GTD Contexts — Theoretical & Practical GuideAUTHOR: Francisco Sáez
“You have more to do than you can possibly do. You just need to feel good about your choices.” ~ David Allen
What are contexts?
The use of contexts is a key element in the GTD methodology. A context defines what you need to be able to carry out an action, and it can be a place, a tool or a person. When you assign to each of your actions the context in which it has to be done, you make much easier to decide the next action you should be doing, since the to-do list will be reduced to those actions that can be performed in the context in which you are at the moment.
It’s a concept which aims to maximize focus and minimize stress. If you have a lot of actions in your to-do list that you cannot carry out right now and you don’t use contexts, you are obliged to continually reconsider all the options over and over again.
It’s absurd to consider actions that you can only do at home when you are at the office, or to take into consideration tasks that require constant access to the internet if you’re not going to have the possibility of connecting in the next few hours. In the same way, it’s also silly to consider actions you can only execute when you’re face to face with your boss if he is on holidays, unavailable.
This is a completely new concept for those who start practicing GTD and it is sometimes misused. The context must always be an objective criterion. It’s not about defining the situation in which you would like or want to do something but rather the situation in which you have to do it. If you have a desktop computer and laptop at home you mustn’t use the home context for a task that you can do with both computers. Instead you should use the computer context which will allow you to bear in mind that task when you are working with your laptop at a coffee shop.
Contexts are a way of modern prioritization and provide the necessary flexibility so that you can adapt your activity to increasingly changing circumstances. They allow you to prioritize dynamically when the tools and people at your disposal vary.
How do I use contexts?
If you are practicing GTD with low-tech tools (pen & paper), in order to organize your tasks by contexts you’ll need to use a piece of paper for every usual context, and add a new action to the corresponding paper according to the context in which it has to be done.
If you’re using a high-tech tool (software), there must be a way to classify your actions so that later on you can filter only the actions of a specific category. Tags are the most common way of implementing contexts in personal productivity applications, since they provide great freedom and flexibility when defining any type of taxonomy. In FacileThings we use hashtags, a more specific form of tag, very popular thanks to Twitter.
When do you assign the context to the action? Always in the moment of processing. It’s very common wanting to do it at the same time in which you capture something, but I remind you that capturing is a stage in which you simply write down something you had in your head, quickly, without thinking. In the processing stage is when you spend some minutes thinking what’s the real meaning of this? which is the next step to achieve it? What do I need to do it? Don’t capture and process stuff at the same time.
When do you use the contexts? Only in the Next Action’s list. Their purpose is to limit the list of possible next actions to a manageable number (ideally, around 10 when you combine contexts with your energy and time available) so you can easily decide what are you going to do now. They are not necessary in the Calendar, since the actions here are mandatory. If you’re not in the correct context, obligatorily you’ll have to go to it to do whatever you have in the Calendar. They are not necessary in the Waiting For list either, since they are actions that will be done by someone else.
What happens if I work with very limited contexts?
There are people who think that using contexts is not very helpful since they always do their work under limited contexts. If you have to carry out the majority of your tasks in your computer, what’s the point of tagging them all with
#computer? Well, in these cases you shouldn’t think of so generic contexts, those that are normally used as examples in all GTD texts (
Remember that a context responds to the question “what do I need in order to do this?”. If most of your tasks must be done with a computer, or under a unique context, you need to be more specific when defining your contexts so they can be useful. Surely, you use different tools for different kind of tasks and probably starting and setting up some of them takes time. Moreover, it’s possible that each tool or group of tools requires a specific mental disposition (writing, drawing, reading or thinking require different degrees of concentration). Any of these factors convert those tools into contexts.
A personal example. To code, fix bugs and resolve some incidents of FacileThings users, I need to set up different local servers and services, some terminals and the code editor Sublime Text. This development environment is clearly a context for me (I call it
#dev). To write articles I use two half-screen browsers, one with Google Drive to write and the other in which I investigate the topic of the article on the Internet and have open other tools that I may need such as Google Translate (it’s my
#blog context). Other contexts that I frequently use are
#evernote. Although the contexts
#blog can only be considered if I’m working with my laptop or desktop computer, other contexts such as
#evernote can be activated also from my tablet or even the mobile phone.
People and places
As we have seen, contexts can also be people. If you have regular meetings with certain people, define a context for each of them, so that when the time of the meeting comes you have quick access to all the actions and topics that need to be addressed 1.
Often contexts correspond to physical places. Here you will have generic and concrete places, because there are things that can be done (or bought) in several places and others that force you to go to a specific site. For example, buying a light bulb is something you can do in different places (supermarkets, hardware stores, all-around stores, etc.) so you only need one context to access it when you are on the street (
#errands, call it as you wish). When you have to buy or do something in a particular site, it’s recommended to combine two contexts, the generic plus a specific one with name of the place (“
#postoffice”). By doing so you can filter first by
#out and then consider if its suits your situation and you have time enough to enter Walmart. Or, if you’re already in Walmart, you can directly filter by
#walmart so you don’t forget the lactose-free milk.
Concluding… and asking for your participation
In any case, try to keep your context list as short as you can. Get rid of those contexts that are useless and only have a classifying function, and unify those that don’t have unique features. If you have to think when assigning a context to a task, you will probably need to go over your context list.
I would like to expand this article in the following weeks with more case studies on using contexts. The more complete the more useful will be for the reader.
If you have any example that you would like to share, add it to the comments or send us an email. We will add it to the text if it’s relevant.
Thank you very much!
1 In FacileThings people contexts are preceded by @ instead of #, since they are specific contexts that can also be used to delegate tasks.