student club, social activities, conference organization, side projects, etc.). So I adore Remember the Milk, which does practically everything, syncs with everything, and is accessible from anywhere (desktop, web, mobile, dashboard on the Mac, etc.). But there are a huge number of To-Do applications available, and I’m curious what you readers might use.

Then once you have a list of tasks, you need to decide when to do them. For my research, I use Gantt charts. I have a Gantt chart for my entire PhD timeline, and when my advisor  asked me to write out a schedule for the summer, I made a Gantt chart just for the next few months.

Modified Gantt chart (i.e. done in Excel, since Miss Outlier doesn't have the correct software)

Most of my labmates have no idea what a Gantt chart is – and I realized that I am familiar with them only because I had a college roommate who was an industrial engineer, and industrial engineers use these all the time. Basically, it’s a chart with tasks down one side, and dates across the top. Tasks can be charted by start date, end date, and duration, even if the tasks overlap in time. Generally milestones are also included as zero-length time points.

On a fancy Gantt chart with proper software, you can even handle scheduling tasks that depend on the completion of an earlier task, and you can assign priorities to more important tasks. The benefit of having the fancy version of the chart is that you can plot the “critical path,” which as a manager in a large project will guide you to the best place to spend money and time to avoid bottlenecks in the project. In addition, the chart is just a nice way to present a project as a whole, and to give you a snapshot of where you should be on any given week.

What do you use for scheduling and To-Do lists?


I too have used Excel for Gant Charts as this is a good way of showing elapsed time and is easy to work with as well as low cost. MS project can be a bit heavy to use so despite having it on my PC and never use it here but have at other places of work.

For calendar I use Outlook and a system called Dance Cards. So as normal you can book meetings and holiday as you would normally, but then I block out chunks of time that I want to use to perform certain tasks. This might be 3 hours to write a blog, or 20 hours broken up over a number of weeks to build a prototype. I then colour code the blocks to different types of work, light blue is non-project, red for projects etc. The nice thing is, when I get pulled off to do something else I can move the blocks around. Allows me to work out what I need to do and plan weeks ahead. So anything that’s on a to-do list so to speak gets allocated time and a date – that way it gets done.

Google calendar (omnipresent) and Visio for Gantt charts (easy to copy, paste or turn into an image.
I used to use MS Project but it is just too unwieldy the vast majority of the time.

We were forced to use gantt charts for our senior project engineering work at my undergrad, probably to familiarize young engineers with it (we generally used excel, or I think there is a google docs template as well).

At work management LOVES their MS Project. The big problem is we don’t use it in early planning stages but more as a way to take credit for work done, or estimate hours when a project is already mostly completed. Then the ever popular where we use it to look back on the lifetime of a project and try to justify delays or prove we were making progress. If you thought using MS Project was challenging, try using it to look back in time rather than forward.

I used to use tiny little pocket calendars, but the tiny Leathersmith of London ones got too expensive and hard to get, and the ones available to me were all too large to carry all the time. I’ve been using Google calendars for a little over a year now, and it is fine when I’m at my computer and Google is behaving (which is only about 90% of the time). I hate the way Google throws away any change you make if it has trouble making connections to the server.

I still use scraps of paper in my backpack for to-do lists, consolidating the lists about once a week. Copying the lists helps me reprioritize tasks and eliminate some that I’m just not going to get around to (or which I’ve forgotten the significance of).

We make the undergrad engineers create Gantt charts (with proper software) for their senior design projects. It is a good planning tool for multi-person projects, but overkill for one-person projects. I’ve never used one myself—either I’m the only person on the project or I’ve got students working for me who couldn’t come within a factor of 5 of estimating how long a task would take.

I use Gantt charts typically for a 3 month + project where I have many tasks. Typically I make in in MS visio. I only use outlook for booking meetings.
Day to day and week to week planning is difficult as my job can be very dynamic doe to my on call activities and (as I am working in research), sudden shutsdowns, failures etc.

I think that Gantt charts are a useful way of keeping track of projects. It’s handy when software will allow you to develop critical paths and keep track of tasks that need to completed.

It’s not surprising that your lab mates are unwise to this as they haven’t really been stuck managing projects.

MS Project, while cool and all, always struck me as having too many features. Back when the Mac was relatively new, you could use MacProject which happened to have just the right amount of functionality.

Sad to say, in my engineering career, the Gantt charts didn’t reflect reality after about 2 weeks into the project. And after that, one would just have to keep adjusting the sched to fit with what actually happened.

One of the worst things you can do is give a green project manager a laptop and a software package like Microsoft Project and generate tons of GANTT charts. Anyone can plug data into a software package and get results. If you like to be micromanaged in 15 minute intervals, MS Project will do just that.

A good project enginner or program manager will use a project planning software as a tool. He (or she) needs to understand what it takes to get something done, how long to get it done, and what is needed to get the job done in terms of resources. Just because someone has a due date doesn’t mean that it’s feasible to meet it.

I’ve seen project GANTT charts that had the completion dates nicely displayed as required by the contract specifications. However, someone forgot to ask Mother Nature if it was possible. If you’re doing cutting edge technology, a project schedule is nice, but be prepared to constantly edit it.

“If you’re doing cutting edge technology, a project schedule is nice, but be prepared to constantly edit it.”

This is an excellent point and something that is supremely under-appreciated by management here at FluxCorp. We’re often asked how long it’ll take to design something completely brand new using completely new technology. We give an estimate, but it’s just that, an estimate. Management treats it as being inscribed in stone tablets and then expresses surprise when we say later on it’ll take longer.

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