Starting with task or project management isn’t always easy. You’re often bombarded with all kinds of strange jargon and odd concepts, even if you’re just putting together something simple for a small team. The aim of this project management guide for beginners is to get you started straight out the gate with the knowledge you need for basic project management.
We’ll do this by focusing on easy-to-use project management software options and tailoring your approach based on what you need. We’re going to avoid jargon and advanced project management methodologies, focusing instead on a simple approach that focuses on short-term task management rather than long-term projections and other forms of wishful thinking.
- Getting started with basic project management is easy. Don’t let yourself get distracted by all the complicated jargon — just focus on the task at hand and you’ll be fine.
- Setting up a simple project for a small team will take about 10 to 15 minutes and will save you a lot of work in the long run.
- Some of the best project management software out there is free, so there’s no need to worry about overhead just yet.
If you’re a project manager with a clear idea of what you want and need to get your job done, this is not the guide for you. Instead, you should jump straight to our selection of the best project management software and go from there. If you’re more on the clueless side of the spectrum, though, you’re in the right place. Let’s get started.
We really like monday.com for people who know a bit more about what they’re doing. It has a great set of features and will help you set up a more advanced project management process.
Not much: just some free software and a willingness to learn from your mistakes.
Project Management Guide: Our Approach
This guide uses a software-first approach. Instead of focusing on everything that may be possible using the right tools and programs, we’re going to show you several ways to get simple projects off the ground with software that’s usually free to use. We’ll do so with as little jargon as possible and hopefully get you running things pretty quickly.
We won’t be throwing project management processes at you, nor talking about the project management life cycle or the critical chain or all the phases of a project. For us, successful project management isn’t something from a book; it’s walking away from your desk at the end of the day with the knowledge that you did your best to wrap things up.
This approach lends itself very well for people that are smart in other ways than project management and are running small teams, or even just working on their own. If you’re in charge of a large company with several teams and need to keep track of dependent tasks, complicated workflows and a bunch of other stuff, this guide will likely do more harm than good.
If you need advanced project management training, there are plenty of online resources as well as lots of courses offered at universities and community colleges; you could very well have a project management institute just down the street from you. As proud as we are of this guide, it’s no substitute for formal training.
Different Kinds of Project Management Tools
The first step we need to take is to see the kind of tools you have at your disposal when using project management software and what they’re good for.
We’ll start off with the most basic project management tool of all: the list. A list is an inventory of everything you need to do, preferably ranked, but not always. You probably have a list or two lying around the house right now, so we won’t go into too much detail. Most note-taking apps will also offer some kind of list.
When it comes to managing projects and tasks, though, lists are used surprisingly often and in novel ways. Though it may seem like just presenting a wall made of tasks won’t do much except make you nervous, there’s a lot you can do with them. For starters, you can rank tasks by how important they are, with the most urgent at the top.
With the right software, you can add line breaks to a list to denote which are more urgent or less so, or you can sort tasks by day or week. In advanced software, you can even add all kinds of details to a task, like the date, which team member is doing it, and a host of other details you can come up with yourself.
Lists are the foundation of many of the best project management software. Heavy hitters like monday.com and Asana use them to keep entire project management teams focused, while freelancers can make use of more simple alternatives like Any.do and Todoist. Fortune 500 company or penniless pieceworker, they all make use of lists.
2. Kanban Boards
Next up is the kanban board. It’s pretty much the backbone of any project management strategy and almost all project management software will feature some form of it. One of the reasons it’s so popular is because it’s so simple: Columns represent the stages of a task (for example, “to-do,” “doing” and “done”) and you move tasks, denoted by cards, between them.
As you can imagine, it’s almost impossible to make a mess of this and it gives you an amazing overview of how things stand with just a single glance. Thanks to the way it’s set up, it’s also very flexible: You can add as many stages to each task as you need. Just make sure the card is moved as the project goes from stage to stage and you’re golden. Check out our full kanban guide for more details.
Kanban Board Uses
As great as it is for projects and tasks that can be divided up into stages, there’s plenty more you can do with a kanban board. For example, you can use it to plan seating at a formal dinner, with each column representing a table.
Another idea is to plan the equipment each person carries when you go camping. Make a master list of everything that needs to come with, then divvy all that up between the different people who will be going.
What Kanban Can’t
Kanban boards can be used for all kinds of purposes, but they do have their limits. Anything that can’t be easily split into neat little columns won’t work well with kanban. For example, if you have a lot of time-sensitive tasks, you’re going to need to incorporate a calendar in your strategy.
Another issue is anything that’s dependent on other tasks to be completed first, like in logistics or construction. There’s no good way to set up dependencies — two tasks that are dependent on each other in some way or another — in a kanban board. You’re much better off using a Gantt chart in these cases (more on those later).
The Best Kanban Apps
If you want to use kanban boards, pretty much every project planning tool offers one. However, our favorite kanban board — and the one we used for our examples so far — is Trello — one of the best project management software for Mac. As you can read in our Trello review, this is because it’s a very powerful and easy-to-use board. The downside is that its other views aren’t so great, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Another tool you probably can’t do without is a calendar. The concept is simple: a grid with a box for each day of the month, with the events of each day in the appropriate box.
If you’re running a project or team that needs things done by a certain date or time, then calendars are obviously a necessity. If you don’t use them, you won’t be able to plan anything, no matter how well you organize your lists and kanban boards. Or you’ll be able to plan them, but everything will either be late or early; no matter how you slice it, it’ll be a mess.
Besides letting you know when tasks are supposed to be done, calendars can also tell you when tasks are supposed to be worked on, and how long a task will take. At the very least, the ones that will allow you to set both a start and end date can.
If it’s important for you and your team to know how long a task will take, we definitely recommend you use a provider that allows for these timelines.
Two good examples are Wrike and Asana: they allow you to enter dates, while also setting longer durations, so you can see what will be eating up your resources during any given time.
However, as handy as setting timelines can be, it can also get pretty confusing for beginners. If you’re not sure what you’re doing, it might be smart to split large tasks into smaller chunks. Give them each a day or part of a day instead of allotting whole days to the whole thing. The unwritten rule of task management is “easy does it.”
As simple and important as calendars are, for some reason not all project managers offer them. Often enough, though, you can integrate them with a free one like Google Calendar; read about one example in our Any.do review.
A Note About Advanced Tools:
These three tools are the simplest ones you can find, but they can still manage a lot. The next two tools we’ll go over are more complicated — a lot more complicated, even — but we can’t call this a true guide to project management without mentioning them.
However, please note that both Gantt charts and scrum boards aren’t beginner-friendly tools, no matter how much they’re praised.
4. Gantt Charts
First up for advanced tools are Gantt charts, which are extremely useful if you know how to use them. If not, you may find yourself in trouble as they’re not very forgiving. Like any complicated system, they run as smooth as butter when handled right. However, if anything goes wrong, get ready for the kind of headache even extra-strength Tylenol can’t deal with.
Gantt charts were named for Henry Gantt, a mechanical engineer who may or may not have invented them; we go into the history of all that in our full article on how to use Gantt charts. In essence, a Gantt chart is a horizontal bar chart that can keep track of a project schedule.
A project schedule is — and, before any project managers reading this blow a gasket, this is the short version — theplanning of a project in the future. At first glance, a Gantt chart isn’t all that different from a calendar that lets you plan multiple days, but it comes with several refinements.
For one, it groups the bars in related sections, which adds some clarity. Second, it allows you to set dependencies between tasks — specialized software like TeamGantt is especially great at this (read our TeamGantt review). A dependency is a relationship between tasks, a pretty simple concept in itself, but one that gets complicated quickly in reality.
Dancing Around Dependencies
We won’t get into the weeds too much here; whole books have been written about dependencies by people a lot more knowledgeable than we are. However, it does pay for even a project manager newbie to know a little about dependencies — sometimes known as subtasks — though they can also be a different beast entirely.
Dependency is officially the relationship between tasks — so if you need to complete task A before you can get started on task B, they’re dependent on each other — but the word is often used as a noun for a dependent task. To complicate things further, dependency works both ways, so each set of two tasks in our example below is dependent on one another.
It seems like every project manager and piece of software has different ideas about the nomenclature for dependencies. Depending on whether a task is the requirement or the main, there are different words for it. It’s confusing as hell and goes against our “no jargon” promise, so we’ll leave it at this.
Just know that setting dependencies is a skill as well as an art: Make them too simple, and whatever project plan you have will quickly run into issues with prerequisites not being met. On the other hand, if you make them too complicated, one tiny change (a delivery being late or a team member calling in sick) and the whole thing will collapse under its own weight.
5. Scrum Boards
The last tool we’ll go over is the scrum board, which is one of the most important parts of the Agile methodology of project management. Read our Kanban vs Scrum guide to learn how the two tools differ.
We don’t really recommend using scrum boards unless you’re familiar with this methodology, or are managing the kind of team it was designed for — it was developed by and for software development teams.
At the risk of giving Agile fanatics an aneurysm, we’ll summarize it quickly. The board itself looks just like a kanban board, but that’s only because it is. Just like with kanban, you move tasks between columns. What makes it different is that each board represents only part of a project, called a “sprint.”
Once a sprint is completed, you start a new one, usually from another board, called the “backlog.” Many sprints together are a “story,” which can be aggregated to form an “epic.” It’s all very involved, and we get a little annoyed just writing all this down. It works very well for small teams working on targeted projects, and not as well for larger teams — generally speaking.
What you need to know as a beginner is that unless your project is geared toward using scrum, you should probably avoid it. There’s a lot of material out there aimed at promoting it, but it’s trickier than it sounds, and there’s a lot of room for error. One example is the backlog, which can become a dumping ground for tasks nobody wants to do; after all, out of sight, out of mind.
Jira is probably the most well-known example of scrum software (read our Jira review to find out why), but you can retool many project managers to support the Agile methodology. If you’re interested, check out our roundup of the best scrum software.
Hopefully, you have a better idea of the main tools you can use to set up your own projects. However, to help you further along, we’re quickly going to run down two project ideas you can draw some inspiration from. The first is a simple setup for a freelancer, while the second is an editorial calendar.
Even if you don’t neatly fall into either category, we recommend you go over them, as they’ll give you an idea of what’s possible and hopefully show you enough to at least get started with your own projects.
A: Project Example: Managing Tasks as a Freelancer
We’ll start with task management for freelancers. It’s pretty simple; for most people it will be based around lists. The exceptions are freelancers juggling multiple small tasks, who may want to opt for something a bit more advanced. Check out the editorial calendar example for more ideas.
What you want as a freelancer is a simple list. You could use Google Tasks (which, if you use Gmail, lives on the side of your screen), but it’s a bit too simple as it just bundles all tasks together in a big soup. If you like it, though, check out how to combine it with Google Calendar.
What you want instead is an app that can subdivide the list, or distinguish tasks from each other in some way. Our favorites for this are Todoist (Todoist review) and TickTick, each of which offers a list with easy labels for tasks that allow you to divide them as you wish. We’ll use TickTick to show what a good list looks like; if you’re already interested, check out our TickTick review.
In the example above, we’ve subdivided all our tasks into three sections — you could do one for each employer, for example, then one for personal tasks — giving you some overview of what you’re doing for whom. This is handy enough, but when you add the built-in calendar, you can easily see what is due when thanks to the colored tags.
We especially like TickTick for this, but plenty of other apps can do much the same. The core idea is to make your lists smarter. Piling everything into a single list will work for some time — say five to 10 tasks weekly, especially if they’re recurring.
However, if you have more than 15 tasks per week and they change around a lot, more advanced lists will be your savior. Now let’s go on to the next project example: an editorial calendar.
B: Project Example: Editorial Calendar
Our second example is something based on kanban: namely, an editorial calendar. We’ll be using Trello for this example since we like it so much, but pretty much any halfway decent project management solution can do the work here.
As with lists, the trick to a solid kanban board is to keep yourself from getting confused. The answer is almost the same as with a list: make sub-tasks. What you base sub-tasks on will depend on the project you’re running, but you can think of a few things. You can base divisions on the stage a task is in, who is doing the task or when it’s due.
In the above example, we’ve used Trello’s built-in features to add people and dates to each task. However, you can also do it the other way around, and make lists denoting people or dates. Then again, you can also do a bit of both, as in the example below (click on the image to zoom in).
We replaced the “to-do” and “doing” lists with columns for each person doing the task. That way, we know which articles are still being considered, we know who is supposed to be doing approved pieces (and when they’re due). We also know which pieces are done — none, in this example.
The nice thing is that this example is very scalable: you can add more team members, you can add extra stages before a piece is considered done (in the case of an editorial calendar, the different editors who need to go over it), the list goes on. Whatever you go with, you have something that will grow with your organization, and can meet whatever challenges you face.
Final Thoughts: How to Manage Projects
We hope our explanation of basic tools as well as our simple examples answered your most burning questions and got you started on the road to managing your tasks. We recommend you go over our roundup of the best free project management software and see which one of the project managers there will suit you best; there’s plenty to choose from.
We advise that you stick to lists, kanban boards and calendars to start with, but once you get more comfortable — or have read a project management book or two — you can branch out into different areas and try different tools.
We hope this guide was helpful. Please let us know if you have any questions or recommendations in the comments below. Maybe you’re not sure what tool to take? Or maybe a step was unclear? Let us know and, as always, thank you for reading.