Contexts are an important part of David Allen’s Getting Things Done, but as we have changed the way we work, are they still as important? For a little context, contexts are generally defined as a particular tool, location, or group that are required for a certain task to take place. A classic example might be the phone context for a phone call you need to make.
I think people are beginning to re-examine contexts though, as the way we work has changed so significantly. For instance, for an example of someone using a comprehensive context list, check out the intro image to Merlin Mann’s talk about contexts on Mac Power Users. I count 54 different contexts – just the thought of trying to decide on one of 50 plus contexts makes me stress.
So, unlike when Allen’s Getting Things Done came out in 2002, many of the defined contexts at the time have merged. Do you always work in your office or do you always send emails at your Mac? I doubt it…
Always on and always connected means you can access your work email from the beach or take phone calls away from the office. For better or worse, many of the distinguishing characteristics between work and home have been erased. For me, this means the idea of contexts has changed.
How I Use Contexts
My use of contexts is a hybrid version of the contexts suggested by GTD, but personalized to how I work. Currently, I use Home, Work, People, Phone, Errands, and Just Do It as my contexts. As you will see, some of these contexts are physical places, but most are not. Here is how I break them out in practice:
I use the home context for actions that absolutely must take place at home, but not necessarily for actions about my home. Here is the distinction, changing the air-conditioning filter must happen at home because that is where the air-condition unit lives, but calling the contractor about fixing my roof can happen anywhere I have a phone. Pretty simple huh? Watch out though, in the words of Vizzini from The Princess Bride, wait until I get going!
Work happens where ever I happen to be working. Sounds silly, but work might happen at home, at the office, on a plane, at the beach, etc. I use work as the context that is more closely aligned with my mental state than my physical location. If I feel like getting work done, then I jump into the work context and get to work! I used to keep an email context, but I found that to be redundant and now place emails into the work context. If you are interested, I have written about my use of OmniFocus to get to Inbox Zero before.
I use the people contexts to keep track of stuff associated with a specific person or group of people. I have specific contexts for:
- Family members.
- People who report to me.
- People to whom I report.
Keeping a context for a specific person allows you to have focused discussions with that person when the opportunity arises. Instead of trying to remember that thing you wanted to discuss about that project, you will have a concise list of discussion and follow-up items readily available.
For those Text Expander users out there, I use “.fu” to expand to “Follow-up about” to help generate quick reminders in Omnifocus (obviously typing in what I want to follow-up about after “about”). I then add the context of the person I need to speak with and, boom goes the dynamite!
Like the home context, the phone context is more like the traditional definition of the context in GTD. Of course, unlike in 2002, I have a phone in my pocket all day, every day. So, it is not a matter of being near a phone that governs the use of this context, but more so, having the time available to make calls.
My favorite place to access the phone context is in my car. I have a 40 minute daily commute each way, so there is plenty of time to dive into calls (when not listening to one of my favorite podcasts). Of course, be sure to use a handsfree kit to remain safe and legal (depending on your state’s laws).
But, I like being able to quickly work through my calls by going to my calls context. One note – and this is actually true for all the contexts, it is critical to put sufficient information into your reminder so that you don’t have to hunt for information when you have time to make the call. So, instead of “Call Jim”, I would strong suggest “Call Jim re: Quarterly Report at 555–555–5555”.
I lump all errands into the errands context. You will find a few raving lunatics who try to break out errands into the hardware store, the pharmacy, the grocery store, the apple store, or whatever else, but just like how the work context can take place in a variety of locations, tooth paste can be founds at a variety of stores.
If I am headed out of the house, I will check out my errands context to see if I am going by anywhere that might have the item I need. Ok, fine, raving lunatics was a bit harsh, but a simple errands context should suffice for all but the most OCD of you.
@Just Do It
My “just do it context” was shamelessly stolen from the Asian Efficiency blog. Those guys know them some GTD and OmniFocus by the way. I like this context as a someday/maybe like context for things I want to do when the mood strikes. Random research on the internet, a particular article I want to read, or just some mundane task that doesn’t require much brain power goes in the just do it category. The AE guys came up with sub-contexts of Low Energy, Research and Read and I really like those and use them frequently.
Adding additional layers of complexity to your GTD system by having dozens of contexts just doesn’t make sense to me. Of course, some will find adding a context for everything works for them, and of course, if it works for you, stick with it. But, if you are struggling to decide which of your many contexts a particular task belongs to, I would suggest limiting your contexts to the absolutely critical ones. After all, it isn’t about fiddling with a bunch of different contexts, it is about getting something done.