Productivity and GTD

GTD Contexts — Theoretical & Practical Guide

AUTHOR: Francisco Sáez
“You have more to do than you can possibly do. You just need to feel good about your choices.” ~ David Allen

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Context tags

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 (#home, #office, #computer, etc.).

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 #mail and #evernote. Although the contexts #dev and #blog can only be considered if I’m working with my laptop or desktop computer, other contexts such as #mail and #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 (#out, #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 (“ #out #walmart, “ #out #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.

6 comments

8bb2c9a97155fbcffcc91ca918d103c7
Commented almost 3 years ago Cyrus

Context has always been the most difficult aspect of GTD for me. Not its use, as I understand how it is to be used just fine. What trips me up is understanding to what depth I should take them. I have heard it said again and again that you should only use a context when you need it. I tend to go the other way and load up my system with meaningful context values, only to later find that I have a lot of bloat and very little value.

Looking forward to the upcoming articles!

8bb2c9a97155fbcffcc91ca918d103c7 Cyrus

Context has always been the most difficult aspect of GTD for me. Not its use, as I understand how it is to be used just fine. What trips me up is understanding to what depth I should take them. I have heard it said again and again that you should only use a context when you need it. I tend to go the other way and load up my system with meaningful context values, only to later find that I have a lot of bloat and very little value.

Looking forward to the upcoming articles!

0ca08acb9922cefcfbba2d51cdb93eb5
Commented almost 3 years ago Daniel

Hi!

Thank you for a great app.
In my schedule I have reserved time for Economy, Company strategy, Marketing, HR activities. Is it correct, according to GTD, to use those as context which is the way i work right now or du you see some other way to filter for example economy actions like attest invoices, print sales report?

Cheers
Daniel

0ca08acb9922cefcfbba2d51cdb93eb5 Daniel

Hi!

Thank you for a great app.
In my schedule I have reserved time for Economy, Company strategy, Marketing, HR activities. Is it correct, according to GTD, to use those as context which is the way i work right now or du you see some other way to filter for example economy actions like attest invoices, print sales report?

Cheers
Daniel

8bb2c9a97155fbcffcc91ca918d103c7
Commented almost 3 years ago Cyrus

Hi, Daniel.

I interpret your values as Areas of Responsibility or Focus. Using FacileThings, you can narrow down all your tasks to just one of these areas. Better yet, create one Area of Responsibility (AOR) and have the rest of the values as context. I've created one for AoR "Company".

AoR: Company
- Context: Economy
- Context: Strategy
- Context: Marketing
- Context: HR

8bb2c9a97155fbcffcc91ca918d103c7 Cyrus

Hi, Daniel.

I interpret your values as Areas of Responsibility or Focus. Using FacileThings, you can narrow down all your tasks to just one of these areas. Better yet, create one Area of Responsibility (AOR) and have the rest of the values as context. I've created one for AoR "Company".

AoR: Company
- Context: Economy
- Context: Strategy
- Context: Marketing
- Context: HR

00d0a361be3efa69c937adcb1446d9cd
Commented almost 3 years ago Günther

It pays off to make a concept for smart context tags in facilethings before you extensively use the software, e.g. regarding internet availability: Certain tasks require a specific combination of internet access and specific hardware, regularly leading to three or more hashtags in the way I use facilethings. For entering these efficiently I use the "Snippet" functionality of the app "Alfred" on my MacBook => by doing this it's easy to define text snippets which are pasted automatically after typing the defined key - my facilethings snippets all start with ft# - this can significantly speed up processing. I suppose that there's similar software available for Windows machines as well.

00d0a361be3efa69c937adcb1446d9cd Günther

It pays off to make a concept for smart context tags in facilethings before you extensively use the software, e.g. regarding internet availability: Certain tasks require a specific combination of internet access and specific hardware, regularly leading to three or more hashtags in the way I use facilethings. For entering these efficiently I use the "Snippet" functionality of the app "Alfred" on my MacBook => by doing this it's easy to define text snippets which are pasted automatically after typing the defined key - my facilethings snippets all start with ft# - this can significantly speed up processing. I suppose that there's similar software available for Windows machines as well.

E0c37b8c41d7efa48ad0a3244a89f39b
Commented almost 3 years ago Alan

I always enjoy reading your blog posts, Francisco, but this to me is one of the more helpful ones you have published. When people (including David Allen himself) give examples of contexts, they always seem to be of the generic "home," "office," and "computer" variety. I've tried to think in terms that are more applicable to my own situation, but your example #dev context was more thought-provoking than it probably should have been. I'm looking forward to your future posts on this topic.

Myself, I have attempted to do something like what you do with multiple contexts, but after reading your post I feel like I have gone about it backwards. Instead of a generic context with a secondary context to lend specificity, I have been using multiple specific contexts to make sure all of the situations in which I could conceivably do something are covered. The past year or so of experience is showing me that this does not work very well.

On a related (and slightly more successful) note, I have also used #work and #home contexts to draw lines between professional and personal. For example, I have certain work-related tasks that I can do anytime I'm online. I also have personal tasks that I can do in the same context. However, when I'm working I don't want to be distracted by the personal tasks and vice-versa. I find this to be a useful first filter, provided I'm consistent about applying to relevant tasks, but it does create an element of redundancy. For example, certain tasks require that I be at my work-issued computer and others require my personal computer -- should I have a separate context for each computer, or is #computer combined with #work or #home sufficient? Currently, I am doing the latter. And since I don't have a home office, #work combined with #office is entirely redundant, but if I don't use them together then I risk missing #office tasks when I filter by #work (this is where some flexibility in filtering, like having AND/OR/NOT options instead of just AND, could be helpful).

One thing your blog post clarifies for me is that I should use my #work context as a state of mind and not link it to a physical place or a time of day. I already knew this intellectually, but fear that I will miss something has led me to stack contexts like "#call #work #home" for a call that is personal, but has to be made during business hours. If I simply snap out of work mode during the business day and filter my contexts to look for calls and errands during breaks, I should be able to overcome that one. I have toyed with the idea of an #anywhere context, but I'm not convinced it will be useful. Also, changing the name of the #home context to something like #personal might help break the mental link with the physical location, not to mention free up #home for things that actually require me to be physically at home.

E0c37b8c41d7efa48ad0a3244a89f39b Alan

I always enjoy reading your blog posts, Francisco, but this to me is one of the more helpful ones you have published. When people (including David Allen himself) give examples of contexts, they always seem to be of the generic "home," "office," and "computer" variety. I've tried to think in terms that are more applicable to my own situation, but your example #dev context was more thought-provoking than it probably should have been. I'm looking forward to your future posts on this topic.

Myself, I have attempted to do something like what you do with multiple contexts, but after reading your post I feel like I have gone about it backwards. Instead of a generic context with a secondary context to lend specificity, I have been using multiple specific contexts to make sure all of the situations in which I could conceivably do something are covered. The past year or so of experience is showing me that this does not work very well.

On a related (and slightly more successful) note, I have also used #work and #home contexts to draw lines between professional and personal. For example, I have certain work-related tasks that I can do anytime I'm online. I also have personal tasks that I can do in the same context. However, when I'm working I don't want to be distracted by the personal tasks and vice-versa. I find this to be a useful first filter, provided I'm consistent about applying to relevant tasks, but it does create an element of redundancy. For example, certain tasks require that I be at my work-issued computer and others require my personal computer -- should I have a separate context for each computer, or is #computer combined with #work or #home sufficient? Currently, I am doing the latter. And since I don't have a home office, #work combined with #office is entirely redundant, but if I don't use them together then I risk missing #office tasks when I filter by #work (this is where some flexibility in filtering, like having AND/OR/NOT options instead of just AND, could be helpful).

One thing your blog post clarifies for me is that I should use my #work context as a state of mind and not link it to a physical place or a time of day. I already knew this intellectually, but fear that I will miss something has led me to stack contexts like "#call #work #home" for a call that is personal, but has to be made during business hours. If I simply snap out of work mode during the business day and filter my contexts to look for calls and errands during breaks, I should be able to overcome that one. I have toyed with the idea of an #anywhere context, but I'm not convinced it will be useful. Also, changing the name of the #home context to something like #personal might help break the mental link with the physical location, not to mention free up #home for things that actually require me to be physically at home.

Fcb879f1bc70aa0f661b842011f280fb
Commented almost 3 years ago Francisco Sáez

Daniel, I agree with Cyrus. The different aspects of your work and personal life to which you want to dedicate your time in a balanced way, should be treated as Areas of Responsibility.

Günther, thanks for mentioning Alfred. I'm gonna try it!

Alan, I find correct and useful the way you use #home and #work as contexts. Contexts can also define the state of mind in which you are (I second your thought on changing #home by #personal not to mess physical locations with mindsets). I will try to expand this article with computer/home/work cases like the one you mention.

Thank you guys for your comments!

Fcb879f1bc70aa0f661b842011f280fb Francisco Sáez

Daniel, I agree with Cyrus. The different aspects of your work and personal life to which you want to dedicate your time in a balanced way, should be treated as Areas of Responsibility.

Günther, thanks for mentioning Alfred. I'm gonna try it!

Alan, I find correct and useful the way you use #home and #work as contexts. Contexts can also define the state of mind in which you are (I second your thought on changing #home by #personal not to mess physical locations with mindsets). I will try to expand this article with computer/home/work cases like the one you mention.

Thank you guys for your comments!

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