Assignment or Project Scheduling Guide

To make a project succeed, it helps to plan what needs to be done, when it will be done, and by whom.  We start by defining goals (as described below).  When we draw up the initial plan, we do not know everything that needs to be done or what obstacles might lie ahead.  As each section of the project is completed, the possibilities and problems ahead become clearer.  We need to build in contingency time, aiming to finish the project with plenty of time to spare. Rarely do things go as planned. We find that the work is more than we expected or the time we thought would be available is consumed by other things.  The suggestions below can help fo form a sensible project plan.

The Topic

Start by deciding what to achieve.  Sometimes the assignment or project has been clearly and concisely explained. Other times it is vague.  Try summarizing the topic in a few sentences.

The Assignment Objectives

In school, the assignment aims to develop and demonstrate certain skills.  For example, you may be being assessed to research a topic using a number of different sources, and present a sound case for a particular point of view.  A consultant to a Presidential candidate aims to provide the candidate with the material and ideas that will further the campaign.  The objectives differ from the topic.  The topic is the subject on which the project focuses.  The objectives are the broader aims for doing the project.
   Make sure you know:

  • The room you have to refine or redefine the topic.  For example, has a professor assigned topics, given a list of approved topics, or required approval of student-selected topics?  Can you select some aspects or a particular interpretation of the general topic, or must you address it exactly as originally defined?
  • The specific instructions for paper format, required research, appropriate sources, and citation styles.
  • The audience to whom you are writing. Should you write the paper so that the topic is accessible to an intelligent adult who has no formal training in the subject? or for your classmates?  or is the audience your professor?  
  • The criteria for evaluation for the paper.  What components of the project are most important?

What are the things to be produced, sometimes called the "deliverables?"

What is the concrete "thing" being produced?  Hopefully this will be easy to identify.  However, sometimes it is a little vague and some further questions may be required of the person setting the assignment.  Deliverables can be essays, models, presentations, speeches, web sites, or the like.

What are the important intermediate steps to complete the project?

List the tasks that must be completed to produce the project.  Include everything from the very beginning to the absolute end.  For example, for an essay, these might include setting the topic, initial research, first draft, secondary research, second draft, review etc.

Estimate the time needed for each step

How long will it take to complete each essential task? Some estimates will be easy to do accurately and some uncertain.  One way to handle this is to estimate an interval around the best guess for how long it will take.  When relatively certain about the period, for example 6 days, just put it down as 6 days.  If very uncertain, put the best guess plus or minus half that best guess; for example, from 3 to 9 days if the best guess is 6.  The more confident, the smaller the interval around the best guess.

Estimate the time available

This has two aspects.  First, you have a deadline (if one has not been set, you need to set one). Second, work out how much time it is plausible to devote to this project between now and the deadline.  With a group, this is an estimate for all.  Consider how much time you have for meeting together for collective work and how much for each individual.  For example you might plan that each group member is expected to contribute 15 hours a week.  Also note down the assumptions you are basing the estimate on.

Decide the sequence of the work

Look at the project steps, and work out the order in which they will happen.  Some steps can usually be performed in parallel, some must be preceded by certain others.

Select Milestones

To make a project manageable, define milestones.  A milestone is a point where we complete a component of the project.  It is not the date, but the work product or progress reached at that point.  Achieving a milestone may depend on completing one or many activities.  Projects constrained by time typically become more manageable if we can focus on milestones rather than on how long each task should take. 

Milestones should involve the completion of distinct and concrete goals for the project, not something like 40% of the draft complete.  A milestone might be completion of research, finish the first draft, or have a layout in place.  Milestones  should be often enough to sustain focus but separated enough to make each a smaller project.

Create a Milestone Schedule

Pull together the previous material to create a schedule for the duration of the project. The inputs for this schedule include:

  • The activities or steps
  • The estimated time required for each task
  • The sequence in which the tasks need to be completed
  • The time available (the deadline and the time available for work before that deadline)

Remember to build in "spare" or unassigned time (each day or week).  Scedule to get as much of the project done early as possible, leaving some spare time at the end. You will need it when the unforeseen occurs. 

A Sample Milestone Schedule

For example, a somewhat abstract and simplified schedule for a group project might look like:

Milestone Days Needed Meetings needed Date to complete Tasks involved (collective and individual)
Initiate 0 1
receive assignment and do preliminary reading for familiarity
First concepts 2 1
Prepare list of first ideas and plan assignments for each member, after brainstorming on issue (presumably after initial reading).
Research reports 1 3 2
Each member prepare statement on joint and individual research, circulate to others before meeting.
Section Reports 1 3 0
Members prepare initial arguments by section, summarize unresolved problems and deficient evidence, circulate before meeting
Section reviews 1

Members review each other's research and arguments, circulate reviews.

Prepare paper outline or structure, decide strategy of argument.
Rough Draft

Complete a full draft of paper
Review Rough

Review draft; get "external" reviews; circulate written reviews; determine needed improvements in argument and evidence
Prefinal draft

Compose final rough draft; review and make final additions
Final draft

polish paper (focus on mechanics, grammar, spelling, punctuation, sentence structure) and submit

Note that this "sample" milestone table ignores individual responsibilities in a group project.  A full project plan would presumably consider these individual responsibilities.

Manage Risks

Expect things to go wrong. Ask yourself how often you complete a project without a hitch? If the answer is 'not often,' then learn from the past. Expect hiccups. Make allowance for these hiccups in your planning, and when they happen, don't stress about it. Never get caught saying 'If everything goes to plan, I will just make it.' You are really saying, 'I know it will probably not go to plan, so I will probably fail.'  What we need to do is to brainstorm what could go wrong before we start. When we come up with a risk, we need to look at:

  • Impact. What impact will it have on our project. (High, Medium or Low)
  • Probability. How likely is it to happen (High, Medium or Low)

Where a risk has two highs (It is highly likely to happen, and it will have a high impact) we need to look at what we can do about it. Depending on the size of the project, we might also want to look at high/medium and medium/medium risks.

Manage the schedule

A plan is not static. Things are bound to change. The schedule is not just something you file away and forget.  As time passes, review the schedule.  Enter the actual time spent.  Adjust the time estimates if they change.  Organize your work to adhere to the schedule.  Importantly, focus on the next milestone.  Work towards the next milestone and adopt the railway station approach. Provided you go through each station on time, you will get to your destination on time.

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[Credit: Significant parts of this guide were derived from ]