Smartsheet Tips: Creating a Work-Back Schedule


Smartsheet Tips: Creating a Work-Back Schedule

While it may feel easier to start planning a project with a kick off date, many of us need to work backwards from an end date or goal.  Otherwise, how can you ensure everything gets done before that big presentation, event or rollout?

If you’re like me, you work backwards all the time.  Luckily, it’s as easy to work backwards in Smartsheet as it is to work forward.  This week, we’ll take you through the four simple steps you need to take to build a project sheet backwards from an event date.

Since all of the pumpkin flavored goodness is hitting the stores and autumn’s on my mind, let’s use planning a Halloween party as an example to illustrate these steps.

1) Start with a new project sheet.

In this type of scenario, the end date of your project (rather than the start date) is what you know – for me, that’s the date of my Halloween party.  So, to get started organizing my tasks and putting dates behind them – in order to determine a start date for all of my planning – I’ll use project management features in Smartsheet to get organized and plot out timing on a Gantt chart.

Enter the project sheet.  Project sheets have these project management tools – a Gantt chart, enabled dependencies, and standard dependency columns – all automatically enabled and ready to go.

You can open a new project sheet from the Plus tab as an option under ‘Create New’, or from the ‘Create New’ in the left-hand toolbar.


2) Enter your end date.

For my Halloween party, my end date is October 31.  I’m going to add this to row 16 so that I have room above my end date to add all of the tasks I need to take care of before my party.

To make October 31st a milestone, I’ll give it a duration of 0.

3) Outline the steps you need to accomplish before your end date.

In the first 15 rows, I'll fill in all of the task names for my party that need to be completed before the 31st, and the approximate number of days it will take to complete each one in the Duration column.

I won't enter any start or finish dates; these will be calculated automatically by the dependency settings in Smartsheet.

I've also used Hierarchy to divide tasks into sections, using background color and bold text formatting to make the parent rows stand out.  

4) Schedule dates for all of your sub-tasks using predecessors.

Next comes the most important part of the scheduling process - setting the sub-task dates backwards based on my event date.

To do this, I’ll use Start-to-Finish predecessors in the sub-task rows.  This particular type of predecessor will set the finish date of the last task due before the event (in our example, row 15 – Get into Costume) as the day before the event.  To create this type of dependency between rows, click on the predecessor cell for a sub-task and click the pencil icon that appears.

Here, I’ve set the row number to 16 (the row that contains my Halloween party date) and the type of predecessor to Start-to-Finish. When I click OK, the start and end dates for this sub-task are calculated automatically by Smartsheet.

Lag Days Take a look at the Finish dates that have been assigned to the Event Date Setup tasks – these are all tasks I want to complete the day of my Halloween party, not the day before. To make this type of adjustment, I’ll use Lag Days to push out the start date of the sub-tasks by one day (to update from the 30th to the 31st).  Click the pencil icon to pull up the Edit Predecessor menu again, and enter 1 into the lag day field for each sub-task. This way they will all be scheduled to take place on the same day as the Halloween party.

Now I can set up Start-to-Finish dependencies for the other sub-tasks in my sheet. 

Some of the sub-task start dates are driven off the party date itself, but others are driven based on the completion of other sub-tasks. For example, I need to take measurements before I can purchase any decorations, so in row 2 I'll create a Start-to-Finish dependency on row 5.

I use lag days intermittently to represent a period of inactivity between a task and its predecessor. For example, I use -14 in the Send Invitations row, because I want to make sure my guests have 2 weeks of advance notice between the time the invitations are sent and the event date.

Here's my completed schedule, and I can see that in order to be prepared for my party on Halloween, I need to get started on October 1st:

Working backwards works wonders. Try out this approach the next time you have a deadline and want to plan ahead!

Til next week, dig in and explore!

- Support Team


Question for you

If, for some reason, I decided to change the date of my Halloween party to the 4th November halfway through my planning would all the dates adjust accordingly to suit the new date?

Re: Question for you

Kelly Anthony's picture
Hi Jo, Yes, given that all of the dependencies are set up properly, your work-back schedule will adjust based on the end date. Thanks! Kelly

what if the party date gets

what if the party date gets pulled in mid-way through the schedule? Lets say the party now needs to be on oct 28, what happens to the completed tasks - will they remain fixed as they are already completed?

RE: what if the party date gets

Emily Esposito's picture
Hi Larry -- The dates would change even if the tasks are already completed. There is not currently a way around this unless you remove the predecessor values when the tasks are completed. -Emily

dates and # of days not matching

You set Creepy tunes date to be -5 days from line 16 which is October 31st. That would be October 26th. With a 2 day duration that should be October 25 & 26th the way I calculate it. Yet your sheet shows Oct 22 & 23. To me that is -8 days from line 16. I work in a 7 day a week business with contract deadlines based on calendar days from contract dates. How do you set it so it calculates all calendar days and not business days?

RE: dates and # of days not matching

Emily Esposito's picture
Hi Kathryn, thank you for your comment. Please email our Support team at [email protected] and someone will be happy to help you! Best, Emily

RE: dates and # of days not matching

Not sure if you've already resolved this issue. Anyway, just in case: 1. On your gantt, right-click on the week/days bar on the top. 2. A menu will be displayed, click on "Project Settings" 3. A popup window will be displayed with three options on left and the details of each option at the right. 4. Select the option "Dependency Settings" from the left. 5. On the right, you will see a section named: "Working Days". Click on the "Edit" button on this section. 6. A new popup window will display. Here you will be able to 6.1 Select what days are the ones to be considered in your project 6.2 Define the Length of Day (in hours) 6.3 Add all those days you want to define as non-working days: Holidays, etc. 7. You're all set. Hope this helps if you have not get there yet. Cheers,

RE: RE: dates and # of days not matching

Smartsheet Community Manager's picture
Thanks, Manueladolfo!

Successor Column

Can a Successor Column be displayed?

RE: Successor Column

Emily Esposito's picture
Hi Alex -- Yes, a successor column can be displayed, but you would have to manually fill it in. If you have more questions, please email our Support team at [email protected] Best, Emily

Successors Column is needed

Please add an auto-populated Successors column. This is important for judging which downstream tasks will be impacted by the modification of a given task. The suggestion to manually input this information is not helpful. That is like someone asking for a phonebook and being handed a blank ream of paper & a pen instead.

RE: Successors Column is needed

Emily Esposito's picture
Hi Steve -- Thanks for your feedback. I have forwarded this comment to our Product team for future consideration. Best, Emily

this still isn't technically right

Hi - I have been recently trying to make a case to the Smartsheet developers to fix the entire dependency function because the Gantt chart technically isn't right. When you build a project this way, the project timeline according to the Gantt chart is technically flowing backwards. I mean you can ignore the arrow heads and just pretend it is flowing correctly as long as the dates jive but us PM's are annoyingly finicky about these sorts of things and now that we have added more PM's here (it's not just me anymore) and one of them just pointed out the project is flowing backward, I am rethinking as to whether we are going to continue using Smartsheet. Is there any chance this is being considered on any product backlogs? I really hope so. Thanks!

RE: this still isn't technically right

Smartsheet Community Manager's picture
Hi Jeff, Thank you for taking the time to explain your view about the directional flow of the Gantt chart. Your recommendations have been submitted to our product team for consideration. Regards, The Smartsheet Team

Hi, regarding predecessors, I

Hi, regarding predecessors, I would like the duration to be calculated automatically based on predecessors set up ; e.g. 1 predecessor defines the start date and 1 predecessor defines the finish date. I can't seem to crack this, and it is really annoying; sometimes I don't have a specific amount of time dedicated to a task, rather I want to display how much time I have to complete a task depending on how long the previous task takes and when the next task has to be completed. Is there any way to do that?? Thanks a lot!

RE: Hi, regarding predecessors, I

Smartsheet Community Manager's picture
Hello Melissa, Duration is not linked to predecessors. Predecessors can be used to set start or end dates but not the duration of a task. We have submitted your idea to the product team for consideration. Thank you! - The Smartsheet Team

duplicating sequence, changing due date

I hit send by mistake, so apologies if an unfinished comment comes up... This "working backwards from a due date" is exactly what I have been looking for, so thank you for the great explanation. However, what I would like to be able to do is copy/paste all of the sub tasks (Dependencies) and insert them into the same sheet with a new final Due Date (Predecessor) and have the dates auto populate based on the new Due Date. In other words I have a Project Due on X date and a series of sub tasks that have to be done on a certain # of days before X. I then have a 2nd project that is due on Y but it has the exact same set of sub tasks, all due the same # of days prior to Y. Is there a way to do this without having to go in and change the Row number of the pasted dependencies refer to in order to calculate their due dates? I hope that makes sense. Thanks Jennifer

RE: duplicating sequence, changing due date

Smartsheet Community Manager's picture
Hello Jennifer, There is not a way to do this automatically. Once the new rows are added to the destination sheet, the predecessor values will need to be manually added based on the preceding tasks. Adding the predecessors will adjust the dates for the tasks as requested, but it is not going to do it automatically when added to the sheet. Thank you for your question. - The Smartsheet Team

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