How To Create a Timeline (With Steps, Example and Tips)

Updated February 3, 2023

An illustration showing a person moving timeline frames on a white board

Graphs, charts and tables are useful tools to measure progress or display information. Timelines are a basic, popular method of charting milestones, goals and important events that happen over a specific time. Professionals can benefit from using devices like this to show achievable expectations and project guidelines.

In this article, we examine the benefits of creating a timeline, including the definition of a timeline and three ways to create your own, plus tips on how to make one effectively.

Related: 8 Steps To Creating a Project Timeline and Top Benefits

What is a timeline?

A timeline is a diagram showing important events or milestones during a specific interval of time. The events appear chronologically along a line, usually from left to right on a horizontal line. This diagram can show large or small periods, but they typically focus on specific times where relevant events occur. You can use timelines to teach history by showing how and when important events happened in the past, but you may also use them to track future project milestones.

Related: How To Set Goals and Achieve Them

Benefits of creating a timeline

Creating a timeline can be useful when you need a visual representation of a sequence of events. The workplace is one of the most common places you can find timelines because they can help teams track progress toward their goals and stay focused to meet company milestones on time.

For instance, if a company is starting a new project, team leads or managers may create timelines that show when they should finish certain parts of the project. Management can use these timelines to delegate work to employees, which makes a more efficient workflow and helps the team collaborate to finish the project on time. Other workplace uses for timelines include showing annual progress, managing self-accountability and expressing expectations.

Related: Critical Path Project Management: Definition and Examples

How to create a timeline

You can easily create a timeline in only a few simple steps on paper or a computer program with specific chart and graph tools. A variety of software and templates are also available online. Since these diagrams are so basic, it's easy to customize them or change them to fit your needs, so pick a medium that works best for you. Here are three ways to create a timeline:

Creating a timeline with paper

These are the steps to create a paper timeline:

  1. Determine your purpose. Begin by thinking about what you want your timeline to accomplish. After you've decided on a purpose, gather your materials and do any necessary research.

  2. Get a writing utensil and paper. For quick timelines, a pencil or pen and paper are fine. Consider poster boards and markers to make your timeline large enough for your colleagues to read for bigger projects or presentations.

  3. Draw a straight line across the page. A ruler can be helpful in guiding your line neatly. Remember to think about the placement of your line before drawing with markers or pens that you can't erase.

  4. Specify your time period. Write the intervals of time that your diagram measures. For example, if you measure from March to September, write the name of each month at equal intervals along your line.

  5. Mark important dates and explain. For each event or goal, draw a line to the corresponding time it happened or should happen. Write the exact date or a close estimate and briefly explain the event or goal.

  6. Customize. Use colors, borders and shapes to customize your timeline. This can help differentiate information for readers and make the diagram more engaging.

Related: Project Plans To Use for Your Next Project (With Examples)

Creating a timeline with Google Document

These steps can help you create a timeline with Google docs:

  1. Determine your purpose. Just like for a paper timeline, consider the purpose of your project before you start, and then gather the information you need to create the diagram.

  2. Open the program. Find the icon for Google Documents on your computer. When you click it, a new, blank document will open.

  3. Set the page's orientation to landscape. You want as much space as possible for your timeline. Since Google documents are default set to portrait (vertical orientation), you'll have to change the page's orientation to landscape (horizontal orientation). Click on the File menu in your Google document, then select "Page setup."

  4. Open the drawing tool. You can use the drawing tool, which is also Google's chart maker, to create a timeline. The built-in tool lets users draw lines, manipulate text and shapes, and add color. To start, click on the Insert menu in your document. Select the Drawing option, and then click "+ New" to open a blank canvas, which will appear on top of your document.

  5. Create your timeline. From the top toolbar of your drawing canvas, click the drop-down button next to the Line tool, then select the Arrow option from the drop-down. Next, starting at one end of your canvas, click and drag the line horizontally to create the main timeline. To put arrows on the ends of your line, click on the Line start icon on the toolbar, and then pick an arrow type from the drop-down menu. 

  6. Add timeline events or project tasks. Click on the boxed "T" text box tool, click on an area above or below the horizontal line, then type in a time or an event. Drag a corner or side of the box to resize and reposition the text box as needed. Copy and paste the first text box to duplicate the styling and format. Then edit the text as necessary. To connect tasks or events to their time points with vertical lines, go back to the Line tool in the toolbar, then select "Line" from the choices.

  7. Save your timeline. Click on the blue "Save and Close" button on the top right to add the timeline to your Google document. If you need to go back to the drawing canvas to make changes, simply double-click on the timeline.

Creating a timeline with Microsoft Word

These steps can help you create a timeline with Microsoft Word:

  1. Determine your purpose. Just like for a paper timeline, consider the purpose of your project before you start, and then gather the information you need to create the diagram.

  2. Open the program. Find the icon for Microsoft Word on your computer. When you click it, a new, blank document will open.

  3. Find the "Insert" tab and choose "SmartArt." At the top of your document, find the "Insert" tab and click on it, then select the "SmartArt" option. A dialog box will open.

  4. Choose "Process," then a timeline layout. On the left-hand side of the dialog box, click "Process" and choose a timeline layout from the list.

  5. Enter your information. In the text box, type the information you want to put in each part of your timeline. This can be each important event or milestone and the date it happened or should happen.

  6. Save the file. Locate the "Save" or "Save As" option. Name your file and save it in a folder on your computer.

Related: How To List Microsoft Office Skills on a Resume

Timeline template

Your timeline will be unique to your purpose and information, but most timelines have a similar look because they follow a basic template. Depending on how many details you want to display, you can adapt the basic timeline to fit your needs. To help you understand, here is a timeline template in the most basic format:

[Title stating the purpose of timeline]

  • [Date: first milestone overview]

  • [Date: second milestone overview]

  • [Date: third milestone overview]

  • [Date: milestone overview]

Timeline example

Here's a project timeline example to give you an idea of the type of information you can include:

Smart parking garage project

  • 6/15/2021: Gather network, security and internet requirements

  • 7/1/2021: Sign contractors and vendors for network and construction

  • 8/1/2021: Begin construction, app development and network build

  • 9/1/2021: Install light panels above parking spaces and move app into user acceptance testing

  • 10/1/2021: Grand opening

Tips for creating a timeline

When you create a timeline, you can keep it simple, but there are a few helpful tips to assist you in making an informative and useful timeline:

  • Be clear about what you want to show on the timeline. Think about this and make a decision before you start making the timeline. Consider sketching it out before you begin.

  • Plan a work breakdown structure (WBS). The process breaks a large project or objective into smaller, more manageable pieces that you can reasonably evaluate and assign to teams.

  • Be specific about the period you use. Make sure this covers all the events, whether it's a timeline for an entire project or just part of the project.

  • Use zigzags or broken lines to show gaps. This is useful if there are breaks with little activity at certain points.

  • Use images to illustrate events. This makes the timeline more visually interesting and can also help to make it more memorable.

  • Use visuals like colors and borders sparingly. Using a lot of visuals or colors can be overwhelming or distracting so make sure the result is clear and easy to understand.

  • Highlight only the most important information and events. Include the main milestones on your timeline and keep descriptions brief and clear.

  • Give the timeline a clear title. This clarifies what it's about and makes it easier for others to understand.

  • Ask for feedback before presenting. If you plan to present the timeline at a meeting or event, ask a colleague or manager for feedback to make sure the timeline is effective and includes all the necessary information.

Please note that none of the organizations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.


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