How to Create a Timeline in Excel

A timeline is a tool that shows information and/or events arranged in chronological order, i.e. according to date. Milestones in a project, or important events in a person’s life, are only a few examples of information that can be graphically displayed via a timeline.

A timeline has the following benefits:

  1. It helps you arrange your information and records in a compact form.
  2. It helps you arrange it in order of priority.
  3. It helps you communicate with your team graphically.
  4. It will also help your team to point out the most important dates of events or milestones, critical tasks, and crucial deadlines, with just a glance.
  5. Hence, it will help you manage projects and team cooperation in a highly efficient manner.

Also read: Create timeline in Microsoft Power Point

What It Looks Like In Microsoft Excel?

Timeline in Excel, takes the form of a chart or table that arranges and displays the information in a visually enhanced style. This is close to what it looks like:

Timeline in Microsoft Excel

In Microsoft Excel, there are generally 2 ways to make a graphic Project Timeline, depending on which version of Microsoft Excel you have

Also read: How to create flowchart in MS Word

Using a PivotTable (for versions of 2013 and later)

A PivotTable is a tool that was introduced in the 2013 – and subsequently later – versions of Microsoft Excel. Its most basic function is to summarize data in a more usable format. Here is an example from the official Microsoft Excel PivotTable tutorial:

timeline in excel using pivot table

Steps to create Timeline using Pivot table

It is very helpful to begin with a built-in PivotTable template that comes within Microsoft Excel. It also includes a tutorial, which can help you with the basics, even if this is the first time you’ve heard of PivotTables! 

However, to help you get started, this all-in-one how-to guide will be equally helpful.

To start making a timeline in Microsoft Excel using the PivotTable feature, follow the below listed steps:

  1. Organize your data in a PivotTable.

Note: This is an important step to help utilize its  automatic organization feature into a timeline.

To do this, click on “Insert” in the main toolbar, then select “PivotTable”.

Select Pivottable from menu
  • Click on the PivotTable.

This will open the “PivotTable Tools” toolbar (similar to how clicking on a picture opens the “Picture Tools” toolbar), alongside the main toolbar.

  • Click “Analyze”.

This will open a ribbon with a range of options to arrange, analyze, sort, and manipulate your data.

Create pivottable in excel
  • Then click the “Insert Timeline” button.
Select insert timeline from menu

You will see a pop-up, listing all date-containing fields in the Table. These dates have to essentially be in proper date formats because this feature does not recognize text. (You can select a date format from the “Format Cell” option in the right-click menu for each individual cell, column, or row).

Also note that a “field” in a PivotTable is basically a “column” in the usual spreadsheet.

  • Select the required fields in this pop-up. Your Timeline has now been created.

A new pop-up will appear, where you can choose from multiple options to navigate your newly created timeline and filter your data.

Edit timeline in excel
  • Depending on the type of your data, you can select how to filter or ‘divide’ the main column (that is the object of your data), and which, in terms of the PivotTable is called the “value field”.

In your case, the value field is the “date field” in your data – which is the basis of the organization of data in a timeline.

You can also navigate your timeline depending on the spread of your data, in terms of “daily”, “monthly”, “quarterly”, or “yearly”.

  • Your timeline is now complete.

You can now examine or analyze your data by, for example, clicking on “Month” and selecting one, which will show you all entries relevant to that month.

This is close to how a prepared timeline will look like:

Timeline in excel using pivottable

As a post-script, if you still find PivotTables intimidating, you can always download and use pre-designed templates from the web.

Also read: Online tools to create flowchart

Using SmartArt (for versions of 2007 and later)

This feature, unlike the first, is not exclusive to Microsoft Excel. It is also available in, for instance, Microsoft PowerPoint. Also unlike the PivotTable, SmartArt inserts a completely new graphic layout in your spreadsheet, instead of reorganizing existing data.

To create a timeline in older versions of Microsoft Excel (not older than 2007), follow the below listed steps:

  • Open a new Spreadsheet.

Note: This step is particularly important because you will have to manually enter new data into the SmartArt feature, and it inserts separately into the spreadsheet, irrespective of your data.

  • On the main toolbar, click “Insert”.
Insert timeline in excel using smartart
  • In the “Insert” ribbon, select “SmartArt”.

This will open a dialog box with the wide range of available forms of SmartArt graphics.

Select graphics of timeline in smartart
  • In the left pane of this new dialog box, there is a list of categories, each comprising multiple styles of built-in graphic templates.

To narrow down the list of available graphics, select “Process” from this list (since your timeline is a process, or a series, of events).

This will open a submenu.

  • From the submenu, select “Timeline”.
  • In the drop-down menu of “Timeline”, select “Basic Timeline”, for instance, or any other that suits your needs.

You can also choose from the other graphic outlets that are available, such as “Single Arrow” for a continuous process, “Continuous Block Process”, etc.

To read each design’s name, and for better selection, you can scroll over each design, let your cursor stay for a second, and its name will hover over it.

  • A text pane will appear alongside the graphic.

Type your events in order in the text pane. Generally, each new line indicates a new event for the Timeline.

  • To add a new event, you can click on the “plus” icon on the text pane.

Alternatively, you can copy and paste data from elsewhere. In turn, Microsoft Excel will guess the arrangement of your data. Again, each new line will be generally taken as a different entry.

  • Since the graphic tool from SmartArt is very similar to a picture, you can resize and reposition your timeline in a similar manner. This will have no effect on the number, duration or order of events.

A Non-Graphic Technique to create a timeline

It was mentioned earlier that there are 2 general ways to create a graphic Project Timeline on Microsoft Excel.

However, if you are not really a go-to graphics person, prefer simplicity and comfort, or if you find the procedure boring, technical, or complicated, you can always use the simple blank spreadsheet (which is what basically defines Microsoft Excel) for everything – including your Project Timelines!

The procedure needed to implement this strategy is hassle-free and simply involves rearranging the information to a certain degree to make it more user-friendly and readable! This strategy gives you wider and more versatile options to work with, and requires no formal procedures.

An example method can be:

  1. List all your Project Milestones in one column.
  2. In the second column, list the starting dates of each.
  3. In the third, list the end dates.
  4. If there are intermediate dates to be mentioned, you can mention them successively in the same row.
  5. You can also arrange the dates in the cells according to the time duration between them.

It is clear, then, that this method leaves a whole lot on you and your creativity; and does not bind you to a set of rules. However, the first 2 methods are more organized, formal, and professional.