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7 Incorrect Ways to Use Microsoft Project: Date-Related Planning

As a consultant you come across a lot of different projects/companies/people. I’ve noticed that there are some flaws that keep popping up, regardless of the company, project or person.

In this series of articles, I would like to explain 7 of these flaws and subsequently show you how to solve each situation.

Flaw #1: Date-Related Planning

Take a close look at this Gantt table, and more specifically at the Indicators column (the blue “i” icon left to task mode):



How did these calendars get there? There’s a good chance you used the Start and Finish columns to enter the dates for the tasks. Granted, those dates are editable, but they should not be edited by hand.

What will go wrong?

If you have a schedule like this, none of the tasks are linked. And that will produce a lot of work for you when you change a tasks duration. Have a look at what happens:



Did you see that? I changed the duration for task 1, but now task 2 has a incorrect starting date. Let’s fix this.

Ideally there are just two dates that should be entered in any schedule –  there can be more but I’ll get to that later. These dates are the Project Start date (you can find that one in the Project information menu) and a deadline on the milestone for the finished product. That deadline is a fixed point in time that will not move and often has a external source like your manager or a client.

All other dates are derived from dependencies!

A dependency will force the start date of a task to a later date if the predecessor takes longer to finish.



The only thing I changed between the top and bottom image was the duration. Because task 1 was linked to task 2 (start-to-finish), the second task got a different start and finish date. Great!

Now for that exception I mentioned earlier:

There are some tasks that should have a calendar (a “start no earlier than constraint” as it is officially called). These are tasks that have external predecessors. For example, you need approval of the board, and they meet only once a month. The first possible date they get together will be your constraint. Make sure you add a note to that task, that way you will know why you added that constraint.

That’s it for now, stay tuned for my next flaw: Capacity as Activity.  Leave a comment below and I’ll be sure to respond.


This article was originally published on Erik van Hurck’s website, The Project Corner. You can visit his website for more helpful tips.

Related Content

Webinars (watch for free now!):
How to Determine the Right Scheduling Approach for your Project
Digging Deeper – Learning More about Using Constraints

7 Incorrect Ways to Use Microsoft Project: Not Using the Baseline Functionality
7 Incorrect Ways to Use Microsoft Project: Forgetting to Set a Status Date


Written by Erik van Hurck

Erik van Hurck is a Senior PPM consultant for Projectum, a western European Microsoft Partner with offices in Denmark and The Netherlands. On top of that Erik is a Microsoft MVP. As such, Erik assists enterprise customers to adopt the new Power Platform cloud solutions for Project and Portfolio Management. Erik has a personal blog (www.theprojectcornerblog.com) and is also a writer for the Microsoft Project User Group (MPUG.com).

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  1. What else can go wrong when a Scheduler enters dates into the Start and/or Finish fields?

  2. Hi Leah Z,

    Not having a dynamic schedule is in my opinion a very heavy result of using the start and/or finish fields.
    At the moment I cannot think of anything other being restricted when using this approach. Resources will still be able to write hours/time on the tasks.
    But you will not have a dynamic schedule. So the schedule will be more of a placeholder of estimates and not a reliable plan.

    Maybe another MPUG reader can think of aditional restrictions.

    PS: thank you for reading the post!

  3. Where are flaws 2 through 7?

  4. Hi Jack,

    Thank you for the enthusiasm. All posts have been available on my blog, so if you follow the link at the bottom of the post you will come to the project corner and all flaws are available to read. Hope you enjoy reading them.

    Also MPUG is currently working on a review of the other flaws and will publish them in upcomming months.

    Kind regards,

  5. The MS Project tips and tricks I peer-coach on most at my organization are around dates, dependencies, constraints, effort vs duration and finally baselining. Just yesterday I went through the whole reason for not entering start and end dates on every task with someone – pretty much verbatum to your article. It was very timely, so I sent it to him for reinforcement.

    Key to all this though is baselining so that actuals can be captured and measured against estimates. So many times folks just keep updating the start and end dates and then wonder why they can’t report on the whole picture. I just coached a PM through this very task, when his steering committee wanted the big picture – late tasks vs early tasks, project delays, etc.

    I am looking forward to reading the remainder of your series.

  6. Hi Patti,

    Not setting a baseline is I believe flaw number 5. You will be able to view the posts on The Project Corner, or wait for the MPUG revised versions when they come available.

    Thank you for reading!

  7. Date-Related Planning negates critical path methodology and correspondingly negates critcal path analysis of the schedule built with that approach. What I explain to my PM’s, Control Account and Work Package managers is that you come away with a calendar of events at best and not a project schedule. Additionally not having a dynamic project schedule disallows any type of predictive analysis and forecasting.

  8. It is wonderful. It is very interesting.

  9. A small comment against dependencies: Too often I see people add dependencies where no real depency exists just to spread the activities over time. Many times in real life there is no dependency and adding one will eventually create a problem for you when reality hits the plan. Also adding too many dependencies will make it difficult to have an overview of how the plan actually works. Dependencies are good but must be used with caution.

  10. Thanks for the great article, you saved me a lot of head scratching as to why my durations were incorrect!

  11. Hi Mark Hankins,

    Thank you for the kind words. Makes my life as a blogger all the more enjoyable. More to come on MPUG :-). Also, flaw 2 was recently published.

  12. Hello Erik – thanks for the helpful posts. In Flaw #1, you mention entering only two dates, with one being – “deadline on the milestone for the finished product”. I apologize if this is terrible question, but could you help me with what this would look like when you are setting up your schecule? How do you enter this deadline date and drive all subsequent task to it? I usually just enter a start date, build the schedule and adjust things to fit an ideal end date…
    Thanks again.

  13. Very interesting article, thank you Erik. But, but… if we all “experts” agree on that point, why do we still have so many customers “freezing” dates for all tasks in their plans? I even heard a couple of senior PM advising on never using relations…
    The biggest reason for that I think is their lack of basic knowledge on how links work and what effects they will have on their plan when real work will be inputted in the tasks. When that happens, the real world shows it’s ugly face to them and the end date of their schedule starts moving… but it CANNOT (at least according to their customers/managers…). So instead of working on their “already-late-after-two-weeks” schedule, they freeze everything and hide their head in the sand… until the first deliverables are supposed to be ready.
    The solution? Restart from scratch and explain them that initial planning is only the first step in the plan-follow-adjust cycle, and that project follow-up needs constant efforts and discipline… sad but true, but way more challenging and interesting!

  14. Hi Jean-François,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the article. It is true that most people are scared of transparency. They are like oh no now they will see the errors more clearly.

    But without transparency you are just cultivating ineffectiveness in the office I think.

    Blogs like these will one day help people understand the tools they use better. But the person will need to read and implement a well ha ha ha.

  15. I would like to have the project plan start at T0, where this form of the plan will be in the contract and T0 will be defined later.

    Is this possible?

  16. Hi , I am converting MS PRoject to Excel for the sake of project team members’. However the Start and Finish dates transfer with the date and time. This presents a problem since the conversion of the date to the xx/xx/xx format cannot be made for the entire project wth a single formating command. Do you have any suggestions?

  17. Hi Gerrit and Marlene,

    Garrit about your question: I would set T0 by setting it to a irrelevant Monday. Than remove the time bar within the Gantt charts. And don’t show the Start and Finish columns. I would do this by creating a separate view, you can read about building views on my blog. And as soon as T0 is known, you should set that to be your Project start date.

    Marlene about your question: Have you tried to extract your project as a CSV file and import this to your excel? and build the date columns to show only MM/DD/YY? This would be the way I would do it. Also, consider using Project Online, with this version your team members get a “tasks” menu showing them every task they have across different projects.

    Hope you have a wonderful years end.

  18. Hi,

    I want to include plan dates, estimated dates and actual dates in my MS project plan.The plan date should never change for a task, Whatever changes that will happen should be only done to estimated dates. Actual dates will be finished after the task is completed. How can I change the estimated dates value without affecting plan dates or how can I change the values of Actual dates (Start date and End date) without changing the values of Plan dates(Start and End Date) and Estimated dates (Start date and End Date)?


  19. Hi Vikas,

    What about using custom start and finish dates for the “planned” dates?

    Kind regards, and thanks for reading the blog,

  20. I assume it would be acceptable to use hard dates for things like lease terms, no? I stumbled across this trying to find info on how to reflect a lease termination date. I have the term as a start and end date, as it is fairly fixed. There is a clause allowing me to cancel the lease within 90 days notice, so I have a row for cancellation notice. My thought was to have the cancellation notice tied to another decision point so if we made the decision on a certain date, we could figure out what the soonest we could get into the building…so is it 90 days from now or when the lease terminates?

  21. I would say that is correct, use the fixed dates because it’s an external force that you are unable to controll.

    About the 90 day notice you should consult with your legal department I guess. I am not aware of any universal rules 🙂

    Thank you for reading the article hope it gave you some insight on how MS Project works.

  22. Hi, I’m trying to have both a planned set of dates and actual set of start and finish dates both on the Gantt chart. I have an imported .mpp file from MS access that was written with VBA and have both sets on the Gantt chart but want to actually show different sets of time using both, one under the other for each task. Help? Thanks!

  23. Hi, I am using MS project and I have populated the task plan for the entire year. The thing is that the project is broken into multiple phases. When i click on reports and select the Project Overview, the chart displays the percentage of work completed for the entire length of the project. Is there any way for me to customise the report timeline? i.e only to produce the report for each phase or a customised start and end date.

  24. Good article.

  25. I am MS Project expert and still face this issue – even after having end of end dynamic schedule it doenst show the critical path means none of the tasks are on critical path. when I put the last task of the schedule with deadline date that’s when tasks leading up to it goes on critical path.
    I am still not able to understand why this happens.

  26. Hi Nirali,

    That doesn’t sound like expected behaviour, what version of Project are you using? And could you share a file with us to look into it some more. I think that it might be related to the options menu and the way the critical path is calculated, but there should always be a critical path I agree.

    Kind regards,

  27. I am new to MS Project 2010 and wish to create a schedule while using the predecessor Column. I wish to manually set and or possibly change a date only as I see it necessary. Once I set the dates as mile stones, I only wish to see what precedes a task on a particular date. I DO NOT want the dates to change automatically. Are my set dates going to automatically change no matter what? Can I turn off the feature that calls for dates changing while using the predecessor? I am not educated with this program but must get good at it quickly. Any help would be most appreciated. Thank you!!!

  28. Michael,
    Thank you for reaching out, in regards to your question. Yes the tool supports this scenario, and I described something closely resembling it on a blog post:

    Credits go to Nenad Trajkovski of course, he wrote most of the article.

    If you need to learn the tool fast it might be wise to find some online e-learning courses or a book. Although I would always recommend taking a formal training course to get fully proficient.

  29. I have a MS Project question that I am going batty trying to solve. A task has a finish date that was completed prior to the originally entered start date. I need the original start date to remain the same but every time the completion date is entered, the start date is automatically changed. Is there any way to enter a finish date that is prior to the entered start date with out changing the start date?

  30. Hi David,

    The Originally entered start date should be captured by a baseline. If the task finished earlier, it also (probably) started earlier. Why don’t you want to capture the earlier starting date if that is true?

    The Baseline option gives you the visibility of the original intent as well as what has actually happened. If you rely on the original start date in reporting I would advice you to change the report to look at baseline start date vs actual finish date…

    There is a lot of great content on baselines on MPUG.

    Please let me know if this sounds like a plan,
    Erik van Hurck

  31. Hi Erik,

    How to overcome the problem to move start and finish date of activities after status date without manually progress the task in Microsoft Project for example:
    WBS Task Name Duration Start Finish %Comp Develop Draft Interface Control Document (ICD) 20 days 27/06/16 22/07/16 0%
    Status Date is 12/07/17
    In Open Plan Professional the dates move with the Time Now.
    Your reply is highly appreciated.

  32. Hi Kandasamy,

    I would say that you should use the “selected tasks” feature when updating your project. It’s a button you can press. and you should select the tasks you do want to move and not the ones that you want to keep at their place.

    But just like the question David has,,, I am curious to know why you do NOT want to move a task to a day in the future if there has been NO work done on it yet… Isn’t it the reality that the task can not be done in the past ergo should be done in the future?

  33. if i change in the start column date, this means i am adding a constrain

  34. So, I have to schedule my work task, resources & sub tasks for an industrial operation. I have an excel file of the other two main tasks that has been exported from an industry specific scheduling program (for a variety of reasons my task has not been scheduled, despite being a key part of the operation).
    I have imported these into project – essentially these have to be fixed dates to work around – my scheduling isn’t going to change the whole operation. I need to somehow fix these dates, and see how my tasks fit, and need to be adjusted to fit this existing schedule.
    How do I best go about this? As far as I can tell, these need to be fixed – despite all the angst about NOT fixing dates in Project.

  35. Is there any way that predecessors and successors are applied to Finish1 dates as well?

  36. Hi Meenal,
    To my knowledge there is no option to link tasks (Predecessors/successors) to other date values.

    Can you let us know what the scenario is that you are thinking about? Maybe there are other options to explore.


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