Have you ever felt like you’re going through a maze in project planning? You really want to show how good you are, especially with critical path analysis. It’s all about showing you’re great at what you do, isn’t it?

It can be tricky. It’s figuring out the best way to pinpoint the critical path. The one that’ll highlight your skills and get you that nod of approval.

Five years into my career, I tackled a high-stakes process plant project in Singapore. There was a lot of pressure, but not much time. Everyone expects a lot from me. I gave it my all, hoping to prove I was valuable.

Then, a breakthrough! I discovered a pro tip: using the top 3 float paths for critical path analysis.

It showed me the true critical path, shifting my focus to what really mattered. This changed everything for me.

Here’s the deal: mastering critical path analysis using the top 3 float paths is your shortcut to success.

Ready to prove your skills and become the project hero? Let’s jump into this guide and transform your doubts into confidence. Let’s get started.

Why Top 3 Float Paths

Picture this: you’re working with a project manager who asks for a list of critical tasks to guide your team.

And you hand them a schedule with the wrong critical tasks. Then, what happens? It might cause your team to invest time and effort in the wrong places.

It’s a frustrating scenario that often leads to wasted resources.

As Peter Drucker once put it, ‘Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things.’ To truly be effective – to avoid wasting valuable time and effort – you must ensure you’re working on the right tasks and giving them the priority they deserve.


However, achieving this isn’t always easy. Especially in larger and more complex projects. And sometimes, the critical tasks that software tells us might not always be right.

But there’s good news: using the top 3 float paths can help. They show you if you’re really working on the most critical tasks.

How does it work? These float paths highlight the longest path with genuinely critical.

You might think you can figure out the longest path without using the top 3 float paths. And that’s true.

But, without the top 3 float paths, you can’t be totally sure you’re focusing on the most critical tasks.

Discover Your Project’s Most Critical Activities

When you identify the most critical path activities, there’s more to it than just total float.


If you solely rely on the total float to check critical, you might miss out on some critical tasks.

The critical ones that hidden along the longest path.

Why does this happen?

Projects come with many attributes:

  • Multiple calendars
  • lags, constraints, and
  • External dependencies, including links from sources outside your project.

Constraints can come in different ways:

  • Soft Constraints: ‘Start On or After’ and Finish On or After’ (soft constraints), etc.
  • Hard Constraints: ‘Finish On’ and ‘Mandatory Finish’

These factors can impact total float. And it leads to different outcomes depending on how you handle them.

How can you be sure that your project’s critical path truly reflects reality?

This is where the Total Float Only approach falls short. To uncover true critical path activities, you need to take a look at the longest path.

In P6, you can do this by switching to the ‘longest path‘ option with the top 3 float paths.

Harnessing the Power of the Top 3 Float Paths

So, why are these Top 3 float paths your secret weapon for finding the longest path in your project?

Well, if your schedule setup is right, you’ll find the longest path activities in ‘float path 1’.

This is where the most critical project activities exist.

Decoding the Longest Path: What to Look For

But what defines the longest path? It’s quite simple:

  • At the beginning of your project, the longest path activities kick off from the project’s start.
  • As your project progresses, the longest path extends from the data date to the project’s completion.

Longest path before project progress

Longest path with activity in progress

Why Float Path 1 Matters Most

Ever wonder why float path 1 always shows the longest path activities at the top?

Here’s the simple answer: total float value. Depending on your project’s size and complexity, float paths 2 and 3 can have different total float values, from zero to something else. But the magic of float path 1 is that it consistently stays at a total float of zero.

So, remember, Float Path 1 is where it all happens.

Mastered the top 3 paths in critical path analysis? Now, let’s adjust your schedule’s layout and setting. Ready to level up? Let’s start!

Setting Up Top 3 Float Paths for Most Critical Path Activities 

STEP 1 – Setting up Your Columns

Alright, let’s make your schedule smarter. First up, we need to pick the right columns that’ll give us the full picture:

  • Original Duration & At Completion Duration
  • Activity % Complete
  • Start & Finish
  • Total Float
  • BL Project Total Float & Variance BL Project Finish

To get these columns, hop over to Views > Columns > Available Options, find these gems, and add them to your layout. How?

Enter the name of the column you’re searching for, such as ‘BL Project Total Float‘. After typing it in, hit the arrow button to move it into your ‘Selected Options‘ list.

⇒ Then, you should see the columns below.

STEP 2 – Filtering for Focus

Next, we want to zero in on what really matters by applying two filters:

  • Activity Status Filter: We’re ignoring all tasks that are finished. We’re all about what’s happening now.
  • Float Path Filter: Stick to the top 3 float paths to highlight the most critical activities.

Can’t find these filters? No sweat. You’ll need to create them in P6. How?

  1. Create a new filter “Activity Status = Not Completed”. Add the parameter ‘Where Activity Status is not equal to Completed’ and click OK.

  1. Create a filter for float paths and name it Float Path <= 3.
    Add the parameter ‘Where Float Path is less than or equals 3’ and click OK.

But, you’re not limited to just the top 3 float paths. If you prefer to track the top 5, for instance, just adjust the float path filter accordingly—like setting it to ‘Float Path is less than or equal to 5‘.

STEP 3 – Honing in on ‘Longest Path’

The longest path gives us the runway of our project’s critical activities. To set this up:

  • Navigate to Tools > Schedule or press ‘F9‘. Here, you’ll mark open-ended activities as critical and use the expected finish date to identify the longest path activities.

STEP 4 –  Dive into Advanced Scheduling

To get the most out of P6 for highlighting your project’s critical paths, follow this straightforward approach:

  1. Activate ‘Calculate Multiple Float Paths‘ in Advanced Settings: This tells P6 to evaluate all possible paths, extending beyond the longest one to provide a comprehensive overview.
  2. Select ‘Free Float: This focuses on the most critical activities in the first float path, helping you prioritise effectively.
  3. Choose an Endpoint Wisely:
  • For a comprehensive view, select the project’s end goal, like ‘Project Completion‘ or ‘System Approved‘. P6 will then display the full critical path leading to this point.
  • For specific objectives, pick an important milestone, such as ‘Ready for Shutdown‘. P6 will show the direct steps necessary to reach this milestone, helping you concentrate on the essential tasks.
  1. Adjust Your View: P6 allows you to tailor the display to your project’s needs. Set the number of float paths you wish to monitor to ensure you have a clear overview of your project’s critical activities.

STEP 5 –  Organise the Float Path Layout to Discover the Most Critical Path Activities 

A well-organized view is key to making sense of your data:

Go to Views > Group and Sort by and group activities by “Float Path“. Ensure that titles and names/descriptions are visible for easy reference.

1) Under Group By column, choose “Float Path”.

2) Under Show: select tick “Title” and “Name/Description”.

STEP 6 – Schedule (Press F9) to See the Result

Alright, you’ve made it through the steps, so here’s the fun part: Press F9 and watch the magic happen: float paths light up your screen. Go ahead and save that layout once it pops up.

You’ll see float paths 1 to 3, clear as day. But, a heads-up: skipped the baseline setup? Then, you’ll miss out on key details like the baseline bar, total float, and finish date variances.

Now, you’re staring down the longest path activities. Impressive, right? But don’t relax just yet. We’ve got to double-check those are indeed the longest paths. Time to put on your detective hat and confirm we’re on the right track.

Validate The True Critical Path of the Project

When you run a critical path analysis with float paths, your first task is to review the longest path in your project. This is the critical path where the true critical path activities exist.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Identify the Longest Path: Look for the longest path, usually marked as ‘float path 1‘ and at the top of your schedule. Your goal is to make sure the continuous chain of activities from start to finish is on float path 1.

  1. Align with Your Team: Confirm that the longest path makes sense to your team. If there are discrepancies, address them to ensure the sequence and duration of activities match your team’s expectations.
  2. Adjust the Schedule: If the longest path is not on float path 1, you may need to modify your schedule.

Adjust the schedule for True Critical Activities

When you’re diving into critical path analysis to uncover what truly matters in your project or assess potential schedule risks, here’s where you need to begin: a solid schedule.

Let’s keep it practical. Schedules can get complicated, especially when they’re loaded with constraints, like ‘as late as possible,’ lags, and open-ended activities. These things not only mess with your schedule’s quality but also throw off the calculations for float paths. 

The Impact of Constraints on Your Schedule

So, let’s start with the basics. Take a close look at your schedule and pay attention to constraints, especially if someone else created it.

You might be surprised by how many constraints are hiding there, even among completed tasks. And you’ll wonder why the critical path isn’t showing up right from the project’s start (or data date).

Constraints are like the troublemakers. They mess up the Critical Path Method (CPM) calculation. Let’s break it down:

Scenario 1 – Critical Path with Constraints: Imagine you have soft constraints like ‘Start On or After.‘ You’ll notice that the schedule doesn’t represent the longest path because these constraints disrupt the CPM calculation.

Scenario 2 – Critical Path without Constraints:
Now, think about removing those constraints. Suddenly, the longest path becomes clear in float path 1. This scenario shows that your project can display a critical path accurately once you get rid of constraints.

However, let’s face facts – in the real world, it’s nearly impossible to have a schedule without constraints. Constraints are part and parcel of projects.

Practical Tips for Keeping Imposed Dates While Maintaining CPM Calculation

So, how do you stick to your imposed dates while keeping your critical path intact? Here are a few practical tips:

  1. Swap Constraints for Calendars: If an activity is out of your team’s control and comes with a set date, consider using an activity calendar. For example, create a ‘shutdown start date calendar’ for the ‘shutdown start’ milestone or an ‘equipment available calendar’ for the ‘equipment available’ start date.

  1. Embrace Schedule Buffers: Another way to avoid constraints is by using schedule buffers. This is handy when you have a critical date set by the client or stakeholders, especially if it falls in the middle of the project. Add a buffer activity before this date. But make sure to keep it updated during schedule updates.

    This helps you track the client-imposed date and float availability until the buffer disappears, showing increasing schedule risk.

    1. Use Constraints Sparingly: The more you rely on constraints, the more likely you’ll mess up your critical path. So, keep constraints to a minimum. Good schedule design, like assigning calendars, identifying suitable predecessors, and adding activities to replace lags, can reduce the need for constraints.
    2. Substitute Predecessors for Constraints: Instead of going for constraints, opt for predecessors within your schedule. Many times, you’ll find a suitable predecessor already there. Unfortunately, some schedulers, even the experienced ones, tend to use constraints when team members want specific dates on the schedule. However, it’s not the best approach.

As Warren Berger beautifully puts it in his book ‘A More Beautiful Question,’ ‘Before you put a constraint on the schedule, ask why your team wants that to be on a specific date. When you ask a good question, you will get a good answer.’


This approach can help you discover the right predecessors to use instead of constraints.

  1. Avoid Hard Constraints: Whenever possible, don’t use hard constraints.

    If you must use them to reflect negative float when the project’s running late while still retaining some flexibility for critical path calculation, consider using ‘Finish On or Before.’ But save this for the final milestone of the project.

Uncover Truly Critical Activities Beyond The Longest Path

Ever focused on the longest path for critical tasks? There’s more to it. By only focusing on the longest path, you risk overlooking other key activities. Even those not in the spotlight, like nearly-critical or so-called non-critical tasks, can significantly impact your schedule.

Why? Consider activities with lots of float. They’re easy to ignore if they seem low-risk, but what if they’re high-risk? 

High-risk activities, but if you treat them as low priority, could derail your deadline. To me, they’re as critical as your longest-path ones. So watch out for these hidden threats.

Discovering Risks You Didn’t See Coming

When you’re doing a critical path analysis, the top 3 float paths are your go-to. They highlight not just the obvious critical activities but also the less obvious ones.

For example, you might think you’re safe with a 20-day buffer for construction funds, but what if stakeholders disapprove of your documents?

You can’t blame them for funding delays. Instead, be proactive: ensure your documents are impeccable and speed up preceding activities. 

Similarly, Don’t just blame external factors like vendors for late deliveries. Plan for these scenarios in advance. For example, plan to order the critical materials (or long lead items) as early as possible if it’s feasible. 

The key here is that the top 3 float paths aren’t just about float; they’re a detector for potential issues. They won’t hand you solutions, but they’ll highlight risks and areas for greater attention.



Guiding Your Team in Risk Recognition

Want to catch schedule risks before they catch you?

Zoom in on float paths that lead to key milestones, not just the project’s end.

When you spot an activity sitting on the top 3 float paths, ask yourself, ‘What’s the risk impact on our schedule if things go wrong here?

This approach puts potential risks under the microscope in your top 3 float path view, making it easier for your team to spot and tackle them early.

Stay vigilant on all activities and brace for surprises. With this method, you become the go-to advisor for navigating project risks with ease.


Use Top 3 Float Paths to Control Project

Here’s the deal with the Top 3 Float Path: It’s not just for show during the planning phase; it’s your toolkit for keeping the project on track:

  1. Mark the Must-Dos in Your Schedule
  • Spot the Essentials: Plug the Top 3 Float Path tasks straight into your lookahead schedule. Highlight the tasks that need urgent attention, giving your team clear, direct targets.
  1. Stay Alert and Ready to Act
  • Keep an Eye Out: Watch those Top 3 Float Paths closely. If the float starts dropping, it’s time to alert the team and change your approach to avoid delays.

  1. Dig Deeper with the Top 3 Report
  • Use this report as your guide to identify and fast-track the tasks that are critical to your deadline. Focus on these to keep your project moving smoothly.
  1. Strengthen with Team Input
  • Address Changes Together: If certain tasks are becoming more critical, discuss with your team to find out why and fix any issues early.
  • Regularly Review Schedule Logic: Make sure the Top 3 Float Paths actually reflect the most critical activities right now. Adjust as needed to keep everyone focused on what truly matters.

Take Action
: With the Top 3 Float Path approach, you’re equipped to lead your project effectively, making sure every step takes you closer to success.

Having a hard time unlocking the float path view in P6? No worries! Grab the top 3 float path layout right here and make your life easier.

Your Path to Impact

Ever wonder if you’re making your mark as a planner or scheduler?
It’s a common concern. Especially when you’re just starting out. You might think, “Do I matter in this project?”

Here’s the truth: you’re closer to making a significant impact than you realise.

Critical path analysis with the Top 3 Float Paths doesn’t just help you find most critical tasks. It equips you to control the project’s flow like never before.

You’re not just tracking tasks; you’re identifying what drives the project forward. This moves you from data entry to a key strategist, guiding your team to success.

When you highlight the risks and opportunities, you’re not only solving problems.

You’re preventing them. This shift in approach doesn’t just get you noticed; it makes you indispensable.

So, shake off those doubts. With these skills, you’re not just a contributor; you’re a game-changer. And no one wants to lose you.

Get ready to stand tall; you’re about to make a real difference.

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