Such Happiness In Thought Happens

February 12, 2008

Microsoft Project tips and tricks

Filed under: MS Office — Tags: , , — Duane @ 6:25 pm

Last week I taught my first MS Project workshop for the year and it got me thinking to what is handy to know about Project to make life easier for oneself. I have noticed that the traffic to the blog is more when it is the tips and tricks of the various programs that people are viewing, and funny enough it is from search engines that they are coming. Anyway, here will be detailed some things about Microsoft Project that you may or may not be aware of that make my life (at least) easier when I use the program.

Planning vs scheduling
When people think of Microsoft Project they usually think of Gantt charts. But where do Gantt charts come from? From the mind of a planner. Microsoft Project is a schedulingtool – if you want to use Project to help you plan a project, you are out of luck. Project works best when you have created your plan on paper, and then you enter that information into Project to create a schedule/timeline/work order/etc. So this refers back to my previous posts about “God is in the details” – decide what needs to be done, then after you have brainstormed it, then put it in Microsoft Project and see if it fits visually with what you expect.

View Entire Project
The default view in the Gantt Chart is each day of the week under the beginning of the week. To see more of your project, you can use the Zoom In/Out button of the magnifying glasses or Ctrl and your scroll mouse. The problem with these zoom levels is that they are predefined by Microsoft, sometimes you need a bit more to see the whole project, others times it shows too much time info and too small project. The way around this is to Zoom to the Entire Project.

  • Click on the View menu.
  • Click on Zoom
  • Click on Entire Project (second last option)
  • Press OK

If you have more tasks than will fit on the screen, you will need to scroll up and down to see the task bars, but you will not have to scroll left and right anymore.

To take this one step further, make a macro that records you doing this, so that you can make it an icon to use all the time when you are in Microsoft Project.

  • In the Gantt Chart be in a Zoom so that you do not see the Entire Project
  • Click on the Tools menu
  • Click on Macro
  • Choose Record Macro
  • Give the Macro a name like ZoomEntireProject (Note no spaces are allowed in the macro name)
  • Press OK
  • Click on the View menu
  • Click on Zoom
  • Choose Entire Project
  • Press OK
  • Click on the Tools menu
  • Click on Macro
  • Click on Stop Recording

This has created a macro of you doing these steps. The next step is to make that macro into an icon in the toolbar area.

  • Double click on any grey part of the toolbar, to bring up Customise Toolbar
  • Click on the Commands tab
  • Click on All Macros from the Categories list on the left-hand side
  • On the right hand side, the Command list, find your macro name (ZoomEntireProject for example) and drag it onto a toolbar with an icon.
  • The name of the macro is now visible. To give it a button, not text:
  • Right click on the text
  • Choose Change Button Image
  • Choose any image of your choice
  • Right click on the button image and text
  • Choose Default Style
  • On the Customise box, press Close.

The step of choosing Default Style is important if you want just an image, and not the name of the macro. You may get an error message about Digital Certificates when you close the project, but don’t worry, you will be able to use the button to Zoom the entire Project in any project file.

Project Information
Whether you schedule a project from its Start Date or End Date is important in Project, plus what date you would like it to start or finish on. This is all accomplished in Project Information. If you need to change the start date of the project due to complications, you DON’T just change the Start Date of the first task, you need to go to Project Info to change it.

  • Click on the Project menu
  • Click on Project Information
  • Type in the start date/end date; the calendar you want the project to use

Then every time you need to change the start date of the entire project, go back to Project>Project Information.

Customising the Gantt Chart
One thing I like to see in my Tracking Gantt view is when a milestone is completed. A milestone in any view is always black, even when it is marked as 100% complete. All the bars have some modification when actual work is entered, why not have something similar for a milestone?

  • Start by going into Bar Styles (I like to double click on the Gantt Chart to bring this up)
  • You will see how all the bars and other options are created. You need to create a new bar style.
  • Go to the bottom of the list by scrolling to see the first blank line
  • Type in the name “Completed Milestone” in the Name Column.
  • Go to the Bar tab below and change the middle shape to the top option of nothing (so the task looks blank)
  • In the Start shape, choose a diamond, leave the Type as Solid, and change the Color to something other than Black. I usually use Red. You will now see a red diamond.
  • Click in the “Show for … Tasks” field of your Completed Milestone
  • Choose Milestone from the dropdown arrow, then type a comma (,) then choose Finished from the dropdown box.
  • Change the From field to “Actual Start”
  • Change the To field to “Actual Start”
  • Click on the Text tab
  • Choose “Actual Start” in the Right section.

bar-styles.jpg             completed-milestone-bars.jpg            completed-milestone-text.jpg

Now when you mark a task as complete (100%) the black diamond (milestone) will turn to the colour of your choice.

To take this a step further is to make this available in all projects you have. See when you make something new in Project, it is only found in that View for that project. Why not save yourself some work and have it there all the time as a new view? I commonly make a new view that has the Tracking Gantt view and the Detail Gantt view combined, and have the Completed Milestone bar style and anything else I want as well. Best way to do this is to go into the View you like, modify the Bar Styles the way you want, and go to:

  • Click on the Tools menu
  • Click on Organizer
  • Click on the View tab
  • Make sure you are on the right hand side of the screen and click on the View you modified
  • Click on Rename
  • Type in a new name you want for the View
  • Press OK.
  • Click on the right hand side of the screen on the new View you have created
  • Press the Copy button.

That last step of Copy will make the new View available in all projects in Microsoft Project in the future AND in existing projects.

Some handy keyboard shortcuts and where to find them yourself
You may like to know some keyboard shortcuts for Project like Task Information, Link Tasks, etc. The majority of keyboard shortcuts in Project will utilise the Alt key, instead of the Ctrl key. Some will want both keys selected. The best way of finding them is to have them when you hover over the toolbar icon. This will have the name of the icon as well as any keyboard shortcut.

  • Go to Customise Toolbars (Tools>Customise>Toolbars) or double click on any grey part of the toolbar.
  • Click on the Options tab
  • Click on the last tickbox “Show shortcut keys in Screen Tips”
  • Press Close

This will then tell you Ctrl+F2 is used to link selected tasks. Shift+F2 is used to access Task Information. Alt+F10 is used to Assign Resources.

Hover over bars
If you use the Gantt Chart a lot (and who doesn’t?) you don’t need the Task Sheet part of the Gantt Chart (the part that looks like Excel on the left) for some information about the task. Any task on your Gantt Chart, hover your mouse over it – this will then display a large screen tip with information like Start Date, Finish Date and Duration. If you hover over a link line it will inform you of the Link Type (FS, SS, FF), from which task (predecessor) to last task (successor) and if there is a Lag. Handy way to get info without needing to look left and find the appropriate column.

The use of the calendar/Working Time
The Calendar view is another way of showing when tasks are occuring. But some Project users talk about calendars for a different purpose – what public holidays the project has, starting and finishing time of each day. This is important for more accurate manhours and costing, because by default Project works off a 8 hour day, 40 hour week, from 8 am to 5 pm with one hour for lunch. 10 – 20 years that might have been the case, but in Australia a 7.5/7.25 hour day is common and if you need to modify this you need to modify the Working Time, ie the calendar. This can be found as follows:

  • Click on the Tools menu
  • Click on Change Working Time.
  • Highlight the days of the week that have the same starting/finishing time (e.g. M through to F)
  • On the right hand side of the screen, change the start date and finish date as required.

This then is applicable to the project if you modified the Standard Calendar. This is the bare bones basics, but there is change-working-time.jpgmore to this if you want to work with multiple “calendars” for different resources the project will utilise.

Resource Overallocation
If you do use Project for Resource Management instead of just a timelining or event management tool, you need to know if you have assigned too much work for your staff, i.e. more hours in a day than they are meant to work. The easiest way of finding this is to go to the Resource Sheet view, after you have assigned resources to your tasks. If any of your resources are red and bold, they are considered overallocated – working more hours in a day than they are “technically” meant to work.
This is the quick way of seeing if they are overallocated. So if you are used to seeing resources in the Resource Sheet in red, well now you know what it means. There is more to finding a solution, but that is the basics.

 Wow, more than I originally intended to type, but these I think are the main things I see as tips/tricks for Microsoft Project. Of course Project can do a lot, you just need to know what it is capable of, and what you want it to do to make the required changes and then have them found in Microsoft Project all the time.


  1. Hi,
    I’ve written some pointers on advanced customisation of the Gnatt Bars.

    Different colored Gantt bars in MS Project – How To

    Comment by pmotechniques — February 27, 2008 @ 1:42 pm

  2. I have a problem getting my project to project finish dates for specific tasks based on the assigned resource’s calendar. Regardless of how I change the resources calendar, or even if I assign a task calendar, the project always computes the projected finish date based on the project base calendar. I’m using Project 2003 Professional. Any ideas?

    Comment by Scott A. Bean — April 10, 2008 @ 2:08 am

  3. Is there anyway to make past due milestones a certain color?? I have green for milestones that were complete, black for milestones that are in the future, and I’d like to make milestones that the date has already passed but the % complete is zero = Red. how can i do this?

    Comment by Natasha — October 3, 2008 @ 6:35 am

  4. […] — Duane @ 7:37 pm This post is in response to a comment made by a reader recently in the Project Tips & Tricks post earlier this year. The comment from Natasha is as follows: “Is there anyway to make past due […]

    Pingback by Milestones past their Due Date « Such Happiness In Thought Happens — October 3, 2008 @ 7:37 pm

  5. normally if we type a task name in the task name column, automatically Duration, Start & Finish Column filled with some number and date.How to make the Duration, Start & Finish column still blank when we fill the task name?? so it’s just look like a title without any relation with another task?… thx

    Comment by feuerbach — February 23, 2010 @ 12:25 am

  6. Unfortunately it is not possible to treat Project like the Outlook TaskPad.
    The reason for this is that when any information is typed into either the Task Name field or any other field, Project adds in basic information to the fields you mentioned to make it look like a Task.

    Comment by Duane — February 23, 2010 @ 5:40 am

  7. Sorry for above message, the browser input is poor for large posts and it seemed to delete half of my post.

    So again yes you can,

    on my ms projects (version 2003) i have it so that it automatically will change the colour to red for those tasks late (i.e. past status date and not complete) and also green for those tasks due for completion in the next two weeks.

    it needs a bit of programming in the customised fields to do this, but in simple terms…

    create a new customised flag field called Late Flag or something similar and set it to a formula:
    IIf(([% Complete]<100) And ([Finish]<=[Status Date]),Yes,No)

    note you can replace status date with current date if you want but i prefer to use project to show the status at the time of my updates.

    you then go into bar styles and create a new row underneath the existing task row (as it applies styles in order and overalys the styles one by one)

    To only show the tasks that are late in red, you set the row to be the same as the existing tasks row but change the colour to red and where in the show for column it has Normal, you set it to Normal,Flagx (where x is the number of the flag you customised above).

    That allows you to show late tasks in red by effectively changing the bar colour.

    the second formual in my above post will allow you to identify and do something similar for those tasks that are due in the next couple of weeks (14 days) and the process is essentially the same as how you show late tasks.


    Comment by Cameron — August 15, 2012 @ 12:49 am

  8. Thanks for the site, it’s got some valuable information. However (there’s always that however), PLEASE make it clear that Project is NOT a scheduler. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to explain to users that Project does not do scheduling, it only plans and reports it. It is a scheduling tool, but the user is the scheduler. Perhaps a reference to some favorite Capacity Planning or Finite Scheduling sites will make it clearer.

    I appreciate your effort. Thanks again.

    Comment by Joe Roberts — March 23, 2013 @ 4:26 am

  9. I’m amazed, I have to admit. Rarely do I come across a blog that’s both educative and entertaining, and without a doubt,
    you have hit the nail on the head. The problem is something which too few folks are speaking intelligently about.
    Now i’m very happy that I found this in my hunt for something concerning this.

    Comment by — April 10, 2013 @ 5:08 pm

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