The critical path is the sequence of tasks that directly affect the project’s completion. Any activity on the critical path must be completed by its planned finish date in order for the project to finish on time. For project management, tracking the critical path is vital to the project’s success.

In Microsoft Project, most views will not highlight the critical path by default. On the Gantt Chart, for example, all tasks display as a blue bar – with no differentiation between critical and noncritical tasks. Despite the default, MS Project users will often still need to view and analyze the critical activities. Thankfully, the program makes it very easy to display and highlight a project’s critical path.

In this article, we will cover how to display the critical path within the table and Gantt Chart in Microsoft Project. For further analysis, we will also show how to filter and highlight critical activities. Lastly, we’ll take a look at how to adjust the critical path settings and display multiple critical paths. The following examples are from Microsoft Project 2021 Professional. However, the process is the same for most versions of Project.

What is the Critical Path?

The critical path is the sequence of tasks that drive the project’s completion, as calculated by the critical path method algorithm. The critical path is composed of critical activities. Critical activities are ones that have the least amount of slack, or float. These tasks must start and finish by their planned dates to allow the project to finish on time. If any critical task is delayed, the project’s completion will also be delayed. If your project has a deadline, it’s very important to track the critical path to ensure that tasks are performing on time.

Displaying the Critical Path in MS Project

By default, most views, such as the Gantt Chart view, will not display the critical path. When looking at a series of tasks, all will appear as blue bars with black lines connecting them.

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By adding columns to the table and adjusting bars in the Gantt Chart, we can add critical path differentiators to the view. If you make these adjustments, you may want to save them to the current view so they always display.

Viewing Critical Activities on the Table

To start, you can add columns to the table to determine which tasks are critical. To add a new column, select the Add New Column dropdown to the right of the table. Here, you can add a column called Critical by typing and selecting it from the list. The Critical column will display a Yes or No for each task – Yes meaning critical, No meaning Non-Critical.

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If you need more information about the tasks, you can also add the Total Slack column. Total Slack, also known as float, is the amount of time that a task can be delayed without affecting the project’s completion. If a task has slack, it can potentially be delayed and is known as non-critical. Critical tasks, on the other hand, will have no slack and can not be delayed. In the same way, you can add a new column for Total Slack. Here, you’ll be able to see each task’s slack value and how it relates to the Critical column.

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Adding Critical Bars to the Gantt Chart

You can also view critical tasks on the Gantt Chart. Typically, in other scheduling programs, critical tasks display as red bars. This makes it very easy to track the overall critical path. By default, MS Project will not differentiate between critical and noncritical tasks on the Gantt Chart – but we can adjust this. To display the critical bars, right click within the Gantt Chart. Within the dropdown menu, select Show/Hide Bar Styles > Critical Path. Immediately, the critical tasks will display as red bars connected by red arrows within the Gantt Chart.

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You can always turn the Critical bars off the same way – right clicking, selecting Show/Hide Bar Styles, and selecting Critical Path once again.

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As mentioned, the critical bars will display in red. If you want to adjust the look of the critical bars, you can right click within the Gantt Chart and select Bar Styles. In the Bar Styles window, scroll down to the Critical bar. While selected, you can use the Text and Bar tabs below to adjust the text, shape, pattern and color for the bar.

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Highlighting, Grouping, and Filtering Critical Tasks

Displaying the critical path in MS Project will display critical tasks among non-critical ones. However, you may want to look more closely at specifically just the critical activities. You can do this by filtering, grouping, or highlighting the critical tasks. All of these options are available under the View menu, within the Data section.

Highlighting Critical Tasks

In Microsoft Project, you can highlight items in the view based on specific criteria. Rather than hiding tasks that don’t match the criteria, highlighting will show them all. The tasks that match the criteria will be noted by a yellow highlight within the table. Highlighting critical tasks can make it easier to quickly identify them from non-critical tasks.

To highlight critical tasks, select the Highlight dropdown menu within the View menu. Within the list, there are several Built-In options available – including Critical. Selecting this will highlight all critical tasks within the table for easy viewing. 

The highlight will remain a part of the view until it is manually turned off. To turn off the highlight, select Highlight > Clear Highlight.

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Grouping Critical Tasks

Similar to highlighting, you can also group critical tasks together. Grouping tasks places them all together in a list determined by the set criteria. Grouping will remove the current hierarchy in the table, and create a new one based on the set grouping. By grouping tasks by Critical, we will be able to see all critical tasks together in a list.

To group critical tasks, select the Group by dropdown within the View menu. Within the list of Built-In options, select Critical. Now, all tasks will be grouped into one of two categories – Critical: No or Critical: Yes. The nice thing about grouping is that you can collapse and expand set grouping bands. To focus on just the critical tasks, I’ll collapse Critical: No by selecting the arrow to the left of it. Within both the table and the Gantt Chart, only the critical tasks will display.

Just like with highlighting, you can turn off the grouping by selecting Group by > Clear Group.

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Filtering Critical Tasks

Lastly, if you just want to view the critical tasks alone, you can use a filter. Filters will remove all tasks from the view that do not match the set criteria. Filters are especially useful for focusing in on specific information within the schedule. Filtering by critical tasks will allow us to view only the critical path – without any non-critical tasks displaying.

To filter by critical, select the Filter dropdown within the View menu. In the Built-In list, select Critical. Now, within both the table and the Gantt Chart, only critical tasks will display. Unlike grouping, filtering keeps tasks within their set summary grouping bands

You can turn off the filter by selecting Filter > Clear Filter.

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Adjusting Critical Path Settings

Now that we’ve gone over the basics of the critical path, let’s go over some advanced options. You can adjust the critical path settings within Microsoft Project in several ways. If needed, you can change the definition of critical within the program, and even calculate multiple critical paths. These options are both available within the Project Options window. To access Project Options, select File > Options and then select the Advanced tab. These options will be at the bottom of the window, underneath Calculation options for this project

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Changing the Definition of Critical

For some projects, you may have more stringent requirements on which tasks can be delayed. Occasionally, the project owner will take control of the available slack. Even if a task has slack, the owner may not allow the task to be delayed – or the slack to be used. If this is the case, you may want to view even tasks with slack as critical to ensure they start and finish on time.

In Microsoft Project, you can change which tasks are considered critical. By default, critical tasks are tasks without slack. Within the Advanced tab of Project Options, you can adjust the critical definition. At the bottom of the window, you’ll find an option for Tasks are critical if slack is less than or equal to. Adjust the value as needed – for example, I’ll set this to 2 days. After pressing OK, even tasks with up to 2 days of slack will be marked as critical. This will help ensure that each task starts and finishes exactly when it should. 

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Calculating Multiple Float Paths 

Monitoring the critical path of the schedule is a very important part of project management. You may also want to monitor near critical paths as well. This can be useful, as any delays to the schedule could cause these near critical tasks to be a part of the most critical path. 

Microsoft Project features a multiple float path analysis tool that allows you to view multiple paths within the schedule. The program will start with the critical path, and then calculate additional paths in order of length and importance. The near critical paths are important to analyze as well, especially in tight, time constrained projects.

To calculate for multiple float paths, use the Advanced tab within the Project Options window once again. Here, you can check the option for Calculate multiple critical paths.

It should be noted that the program will not add additional critical paths when you turn on this option. However, if you add a network of tasks independent from the rest of the schedule, these tasks will be given their own critical path. If you’re working on a master schedule composed of multiple projects, the program will properly calculate each of the critical paths that may be present.

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Summary

For project management, critical path analysis is extremely important. The critical path is the sequence of tasks that determine whether or not the project will finish on time. If any of the critical tasks are delayed, the project’s completion will also be delayed. In Microsoft Project, the critical path will not display by default – but it can be turned on. By adding columns to the table and bars to the Gantt Chart, you can easily view critical tasks within the schedule. Additionally, you can focus on these tasks more clearly by highlighting, grouping, or filtering by critical. If needed, you can even adjust the definition of critical and whether multiple float paths display. Now, Microsoft Project users can view, analyze, and track their project’s critical path throughout the project’s lifecycle.

If you have any comments, questions or suggestions, please use the comment section on the bottom of this page, and don’t forget to subscribe to our blog to get more scheduling tips & tricks directly in your inbox!

Lauren Hecker is a Microsoft Project, Primavera P6, and Oracle Primavera Cloud Instructor who teaches onsite and virtual scheduling courses. To see her next open enrollment course, please visit our calendar. To schedule an onsite or custom course, please contact us!

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