Paper copies of Gantt charts on a desk

Gantt charts are a seriously smart way to organize everything: not just your work projects, but everything from home redecoration to Christmas dinner. Invented around 1910 by Henry Gantt, their first major deployment was in the World War — so they know a bit about getting things done in stressful situations. They became so ridiculously useful that the American Society of Mechanical Engineers now awards the Henry Gantt medal for management and community service. A national agency dedicated entirely to completing projects named an award after it. How many other charts do you know with military service and medals?

The Gantt chart’s strength is that it admits things take time. You’d think more management systems would do that, except many (bad) project managers don’t seem to understand this fact either. Every task has a start and end point with clearly defined goals for each stage, laid out on a time axis. This means you not only know what you’re meant to be doing, but automatically know if you’re falling behind (instead of working on a task list for two months only to find that it’s all obsolete already).

1. Gantt Project

The Gantt Project’s mere existence is an advertisement. It’s a free, open-source, multi-platform project management system, meaning that many people thought “What should I do with my expertise and free time?” and the answer was “Make more people use Gantt charts!”

Gantt Project

Gantt Project

It’s hard to offer more than “free,” but they’ve done it anyway: the Gantt Project can also import existing Microsoft Project files, allowing you to test the system’s upgraded abilities on existing files, comparing them to Project’s options. You also get PERT (Program Evaluation and Review Technique) charts, a cousin of Gantt which lets you plan if a project is possible by working out time requirements over multiple interdependencies.

Pert Chart

Pert Chart

It’s limited to projects shorter than a few years, but as an introduction to Gantt it’s excellent.

2. iPad Gantt on the Go

Gantt charts are built for big touchscreens, which is pretty impressive considering they were born a full century before they happened. YBoom International deliver Gantt Charts for iPad (and iPhone), allowing easy creation of timelines mid-meeting or on the train.

Gantt iPad

Gantt iPad

Organizing the project on your way to work is a fantastic way to prime your brain, and highlight potential problems before promising a delivery date. You can watch a demonstration video on their site.

3. Google Gadget Gantt

If you work online, you’re using Google, and you can easily upgrade that with another brilliant labor-saving device. This free Gadget can be added to any Google Docs spreadsheet, instantly updating timelines with new information across multiple users.

Gantt Google Gadget

Gantt Google Gadget

Shared Google Docs are an excellent way to keep everyone on the same page — and to eliminate excuses about not being able to access the file! Because if people are ever unable to access Google, society will probably be too busy fighting the zombies or asteroid damage to worry about project schedules.

4. Tom’s Planner

You’ve either been convinced that Gantt is great (or haven’t tried any of the above tools yet). Either way, it’s time to start using Tom’s Planner. This web-based project management tool brings drag-and-drop simplicity to planning your entire future, and is so confident in its power you can start using it for free right now.

Tom's Planner

Tom's Planner

The cloud-based storage means you’ll never forget what you’re meant to be doing, and just how important it is for the timeline. (Whether you’ll act on that is beyond even the best visualization tool’s power.) One thing we want to hammer home: this isn’t just for work. There’s no point becoming the master of management for someone else (at work), only to drop the ball into a boiling pit of stress in your own life. Gantt charts are incredibly useful for stressful home life situations, from moving house to Christmas dinner.

Gantt Christmas Dinner Plan

Gantt Christmas Dinner Plan

Taking a few minutes to focus and plan makes everything go easier.

5. Adapting Excel

Not everyone has the freedom to install their own productivity software, because big businesses still confuse themselves with Industrial Revolution era factories (how hard is “Better tools help staff work more” to understand.) The first solution is one of the above mobile device programs. The second is a personal whiteboard, which you should really have anyway, and the third is to MacGuyver the tools you’re given. And every office in thew world has Excel.

Excel Gantt

Excel Gantt

It might not be as pretty, but it works. Microsoft  offer their own tips on Gantting up Excel for people without Project. Other users have created customized templates for easy use, while experts offer conditional formatting masterclasses. For free. Because they understand that if you’re going to use any tool, you should take the time to use it well.

Tools like your time. Get a Gantt chart and see what it can do for you.

Image credit: nadger / iStockphoto

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