Cascading Reviews – how to keep the focus on the big picture

It’s easy to lose your focus on the big picture when you have the nose to the grindstone in you everyday life. Sometimes you find it hard to look up and see where you are going, because you are so busy being busy.

I, among many other people, follow in part the Getting Things Done methodology. But where I find the GTD system to be lacking is in explaining how to incorporate big picture thinking into everything else. Sure David Allen talks about different levels in his book, like runway, 10,000 feet, 50,000 feet and so on. But the focus of the book is getting control over your everyday workload and thus he kind of glosses over the 50,000 feet part.

Curtis McHale recently wrote about his planning of big goals and how he starts with scheduling his vacation. This prompted me to do a writeup of how I have set my process up.

Many times those who follow GTD keep looking for the perfect “system” and keep tinkering and tinkering with it in hopes that it will magically get things done for them. There is no shortcut to just doing the work.

While I did try different setups in the beginning, I have settled with a system that works for me. I have used it without much change for about two years now, which shows that it’s actually working.

It’s basically a cascade of reivews from the bigger to smaller vision. Namely a yearly review -> quarterly review -> monthly review -> weekly review -> daily review. While this at first can sound a bit much, I assure you that it’s actually less than you think. They key is turning them into a habit. When you do that, not doing one of the reviews becomes much harder than doing them since you feel that something is missing if they are not done.

Yearly review

The yearly review is the time for the long term big picture vision. Am I going in the right direction? Where do I want to be 10 years from now?

My yearly review is usually done after christmas and before regular work gets going in January. In Swedish they are called “in between” days, and are very suitable for reflection and gathering of ideas.

This is the time to really look far ahead and calibrate the compass accordingly. This includes things like thinking of my life’s purpose or creating positive affirmations. Visualize where I want to go and how it will feel like when I get there.

This then boils down to setting up some goals. Both longer term and specifically for the upcoming year.

I also choose a focus for the year. Focusing on one area does not mean that the others are neglected, just that this is where I will spend more energy on improving.

My goals list is then printed out and put in my physical calendar. There is a reason for that which you will see soon.

Quarterly review

I have found three months to be a good time frame for actually planning things. I don’t usually have enough details to know exactly what I’ll be doing six or nine months from now, but three works well.

I don’t use the standard fiscal quarters of the year, but rather the seasons. So it’s winter (dec-jan-feb), spring (mar-apr-may), summer (jun-jul-aug), and autumn (sep-oct-nov).

The quarterly review is setup in my task manager with a start date on a sunday two weeks before the end of a quarter and due date at the end of that quarter. This means I have plenty of time to get the review done. I don’t need to do it all in a single sitting, I often don’t even do it all in the same day. That is okay. I don’t need to. By now I know what I want to do before the beginning of the next quarter and that is:

  • go through the calendar for the upcoming months
  • go through all someday-maybe things
  • write a quarterly overview by hand


The calendar part is quite straightforward. Look three months ahead and note any conferences or other events I want to go to, holidays, birthdays etc. See what parts have been booked or scheduled and where I have more time. Are these busy months or more relaxed? Do I need to put something on the back burner for a while or can I press on with a personal project?

Someday maybe

So this is the time I go through what David Allen called someday-maybe list. I don’t need to review all of my would-like-to-do things every week, but I do want to check in regularly to see if now is the time to do them.

My question is simply – will any of these projects get done during the next three months? If so, they become active. Similarly, if there is anything among my active projects that will obviously not be done in the upcoming three months I move that to someday.

The quarterly overview

My quarterly overview is a template of several small lists in columns. Three columns at the top for each of the upcoming three months, underneath that two columns where one is for the following three months, and another for the quarter after that. It’s basically a nine month look-ahead.

In each of the columns I write what needs to be done in that particular time period. I look at my goals from the yearly review and the time I have available and distribute projects and actions accordingly, including writing out deadlines or other events.

Underneath these columns is a single column where I write down larger projects that are either ongoing or will span more than one month. This list is usually very short and often relates directly to my yearly goals.

The overview is written by hand since this makes me focus and really remember what I write. It also lives in my physical calendar, next to the goals list.

Monthly review

The monthly review is really simple since most of the thinking is done in the quarterly review. I have other routines I do at the turn of the month and the monthly review is part of that. I do three things:

  • check the quarterly list for what has been planned for this month
  • write a project list by hand
  • update project text file

The project list is pretty straight forward. It is actually *not* a complete project list, but rather a list of things that will get completed or worked on during the month. Again, I write it down by hand since that is how my mind works.

I also have a text file that I update with the things on my plate right now. Both the things that needs to get done this particular month, and ongoing bigger things with a longer timeframe. This list is short, usually 5-7 things.

Further down in the text file, I have written all areas of responsibility I have. And at the bottom, the focus of the year and the goals/actions that relates to that. It’s just a reminder.

The text file lives on my desktop using geektool, the project list goes in my physical calendar.

Weekly review

My weekly review happens on Sundays. I make no distinction between “work” review and “private life” review. It’s all Life, and I do the review at the end of the week.

The fewer steps you can make the review, the better. I started out with trying to follow the whole GTD flowchart process but that just didn’t stick very long. Make it as easy as possible to remember and do, and your chances of completing it week after week increases immensly.

My review:

  • check the calendar for next week
  • remind myself of my larger goals and affirmations
  • go through each project in my task manager (I use OmniFocus) and flag all tasks that I intend to do during this week
  • gather all these flagged tasks in a text file, sorted by context
  • print the text file and put in my calendar

I find it rarely works for me to schedule thing specifically with due dates for a certain day. I usually set start dates or due dates on a Sunday, because then they will come up and be part of my weekly review. Especially start dates are good for this.

I rarely use due dates for tasks except for major deadlines and some routines. Things happen in a week, and what I first intended for monday might get done on tuesday instead. Or wednesday becomes super productive and I have time over to work ahead of schedule. But I know that when I manage to complete my weekly list, I can feel confident that everything is moving forward or at least thought of. Nothing is left behind.

Gathering everything together like this also gives a nice overview of the workload. Is the list realistic? Will I get all of this done? Should I rather de-flag some things and tackle them next week instead? After a while, I have gotten a good feel of what I can accomplish in one week.

The printed list goes in my calendar and the text file is displayed on my desktop using GeekTool.

Daily review

So at the last of the cascade comes the daily review. That is even simpler.

  • check the calendar for tomorrow
  • check the weekly task list
  • write down the three most important tasks I will do tomorrow
  • visualize what tomorrow will be like

Of all these, the visualization part probably has the biggest impact. See yourself completing that thing you have procrastinated for so long. Feel the kind of energy you would like to have throughout the day. Go through your day in your head and picture in your inner mind how you get everything done that you have set out to do, while feeling relaxed and calm.

This year, I’d like to expand the daily review to include thinking of how the day has been. Specifically write down three things I did good today, and three things I will do better next time. It’s good to both reflect backwards as well as look forwards.

The cascade

Each and every review has finished with me writing or printing out a paper to put in my calendar (except the daily list, which is just a small note). They don’t have to be there, they could on the wall by your desk or anywhere else visible. But the overviews are next to eachother and that is important.

Year – quarter – month – week.

I have them all at a glance and can move up and down the scale anytime to remind myself of the what’s and why’s. It’s a cascade similar to css in that moving through the timeframe, things become more and more specific and detailed.

These lists are live documents. I have no qualms of moving something from one month to the next on my quarterly list when things happen that are out of my control. Things get added or removed as projects come and go.

But this process helps me to not try to plan too much too far ahead, while still making sure I go in the direction I want. I have the compass and I know where I want to go. But maybe the actual road there will be different than I first expected.

This process helps me navigate around the bumps in the road while still making sure I am going toward my desired destination. Do you have a process for taking you where you want to go?

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